Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 23, January 2010

The (Dis)embodied Swimsuit on the Beach

Katsuhiko Suganuma

  1. The 2007 documentary Race for the Beach[1] features the story of Mecca Laalaa, a young Australian Muslim woman who becomes a surf lifesaver, a category which has come to be seen as a symbolic icon of Anglo-Celtic Australian culture. The photographic image of Laalaa on the beach, wearing a 'burqini' (a full-body swimsuit) drew much media attention. This photograph circulated in the context of recent developments in the politics of difference in Australia. The documentary on Mecca Laalaa appeared in the wake of several events which had brought attention to attitudes to Islam in Australia.
  2. The 2005 Cronulla riot epitomised an Islamophobic sentiment in Australia that had been cultivated through a series of ethnically motivated confrontations, following particular events such as the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the Bali bombings in 2002.[2] I use the term Islamophobia in Australia to refer to what Scott Poynting understands as a twin social phenomenon: the 'rolling back of multiculturalism' and the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment during John Howard's neo-conservative regime from 1996 to 2007.[3] As Clifton Evers observes, the 2005 Cronulla riot consisted of a series of 'turf' wars between two rival groups of male youths: white Australians defending 'their' beach territory against the Lebanese Australians.[4] Although the description of the events is contested, the direct cause of the riot, it seems, was an alleged attack by Lebanese youths against white lifesavers in December 2005. The lifesavers reportedly instructed the youths not to swim in a prohibited area of the beach. The youths reportedly did not obey the instruction and attacked the lifesavers. Outraged supporters of the white lifesavers gathered on Cronulla beach and events eventually escalated into a riot.[5] The sensational media coverage of the Cronulla riot both in Australia and abroad has been constitutive of the binary discourses of 'West' and 'Non-West'; 'us' and 'them.' It goes without saying that the representations of many members of the Muslim diaspora and migrants in Australia inevitably succumbed to these binary oppositions at the expense of the diversity and complexity within these communities in terms of gender, class, and generation.
  3. This article analyses the ways in which contentious national, ethnicised, and gendered discourses in Australia are embodied and disembodied in Laalaa's subject position in the documentary Race for the Beach. Although her subject position becomes intelligible only through embodying the existing binary discourses of 'West' and 'Muslim,' 'bikini' and 'burqa,' the documentary also shows that her body becomes a site of tentative distancing from those discourses, in effect exposing how those pre-existing discourses fail to account for her life experience. In other words, in this article, I am interested in pointing out that the documentary takes part in shedding light on what Poynting, Greg Noble, Paul Tabar and Jock Collins call 'the space in between' in the discourses of Australian national identity.[6] In reviewing the public discourses that exploit the images of Arabic-speaking communities in contemporary Australia, Poynting et al. suggest the need to expand our understanding of the definition of who is Australian.

      The task then is not just to continue to celebrate the differences we rightly value, nor just to attack the State whose actions serve to denigrate and discriminate against Arabic-speaking communities, but to problematise the not so easily seen part, the space in between.[7]

  4. Likewise, this essay focuses on the ways in which the documentary rescues Laalaa's in-between subjectivity. I do so through the application of queer theory that is, I deploy a strategy of deconstructing and challenging binarised discourses. Emerging in the early 1990s, queer theory has had a significant impact on the understanding of gender and sexuality. In my reading, queer theory can be seen as a set of analytical methods that resist essentialist understandings of gender and sexuality. While originally developed in the field of sexuality studies, the strategy of 'queering,' or performing a deconstructive critique of binary oppositions, is increasingly being applied to cultural phenomena outside the sphere of sexuality. Some social theorists have been sceptical about the methods of queer theory, and have accused queer theory of advocating a fluidity and instability of identity whereby identity politics, seen to be necessary to participation in any political movement, are undermined and deemed to be problematic. For instance, in his article 'Deconstructing queer theory or the under-theorization of the social and the ethical,' Steven Seidman registers his reservations concerning what he considers as queer theory's obsessive search for a particular subjectivity through a method of deconstruction, yet failing to detail the socio-political conditions facing such a subjectivity.[8] Seidman argues,

      [d]econstructive queer theorists affirm the surfacing of new subject voices but are critical of its [new subject's] identity political grounding in the name of a more insistent politics of difference.[9]

  5. I am fully aware that my analysis of the representation of Laalaa in the documentary might be considered as another example of queer theory's task of advocating the most transgressive and progressive subject position, given that her identity consists of a range of different subject labels such as female, diasporic, Muslim, Australian, and able-bodied. Instead of emphasising the 'fluidity' or 'post-modern' features of Laalaa's positionality, what I am most interested in articulating in this article are the ways in which narrowly-defined gendered, ethnicised, and national discourses are imposed upon Laalaa, thus delimiting her individuality. At the same time, the film also shows that instead of abolishing those pre-existing discourses, Laalaa strategically embodies and disembodies those discourses, so as to make her elusive positionality intelligible. In doing so, the documentary provides us with a critical viewpoint on the discursive limits of identifying certain subjectivities. It is in this vein that, contrary to Seidman's reservations, I argue that queer theory is useful for articulating the actual and practical conditions which marginalised subjectivities inhabit.

    Cronulla debates and gender
  6. The place where the 2005 riot took place provides an appropriate setting for staging a public debate on ethnic confrontation in Australia. Cronulla Beach, which is located in the region known as 'Sutherland Shire,' a name which instantly invokes Anglo-Celtic associations, has a predominantly white population, and is otherwise considered a conservative residential zone in metropolitan Sydney.[10] Combined with a landscape of beach and sun that references iconic Australian values—such as an emphasis on leisure, a relaxed lifestyle, and outdoor activity—Cronulla has become an easy target for the mainstream media's sensational reporting of ethnic tensions. As Poynting claims, the Cronulla riot was, in many ways, caused by the 'culmination of a campaign of populist incitement waged in the media and by the state,' and utilised, on the part of conservatives and nationalists, as a tool for creating further anxiety and fear of 'others' among the national collective.[11]
  7. It later became obvious that many participants in the riot actually came from outside Cronulla, mainly from rural areas of New South Wales, mobilised by a series of mass text-messages. The same source suggests that some local residents showed astonishment at the fact that the riot actually eventuated, and found it uncharacteristic of the Cronulla community.[12] Against all odds, the complexity involved in the incident was often undermined, and reduced to an opposing binary rhetoric of 'us' and 'them' in the popular imagination. Edward Said's renowned theorisation of Orientalism, more specifically, the 'structural irony' by which he argues that the diversity of culture is often 'restrained, compressed downwards and backwards to the radical terminal of the generality,' is clearly effective in this instance.[13]
  8. The 2007 documentary Race for the Beach was produced under the auspices of Australia's multicultural and multilingual public broadcaster, SBS, in conjunction with the BBC. This comes as no surprise as SBS has been known as a major promoter of media multiculturalism in Australia.[14] After ethnic tension in Cronulla and the rest of Australia intensified following the riot, there arose a move from the local community, both non-Muslim and Muslim, to clear the damaged reputation of the region, and show to the world that there is also harmonious coexistence among different ethnic groups. The Muslim community leader, Dr Jamil Rifi, and Surf Life Saving New South Wales were behind the plot of this positive image campaign in which a total of twenty-one young Muslim Lebanese Australians volunteered to pass the Bronze Medallion test, to become surf lifesavers. Most of the male volunteers did not have major problems in passing the test, even though they had to learn surfing skills. The documentary, however, focuses its attention on Laalaa, who is a poor swimmer, the only woman in the group, and wears a neck-to-toe 'burqini' swimsuit on the beach.
  9. During the young Muslim team's training leading up to their eventual success in obtaining their Bronze Medallions, the pictorial image of Laalaa's body in 'burqini' on the beach dominated local and global media coverage of the team's activities. It is a common practice that women of minoritised ethnic cultures are considered as bearers of traditional culture, and thus cross-cultural conflicts and concerns are expressed in attitudes to women's bodies,[15] as has been seen in the case of the banning of Islamic head scarves in French public schools.[16] Both pre-existing ethnic tension (fuelled by the debates on the 'gang rape' of white women by Australian Lebanese young men: white men 'save' their own women from coloured men)[17] as well as the 2005 riot in Cronulla (male group conflicts between white Australian youths and Lebanese-Australian youths), constitute a male-male homosocial anxiety. I employ the term 'male-male homosocial' here to refer to a discursive space in which female subjectivity is undermined so as to privilege androcentric narratives.[18] Anthony Redmond uses the term 'incestophobia' to refer to the tension and hatred between different male groups. He applies this to the case of the white youths and those of Lebanese origin, constituting another form of male homosocial politics.[19] When this homosocial anxiety, which is heavily couched in terms of cross-cultural conflict, is thrown into the public debate, male voices are heard discoursing on female bodies.
  10. By pointing out the intersections of nationalism, ethnocentrism and gender, it is not my intention to accuse the SBS documentary of further objectification of ethnicised female bodies in the debates on cross-cultural contact. Nor am I suggesting that the documentary perpetuates problematic binary principles, such as 'West' and 'Muslim,' 'liberated Australia' and 'misogynous Muslim community.' Instead, it presents a useful point of departure for addressing the ways in which a young Australian Muslim woman's subject position can gain recognition against all the forces which undermine it.
  11. How is it possible for a subject to be recognised in an environment that functions to ignore it? What is at stake when such a subject wishes to dismantle or modify the system? Judith Butler's theorisation of gender subject formation and gender subversion provides a useful perspective from which to tackle this predicament. At the risk of simplification, it can be noted that Butler seeks the potential of gender subversion, which can lead to the modification of sexism, not outside pre-existing gender norms, but within those norms.[20] This is not the same as succumbing to the norms, but it is 'giving an account of' one's own subject position in order for it to be intelligible within the norms.[21] As a consequence, the act of transiently, not essentially, taking up a subject position, and sometimes consciously overdoing it in a hyperbolic manner, denaturalises and exposes the constructed and performative nature of the norms themselves. It can also show that norms are essentially fragile, and are in need of repetitive repairing in their own making. In the following discussion, I suggest that the portrayal of Laalaa in the documentary does precisely this. That is to say that Laalaa's speaking position exposes the performative nature of Australian norms of national identity which repetitively demand a narrow definition. The norms are often couched in binary terms of 'Australian' and 'un-Australian.' Laalaa, however, shows us a critical distance existing between the norms and her subjectivity, an in-between space which our current epistemology is not capable of identifying.

    Marginalised voices in the making of cultural identity
  12. On the day of the riot in 2005, Cronulla beach was packed with people with Australian flags, who painted words onto their bodies such as 'Auzzie Pride'; 'We grew here. You flew here.'[22] A month later, on Australia Day, an almost identical exhibition of national identity and pride was displayed at Cronulla. This was an obsessive exhibition of Australian identity that relied on stylised iconic images such as beach, sun, partially-clad tanned white bodies, and the national flag. Contrasted to such a self-affirmation of Australian identity are the perceived images of the Arabic-speaking community in Australia—culturally restrained, and with women who fully cover their bodies. Not much effort is necessary to realise that the self-image of Australian-ness is constituted only in relation to the other. In other words, ideal Australian-ness or Whiteness does not self-evidentially exist, but only in the company of the other.
  13. There is a history to all this. Warwick Anderson, referring to Australia's history of medico-scientific endeavours to categorise people into different racial groups, argues that,

      [w]hiteness in Australia kept exciting more commentaries, more definitions…but no matter how prolific they became, they never quite satisfied; no matter how apparently redundant the claims, there was always something that they could not cover. Whiteness in Australia, like its accompanying modernity, was 'an endless trial.'[23]

  14. White Australian identity always accompanies or demands the category of the 'other' against which it can be measured. Every time a new enemy emerges, the definition of Australian identity is modified accordingly. Anderson's observation is quite apposite to the discussion of the Cronulla riot. On the one hand, the reductionist self-portrayal of Australian-ness with stylised representations such as the sun, the beach, exposed bodies and skin, invoking casualness and being more nature-oriented, can be contrasted with the similarly stylised perception of Muslim culture as repressive and inhibiting. At the same time, white Australian-ness also lays claim to civic responsibility, constructed by the colonialist idea that the white nation embodies human rights, thus differentiating its nation's status from those considered more 'savage' and 'less civilised.' The Cronulla riot best exemplifies the situation in which not only competing but also at times contradictory discourses of Australian identity are simultaneously addressed. Australian-ness is, in Anderson's terms, on 'an endless trial.'[24]
  15. And yet, however multiple the normative Australian identity endeavours to become, Australian-ness is always defined against the other in a dichotomous fashion. Most importantly, the other is constructed as a homogenous category in ignorance of the diversity within. In Australia, contrary to the reality, the category of 'the Arab Other' is normally 'seen to be a singular category.'[25] As mentioned above, Laalaa, who is a Muslim woman with a headscarf and poor swimming skills, becomes an easy target for media sensationalism because of her perceived difference. However, in the documentary, in contrast to the stylised representation of Islam, Laalaa simultaneously shows that her lifestyle is nothing out of the ordinary, and not all that different from any other Australian teenage woman who likes to go shopping and enjoy her everyday life. After the scene in which Laalaa goes to see a burqini swimsuit designer to try on her swimsuit, she says to the camera that 'I grab onto anything that makes me pass. Hope it will make me succeed and achieve the goal.' What would be the goal that Laalaa wants to achieve? She implies, at the very end of the documentary, that her goal is to pass the test, and in doing so, to show that 'if there is hatred against Muslims in the world, then at least there is no hatred here [in Cronulla].' Here the documentary elegantly captures the fact that she is making an effort to embody the stylised image of Muslimness in a strategic manner to initiate a step forward. The 'burqini' which Laalaa 'grabs onto,' in the same way as some feminists argue in reference to the headscarf for Muslim women, can be perceived not only as a symbol of repression, but also as one of recognition, a means through which to express one's subjectivity in public discourse.[26]
  16. Throughout the documentary, the project leader Dr Jamil Rifi keeps insisting to Laalaa that failure is not an option. Rifi is known as a representative of the Lebanese community on the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural New South Wales.[27] Rifi's incentive is centred on creating a role model for Australian Muslim youth by proving that a Muslim can be 'Australian,' and not a 'fundamentalist.' At the same time, Rifi's claim for an Islamic identity is not couched in any specifically Muslim cultural terms but rather according to the globalised notion of human rights and their governance. In other words, Rifi's project is pursued mainly in search of recognition in 'western eyes.' This is evident when the documentary captures the scene in which Rifi proudly reads through online news articles on Laalaa's successful trial for the Bronze Medallion that appeared in western media such as To be fair, this effort by Rifi can itself be seen as a strategic use of the 'West' and 'Muslim' binary in order to make his voice heard. The film suggests, however, that his way of situating Muslim culture in Australia might consolidate the very binary, rather than undoing it.
  17. For instance, during the training, Dr Rifi preaches to Laalaa that to succeed in this mission and to become a role model for many 'is your own Jihad.' This might appear as if he deploys the language of Islam, but the command of Jihad is retranslated into a globalised context, in a way similar to the recent rearticulation of Jihad among Muslim fundamentalists.[28] The group-oriented ethics of Muslim culture, which is often imagined by the Islamophobic West, is reasserted and reinvigorated in Rifi's preaching to Laalaa that to become a role model for fellow Muslim youth in Australia is her 'own Jihad,' and the failure to do so is not an option for her. This could reinforce the stereotype of Muslim culture as repressive, and devoid of individual freedom and privacy. Such a way of perceiving Islam inescapably locates the West as the site of freedom and liberation. Rifi's rhetoric could ironically become a target of further Islamophobic criticism.
  18. Rifi's way of redefining Muslim identity in Australia struggles to undo the very Orientalist portrayal of Islam. To put it differently, his rhetoric of legitimating Muslim identity is heavily couched in East/West binary terms, thereby the new 'role model' and respectful Muslim Australian image which he envisions does not go beyond the Orientalist binary. Moreover, there is a possibility that his rhetoric even colludes to authenticate the very stereotype that he endeavours to undo. If Laalaa strictly follows Rifi's lead, and situates her own goal in his terms, Laalaa's subject position could also authenticate the Orientalist binary of Islam and the West, instead of challenging it. However, in the scene immediately following this preaching by Rifi to Laalaa, her voice-over can be heard.

      For myself, I want to be able to achieve a goal that I have for myself. And you know I want everybody to [be] proud of me [emphasis added].

  19. This statement illustrates that her involvement in this project for the Bronze Medallion is ultimately twofold. She, as an individual (herself), would like to express that globally and locally diffused discourses of Muslim woman or Muslim culture do not precisely express her identity. At the same time, she transiently embodies those problematic discourses to respond to what is expected of her as a member of the Australian Muslim community. By rescuing this subtle yet critical duality and simultaneity expressed by Laalaa's subjectivity, in effect the documentary exposes how the binary discourses revolving around the ethnic tension between 'white' and Muslim in Australia undermine the diverse subjectivities which are not recognised within them. The binary discourses subsist only with the reduction of diverse voices. Laalaa's subjectivity represented in the documentary attests to the critical distance between those discourses and her individuality, the site from which social criticism can take place.

    Problems of Multiculturalism
  20. So far in this article, I have pointed out that the documentary sheds light on the critical distance between pre-existing discourses on Muslim women and Laalaa's positioning. Of particular importance is that Laalaa illuminates the in-between space not by abandoning pre-existing discourses, but rather by critically embodying them. As Butler suggests in the context of gender subversion, Laalaa conducts her own 'ethnic subversion' within ethnic norms in Australia. Laalaa not only embodies a perceived image of Muslim women by appearing in the beach in a full-body swimsuit, but also disembodies or shifts the image by showing the spectator that now she can also swim. Although she was not an excellent swimmer before the training, she is making an effort to acquire such skill and thus to stretch the boundaries of behaviour expected of Muslim women. Her appearance on Cronulla beach and her attempt to pass the Bronze Medallion test challenge the perceived notion of Muslim women that often invokes immobility and otherness. Laalaa shows that a Muslim woman can swim and, most importantly, she also claims that Islam is part of Australia. This illustration of Laalaa's transgressive identity poses a threat to what is narrowly constituted as Australia's national identity. In this section, I discuss how the film demonstrates that her transgressive identity becomes a target of nationalist xenophobia. At the same time, I also illustrate that her elusive identity could illuminate the contradictions of contemporary Australian national identity. I do so by focusing on the rhetoric of 'multiculturalism' that has been a powerful slogan in the discussion of Australian identity.
  21. In contemporary Australia, especially in the last decade, one can witness a change of emphasis in immigration policy, and a privileging of economic rationalism. The former Howard government moved away from the bipartisan rhetoric of 'multiculturalism,' even removing the word 'multiculturalism' from the name of the relevant government department. Audrey Yue observes that the recent modification made to Australia's multicultural policy attests to the fact that:

      …cultural diversity as social value is replaced by productive diversity as economic value. In January 2007, the Department of Immigration and Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs changed its portfolio to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to suit these logics of incorporation and assimilation.[29]

  22. Yue points out that the contemporary Australian policy of multiculturalism ever more increasingly values the process of assimilation of 'different cultures' into what are considered as core Australian values. In so far as they pose no threat to the norms, they are tolerated. Such history repeats itself. Referring to the history of Australia's treatment of Aboriginal people, Poynting et al. state that:

      [a]ll is done for as long as it is subliminally well-known that it is a resistance of the politically dead, doomed to have no effect on the quality of life they, as colonisers or descendant of colonisers, have acquired from being 'well positioned' in this cumulative process of resource appropriation and theft.

      It is this necrophilic appreciation of the politically dead other that characterises the racism of exploitation. Practically, it means that the other has been subjugated, pacified and tamed enough to become classified as 'valuable', either aesthetically or for labouring purposes.[30]

  23. At the same time, it is important to point out that the way in which the literal meaning of multiculturalism is undermined can be a far more complex process than a simple return to the racist rhetoric of the former White Australia policy. In contemporary Australia, accusations against ethnic minorities who are rendered as 'unfit' or 'un-assimilable' to core Australian cultural values are often made with no overt reference to racial and ethnic differences. Instead, the distancing effect is achieved through indirect statements which nonetheless imply differences.[31] One scene in the documentary captures this kind of rhetoric which constructs ethnicised others without directly referring to ethnicity. In the scene, Marlene Rapp, a middle-aged woman who self-identifies as a local Cronulla resident, repeatedly ridicules the Muslim youth team, particularly Laalaa. She disqualifies Laalaa from becoming a lifesaver by insisting that 'she cannot swim.' Confronted by the team coach who accuses her of being racist, the woman responds by insisting that she is not. Furthermore, she states that 'Australians aren't Anglo. They are Australians…' In doing so, Marlene credits 'Australian' with an original and distinct character, and resists the specification of 'Anglo.' Put differently, she 'de-ethnicises' the identity of 'Australian.' Yet she is quick to disapprove of Laalaa for being a poor swimmer.
  24. This rhetorical justification of discrediting someone who cannot swim; and thus suggesting that they do not embrace Australian culture, is precisely what the white Australian youths used against the Lebanese Australian youths to provoke ethnic tensions leading up to the 2005 riot in Cronulla. To verbalise the anxiety towards the growing Muslim population in the Shire region, white Australian youths used an ethnic slur 'Lebs can't swim' as a marker of bifurcation between the two groups.[32] Although the derogatory ethnic marker of 'Lebs' is clearly indicated in this instance, the sign of difference is rather strongly couched in behavioural terms: they 'can't swim.' In other words, this separatism functions not strictly on the premises of different types of nationality or ethnicity proper, but rather by substituting those premises with ostensibly de-ethnicised discourses. Yet we are aware that the counter identification of 'those who can't swim' is 'those who can swim,' which by definition implies the local white population of the Shire region. As such, one can see ethnic politics resurfacing in the rhetoric.
  25. What is also remarkable about the abovementioned woman's de-ethnicising rhetoric is the logical contradiction that is found in the relationship between Australia's multiculturalism and its yearning for the 'white nation' fantasy. In White Nation, Ghassan Hage argues that Australian multiculturalism is far from accommodating of cultural diversity. Instead, 'White multiculturalism,' as he terms it, endeavours to keep white supremacy intact by marking cultural 'others' and keeping them under surveillance.[33] Hage adds that 'the very viability of White multiculturalism as a governmental ideology resides precisely in its capacity to suppress such a reality,' the reality that different cultures brought by immigrants inevitably transform the premises of the country's national identity.[34] Furthermore, the end result of such a White multiculturalism, as Hage asserts, is that it 'leaves those White people who experience the loss [of the centrality of White Australia] with no mainstream political language with which to express it.'[35] This is clearly evident in the anxiety shown by the local Shire woman in the documentary. If white Australia, which is represented by symbolic icons such as sun and beach, is willing to accommodate cultural diversity, then the Muslim team's effort to learn how to swim and become lifesavers should be credited as the attitude of a 'model minority' whose members are willing to assimilate. However, far from showing any support for such an effort, there arises a need to eradicate any such potential by simply asserting that 'they can't swim': and thus 'they can't be like us.'
  26. The local Shirewoman's fear might be coming from her sense of loss—a loss of a particular local culture—because of a change of landscape due to a newly visible immigrant population in that region. However, in Hage's terms, she, as white Australian, is struggling to express her sense of loss, but without any 'mainstream political language' available. A skilfully morphed 'Australian' multiculturalism from 'White multiculturalism' makes it difficult to speak explicitly about ethnic difference, because such speech can be easily marked as undemocratic and most significantly 'un-Australian.'
  27. This is especially so when one takes pride in being an Australian. In order for her to be a faithful Australian, she needs to insist that she is a multiculturalist by stating that 'Australians aren't Anglo' (non-Anglo people can also be Australians). Yet, she is quick to disqualify those Muslim youths by labelling them as 'poor swimmers.' I do not mean to demonise this local woman, or to cast her as a racist. What I am interested in pointing out here is that the documentary elegantly captures the logic that de-ethnicised labelling itself is the very premise of an ethnocentrism that secretly enables 'White multiculturalism.' Australia's white subject can practice ethnocentrism without discussing ethnicity. A code of silence brings loud effects. Many can unknowingly participate in the very act of racism, due to the fact that White multiculturalism prevents them from making sense of the intersection between ethnic separatism and Australia's multiculturalism. Yet, Laalaa's appearance on the beach and the anxiety caused by it illuminates this very intersection. The film exposes the fact that the local Shirewoman's ostensibly de-ethnicised rhetoric does in fact discuss nothing other than ethnicity itself in Australia. By featuring Laalaa who is loudly presenting herself as an ethnic woman, the documentary succeeded in re-ethnicisingthe otherwise de-ethnicised discourses and narratives that are central to the discussion of contemporary Australian multiculturalism.

  28. In the polemics of ethnic tension in pre- and post-Cronulla Australia, the voices of Muslim women are muted, or forced to be silenced due to the fear, on the part of those women, that any mention of sexism and any other forms of repression against women within the Muslim community runs the risk of fuelling Anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.[36] Far from their subject positions being recognised in public discourse, their bodies are often utilised as bearers of cultures and traditions through which homosocial male conflict between different cultures are mediated. Instead of colluding in this all too familiar paradigm, the documentary Race for the Beach captures this problematic intersection of sexism and nationalism, and exposes the very structures that work to silence the voices of female members of the ethnic minority. By shedding light on the multiple subjectivities or the distance between the multiple subjectivities that Laalaa simultaneously embodies, the documentary shows that it is precisely at these margins that the radical critiques of the discursive limits or contradictory internal logics of contemporary Australian national identity and its multiculturalism are taking place.
  29. At the beginning of this article, I stated that my analysis of the documentary is mainly informed by queer theory. When queer theory is deployed to analyse a certain phenomenon, the task at hand is not to determine which subjectivity represents the most resistant or 'post-modern' being, but rather to carefully document and listen to the distinct voices that keep refining and expanding our current epistemology. This way of deconstructing normative discourses, as Judith Butler argues, 'offers a critical perspective on the norms that confer intelligibility itself.'[37] Specifically referring to young Lebanese Australians, Poynting et al. state that what their life experiences and voices represent is not a cultural clash between Anglo-Celtic Australian culture and Muslim Australian culture. What they represent, instead, is a 'creativity' that 'can be found in their lively, nuanced, struggle-produced culture-in-the-making.'[38] I argue that the documentary Race for the Beach has the effect of drawing the viewer's attention to Laalaa's journey to her own identity in contemporary Australia. This is similar to watching a game of pool, where the viewers are forced to understand how the player needs to first realise and sometimes rely on the ways in which all the other balls are arranged on the table in order to pocket the final ball.[39] The documentary captures the exact process that Laalaa is going through, and conveys her creativity and transgression to the viewers.
  30. After successfully becoming the first Muslim surf lifesaver with a 'burqini' in Australia, the final voice-over in the documentary epitomises the point at issue.

      I just want to fit in…A big thing happens with little steps. And we are taking these little steps. Hopefully they will get bigger along the way.

  31. Viewers of this documentary might be left pondering the question: where does she ultimately want to 'fit in'? Fit in to white Australian culture, or that of Muslim Australians? Probably neither. Yet somewhere in between—a place that our current epistemology is yet to recognise. As the catchy term 'burqini,' in its semiotic sense, ironically indicates, Laalaa's anonymous or yet-to-be intelligible subjectivity somehow endeavours to present itself through (dis)embodying pre-existing binarised discourses such as 'bikini' (=Australian woman) and 'burqa' (=Muslim woman). Laalaa's project involves a series of 'little steps' to locate her agency in the process of achieving her ultimate goal. Wearing the 'burqini' and gaining the medal are some of these small steps. Capturing the journey to her own identity, the documentary forces us to place the intersection of gender, sexuality and ethnicity at the very centre of our understanding of nationalism and multiculturalism in contemporary Australia.


    [1] Alan Erson dir. Race for the Beach, produced in association with SBS Independent and BBC, 2007.

    [2] For more detailed discussion on the media representation of Islamic communities in contemporary Australia from the late 1990s, see Scott Poynting, Greg Noble, Paul Tabar, and Jock Collins, Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the Arab Other, Sydney: Sydney Institute of Criminology Series, 2004.

    [3] Scott Poynting, 'The attack on "political correctness": Islamophobia and the erosion of multiculturalism in Australia under the Howard regime,' in Social Alternatives, vol. 27, no. 1 (2008):5–9, p. 5.

    [4] Clifton Evers, 'The Cronulla race riots: safety maps on an Australian beach,' in South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 107, no. 2 (2008):411–29, p. 415.

    [5] Evers, 'The Cronulla race riots,' pp. 417–18.

    [6] Poynting et al. Bin Laden in the Suburbs, p. 266.

    [7] Poynting et al. Bin Laden in the Suburbs, p. 266.

    [8] Steven Seidman, 'Deconstructing queer theory or the under-theorisation of the social and the ethical,' in Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics, ed. Linda Nicholson and Steven Seidman, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 116–41.

    [9] Seidman, 'Deconstructing queer theory or the under-theorisation of the social and the ethical,' p. 135.

    [10] Anthony Redmond, 'Surfies versus Westies: kinship, mateship and sexuality in the Cronulla Riot,' in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 18, no. 3 (2007):336–50, p. 337.

    [11] Scott Poynting, 'What caused the Cronulla Riot?' in Race & Class vol. 48, no. 1 (2006):85–92, p. 85.

    [12] Judy Lattas, 'Cruising: "Moral Panic" and the Cronulla Riot,' in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 18, no. 3 (2007):320–35.

    [13] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p. 234.

    [14] Michael Humphrey, 'Australian Islam, the new global terrorism and the limits of citizenship,' in Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia, ed. Shaharam Akbarzadeh and Samina Yasmeen, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2005, pp. 132–48, pp. 138–39. For more detailed discussion on SBS, see Ien Ang, Gay Hawkins, and Lamia Dabboussy, The SBS story: the challenge of cultural diversity, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2008.

    [15] Christina Ho, 'Muslim women's new defenders: women's rights, nationalism and Islamophobia in contemporary Australia,' in Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 30 (2007):290–98. Also see Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest, New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 354; Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, p. 54.

    [16] See Joan W. Scott, 'Symptomatic politics: the banning of Islamic head scarves in French public schools,' in French Politics, Culture & Society, vol. 23, no. 3 (2005):106–27.

    [17] Spivak discusses this male conflict between two ethnic groups in the colonial context. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 'Can the subaltern speak?' in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994, pp. 66–111, p. 93.

    [18] For the discussion of male-male homosocial desire, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

    [19] Redmond, 'Surfies versus Westies.' pp. 346–47.

    [20] In making this argument, I draw on Butler's notion of subject formation and her arguments about the possibility of subversion. These themes have been an undercurrent in her writings, as seen, in particular, in the following works. Judith Butler, Subject of Desire: Hagelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987; Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge, 1990; Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex', New York and London: Routledge, 1993; Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

    [21] Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005, pp.7–8.

    [22] Andrew Lattas, '"They always seem to be angry": the Cronulla Riot and the civilising pleasures of the sun,' in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 18, no. 2 (2007):300–19, p. 302.

    [23] Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2002, p. 247.

    [24] Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness, p. 247.

    [25] Poynting et al. Bin Laden in the Suburbs, pp. 12–13

    [26] Scott, 'Symptomatic politics,' p. 122.

    [27] For more background information on Dr Jamil Rifi, see Poynting et al. Bin Laden in the Suburbs, pp. 188–89; 203–04.

    [28] For a comprehensive discussion of the revival of Islam in the age of globalisation, see Olivier Roy, Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, London: Hurst, 2004.

    [29] Audrey Yue, 'Same-sex migration in Australia: from interdependency to intimacy,' in GLQ, vol. 14, no. 2 (2008):239–62, p. 247.

    [30] Poynting et al. Bin Laden in the Suburbs, pp. viii–ix.

    [31] A. Lattas, '"They always seem to be angry"' p. 314. Also see James Forrest and Kevin Dunn, 'Constructing racism in Sydney, Australia's largest EthniCity,' in Urban Studies, vol. 44, no. 4 (2007):699–721.

    [32] Evers, 'The Cronulla Race Riots,' p. 419.

    [33] Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1998, p. 22.

    [34] Hage, White Nation, p. 22.

    [35] Hage, White Nation, p. 22.

    [36] Ho, 'Muslim women's new defenders,' p. 295.

    [37] Judith Butler, 'Doing justice to someone: sex reassignment and allegories of transsexuality,' in GLQ, vol. 7, no. 4 (2001):621–36, p. 634.

    [38] Poynting et al. Bin Laden in the Suburbs, p. 98.

    [39] I would like to thank social scientist and feminist scholar Ruri Itō for bringing this metaphor of the 'pool table' to my attention during the workshop Globalised Bodies, Embodied Globalisation at the University of Melbourne in August 2008.

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