Serving up Social Justice for Women

Lunch Lady + Bank Australia - Hope School

Hana Assifiri is a powerhouse. After facing violent relationships, wars and sectarian violence she channelled her energy into creating a restaurant that supports and empowers women and uses food to unite communities.

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Tell me about the restaurant your founded – the Moroccan Soup Bar.

I founded The Moroccan Soup Bar with the aim of circuit-breaking the cycle of disadvantage for women through employment and creating a space that builds social harmony and strong communities.

The restaurant embraces communal eating, and until COVID-19, people sat alongside one another, flattening out the social hierarchy, so that every person received dignity and respect, whether they were the Queen or a homeless person.

Our food is vegetarian, and women cook and provide the service through a verbal menu. Twenty-three years ago, this was all pretty new to Melbourne. Thankfully people embraced us.

Why do you use a verbal menu?

When you put a medium between yourself and your patrons, you distance yourself. And for me, The Moroccan Soup Bar is about engagement. It is about people coming together and engaging in an experience. We take people on a journey. No matter how you came in, you will walk away a little bit changed.

Why do you prioritise employing Muslim women?

The Moroccan Soup Bar has always employed marginalised women, but as prejudice has shifted in our society, I’ve focused on primarily on Muslim women. I do this because Islamophobia is not just a concept, it’s something that plays itself out in a practical way, and women often bear the worst of it because they are easily identifiable.

Though, I have never said no to a woman that comes through our door looking for a job. Never. It’s difficult, and often I don’t need employees, but I think handouts and charitable approaches may work in some settings, but for me, it’s about empowering people and putting women with similar experiences together.

What inspired you to create a business that supports and empowers women?

Initially, it was my personal experience having lived through violence. I also worked for over a decade and a half in domestic violence services and saw the failings of those services and systems, particularly for more marginalised groups. By establishing The Moroccan Soup Bar it was a creative extension of that work and those commitments.

Women are also conditioned to cook and be in kitchens. I wanted to use what they knew how to do, and what has often has been used as a source of repression (because it’s unpaid and it’s not recognized work), and I wanted to flip that on its head and make it a source of empowerment for them. And once they work with The Moroccan Soup Bar, we offer them training, advocacy, resourcing and support. Those women then become champions of the very causes that have left them disadvantaged.

What events do you host at MSB?

We host a few, including Speed Date a Muslim (SDAM), which began because of increased hostility towards Muslims and Muslim women. I made it our business to look after the women in our employment and community. SDAM is about inviting people to engage with what they don’t understand and realise there is nothing to fear.

The event goes for one hour, and we serve Moroccan mint tea and desserts. A Muslim woman sits on one side, and community members are on the other. No question is off-limits.

In my introduction, I always talk about what it’s like to be a Muslim at the moment, and I might mention a recent media comment. Each session usually develops its own theme.

What have these projects taught you about yourself?

That people are decent, and most are wired for good. And when you offer an opportunity for the betterment of who we are, almost always, most people take that up.

And, if you lift, enable and empower women, the entire society progresses. When women are subjugated, violated and put on the margins, you will have the most ignorant expression of a society. But when you raise women, and give them opportunities, and enable the best of their expression, you will have the most progressive society.

What are your hopes for the future?

I see youth as the solution to most things, so I’m happy to invest heavily in giving them opportunities and platforms to correct some of the profoundly unequal social systems.

We are currently at a tipping point in the world. We can choose to afford dignity and respect to all, no matter whether we agree or disagree with people. We can work towards fairer and more harmonious plurals societies, where we give responsibility to privilege. We can create a world with reason, where social justice and social harmony are common-day, and compassion is something we all aspire to. They’re my hopes. And I don’t think they’re unfounded. I think this new generation is absolutely up for it. We just need to give them a chance.

Right now, we all need to become more active, whether it’s in the dollar that we spend or with services we visit; we need to reclaim our agency in society no matter who we are. And I guess for our part, the The Moroccan Soup Bar isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it is unapologetically a place that tries to stand for social responsibility and advocate for social justice.

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