Sydney’s Lakemba: A feared sanctuary?

Sydney’s Lakemba: A feared sanctuary?

Wajihah Hamid

‘I feel very safe because I didn’t have to deal with, how am I going to walk down the street?’ were the words by Rahma when asked about how she felt living in Lakemba. Rahma is a second generation, Australian female of Indonesian heritage. This 32 year old lady has lived in Sydney’s Lakemba for 30 years since she was two years old. She wears the headscarf also known as the hijab. Being a visible Muslim female, she was sharing how she feels about living in Lakemba. Her quote above illustrates how Lakemba provides her with feelings of safety. Little is known about how the residents who live in this ‘no-go’ area actually feel about living here.

When asked to elaborate what she meant by safe and deal with walking down the street, she remarked, ‘A lot of women who had hijab felt very threatened to walk down the street because they were being abused…And a lot of Muslim women have had to take off their hijab because they don’t want to be identified visibly as Muslims.’ Rahma was sharing the experiences of her Muslim friends living in other suburbs of Sydney and their experience of wearing the hijab and abuse. By sharing the experiences of her friends, Rahma has also reiterated how she does not have to think about having to worry about walking down Lakemba with her hijab. She is able to wear her hijab and walk down the streets of Lakemba feeling safe. If the resident who has been living there for 30 years feels safe there, why then has this suburb been marked out as unsafe and a no-go area?

Muslims make up just 2% of the entire Australian population, those living in Sydney and New South Wales number around 3.6%. The relentless media attention coupled with rising global Islamophobia has led the moral panic to be extended to Lakemba marking it out as an unsafe no-go zone. In this highly dense and diverse suburb, Muslims constitute 59%, followed by Catholics (10.3%), no given religion (8.5%), no religion (6.5%) and Eastern Orthodox (5.1%).

Lakemba as a suburb has been under constant and “critical media attention in Sydney” for about two decades now, where most newspaper articles were found to be “overwhelmingly negative in their construction of Lakemba and its Muslim residents (Dunn et al, 2007: 574-576). In analysing these media reports, Dunn and his colleagues found that the racialized media reporting of Lakemba has led to it being seen “as a place of Muslims and people from the Middle East and a place of violence and crime” (2007: 576). Despite increased diversity of ethnic backgrounds and languages, even amongst Muslims, Rahma as an example is of Indonesian heritage, shows the diversity present amongst the Muslims in Lakemba and it is not just a place with “people from the Middle East”, this negative construction continues to be salient. One of the most damaging articles to date on Lakemba was written with the headlines “Inside Sydney’s Muslim Land” where the print edition had an accompanying sub headline “Growing Terrorist threat on the doorstep”, calling it a “monocultural hot bed of radical Islam”. This article had accompanying photos of alleged suspected Muslim male terrorists creating fear and moral panic, of Lakemba being a fearful place where terrorists lurk.

Parallel to Rahma’s experience of other suburbs being unsafe, residents from other neighbourhoods often use Lakemba as Sydney’s slum and a danger zone vis-à-vis their own suburb. They use Lakemba to show it as an antithesis of their rural suburbs. Ryan (2015:139) noted that residents of Camden in letters to their council, interviews and local newspapers, ‘wrote and spoke of fears that Camden would deteriorate into a ‘little Lakemba’.

Based on my experience of living in Lakemba, carrying out ethnographic observation and interviews with 35 female and 15 males residents, (including ex-residents and business owners) of Lakemba from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, I have explored the residents’ experiences and feelings of living in Lakemba. By focusing on Muslim women’s feelings as they navigate and live in this ‘controversial no-go’ space, this article brings to attention how Lakemba as a ‘fearful’ space actually becomes a safe haven for them; where they are able to dress differently wearing their hijab and walk around without fear.

That’s why I fear about my children…
Another resident, Hiroko, a 50 year old Japanese Muslim female who wears the hijab and has been living in Lakemba for 8 years shared her experiences in two other Sydney suburbs where she was made to feel unsafe and unwelcomed.

‘On the station, there Lakemba station. People, everyone, wearing a different wear (than) in the city, because I’m living in the city, Surry Hills. Big difference there, on the city of Surry Hills than here, so I noticed here they’re wearing… women wearing hijab, and the men wearing the Punjabi (long salwar for the males). I lived, four years, in North Sydney; I have three incidents, with people used abusive language against me…That’s why I fear about my children. It’s not joking…Not much for me personally…for my daughter or son. Especially my daughter wearing this (points to her headscarf). People know she wearing hijab.’ (Hiroko)

Though Hiroko was fortunate that the abuse did not escalate beyond verbal abuse, however her fear for her daughter is not unfounded. Hiroko has been worried about her daughter who was finishing up high school and will have to travel out to attend university. Notably, earlier this year, four young Muslim female university students between the ages of 18-23 were physically attacked in the city centre. All the women were separately attacked on the same day and some had undergone trauma from this Islamophobic attack. Though this incident is an extreme case where four were attacked on a single day, such Islamophobic events do occur in Sydney, especially in neighbourhoods where there is less or very little diversity, as shared by Hiroko’s experiences in North Sydney and Surry Hills.

Hiroko began by sharing her first impression of Lakemba, where upon her initial arrival in Sydney 18 years ago she had visited it. She felt it was a space that allowed one to be dressed differently, from the rest of Sydney and the city area. In both Surry Hills and later North Sydney, Hiroko had experienced being different, in terms of dressing and her particular experience in North Sydney reveals where her dressing as a visible Muslim lady wearing the hijab was not acceptable and hence was verbally abused.

By sharing her past embodied experiences of abuse, Hiroko has shown the spaces where her difference, in terms of dressing – the hijab was not welcomed and this was made known to her viscerally through verbal abuse. By contrast, she felt such difference of dressing was allowed in Lakemba, where women wore the hijab and men were also able to wear salwar. Hiroko subsequently moved to live in Lakemba after her experiences in these two suburbs. Hiroko is not alone in moving to Lakemba after living in other ‘mainstream’ suburbs, quite a number of current Lakemba residents shared a similar experience where they were living near and around the city area, where they had faced abuse due to their dress, the hijab in particular marking them out as visible Muslims.

My research findings, through the experiences of Hiroko and Rahma, reveal that Islamophobia in Sydney is gendered and spatialised. Muslim women are visible through their clothing choices and styles which mark them out as ‘different’. This difference is not always welcome within the urban ‘norms’ of the city, curbing the mobility or mobility decisions of these women. On the other hand, Lakemba, as a ‘no-go area’ and a feared space, actually offers Muslim women sanctuary. For these women, it is a safe space where they feel secure.

Additionally, it is also important to look at enclaves with a new lens as it is not always the case that residents move to an enclave to be with people from their own background and do not want to integrate. My research has revealed that in fact residents such as Hiroko amongst others, used to live in other ‘mainstream’ suburbs and it was their experiences where they were made to feel unwelcome and marked out as different that pushed them subsequently to move to places such as Lakemba, where such differences are accepted.


Wajihah Hamid is a PhD research scholar at the department of Sociology, Macquarie University, Sydney Australia. Carrying out ethnographic research, she examines the suburb of Lakemba in Sydney beyond the headlines using an intersectional approach. Her broader research interests include Identity, the intersection between race and space, migration, Muslims and South Asian Diaspora.

Image Credit: author’s own photo