A 21-year-old Muslim woman has been violently assaulted by a man outside Melbourne’s State Library in broad daylight.
The vicious assault inflamed community tensions with fears raised that the victim was set upon in Swanston Street because of her religion. Police, however, have said there is no clear evidence that the attack was a hate crime.
The woman was walking opposite the State Library when a man passed her on the street, turned around, and punched her, once, in the head just after 1pm on Thursday, police said.
She fell to the ground and was helped by nearby witnesses before being checked by paramedics.
The man fled and hasn’t been located.
Details of the incident were spread on social media by the Islamophobia Register Australia, an online portal created to allow Muslims to report incidents of discrimination.
The community group reported that the father of a 16-year-old witness claimed the man tried to pull off the woman’s hijab. The father said his son intervened after the man tripped her and punched her twice.
“When he started hitting her, he did try to rip off her hijab,” the father said, relaying what his son had told him about the attack.
“My son told him: ‘What are you doing?’. The man was swearing. Then he pulled a knife out on my son. He said: ‘If you go near me, I’m going to hurt you’.”
The father, who did not want to be identified, said his son had no doubt the woman was targeted due to her religion.
“Yes, for sure. There was no other reason,” he said.
But police have strongly denied the claims, saying the injured woman was “surprised” by how the story had been turned into one about her religion and appearance.
Acting Sergeant Sean Toohey said the woman reported that the attacker said nothing before punching her, once, and did not see a knife or have her hijab touched by the man.
He said the 16-year-old boy was “creating a bit of a stir” at the scene, but he has not been interviewed about his claims.
“We want all people within Victoria to feel safe when they walk down the street, regardless of faith, colour, anything like that, but there’s been no information here to say that this is prejudice-motivated – and the victim has said words to that effect,” Sergeant Toohey told reporters at a press conference on Friday.
Police urged community groups to contact them first to get the facts before speaking out and contacting the media.
Police said such groups did little to help solve such cases.
“To be honest, as far as the investigation goes, unless there’s anything factual that we can utilise that they provide, we don’t pay a lot of attention to it,” Sergeant Toohey said.
However, police later themselves had to issue a correction after they initially said they had not spoken to any witnesses. A police statement later said that was an error and witnesses had been spoken with.
Prominent lawyer Mariam Veiszadeh, president of the Islamophobia Register Australia, said the attack was “clearly unacceptable”.
“Our intention is not to inflame the situation. Irrespective of the motivations of the alleged offender, an Australian Muslim woman was punched in a cowardly attack by a man in broad daylight,” she said.
“There were witnesses present who have provided Police with information about the alleged incident. The motivations of the offender can only be ascertained once a thorough investigation is carried out and that involves taking all of the witness’ accounts into consideration and not being overly dismissive of potential evidence – including allegations that the offender brandished a knife, when a 16 year old witness, chased him down the street.”
Police said there was no CCTV footage of the attack but have released an image of a man they wish to speak to about the assault.
One witness described the moment when they helped the woman following the “disgusting” assault.
“Many people, of varying backgrounds, stopped to help the young woman to her feet, offer comfort, call for police and ambulance and stay with her,” the witness wrote on Facebook.
“The response of all the witnesses involved goes to show the vast majority of Australians are compassionate and accepting people.
“As a non-Muslim, I apologised to the young woman and I hope the events don’t deter her from showing her faith with pride.”
Police said the attacker is described as Caucasian with a slim build, short, light-coloured hair and a beard.
He had a tattoo on his upper right arm and looked to be about 45 years old.
The Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria (ECCV) strongly condemned the attack and said more needed to be done to prevent such assaults.
The Council said that many Australian Muslim mothers and daughters were distressed by high levels of discrimination they faced from other “local residents in the streets where they live, in parks, shopping centres and on roads in terms of vehicles”.
Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers at 1800 333 000.