‘One shot, one kill’: Secrets of Muslim ‘huntress’
WARNING: Graphic images
THE hunter stalks through the bush in full camouflage gear and combat boots, binoculars in hand, tracking that afternoon's prey. When the deer is in sight, the hunter waits patiently for the perfect moment to strike, aiming a rifle with skill and firing one, clean shot, straight to the heart.
A manicured hand with dark red nails reaches up to adjust the hunter's hijab, her carefully made-up face relaxes and she whispers an Arabic prayer. Then, Kadeja Assaad sets off to skin and butcher her kill and take it home for her children's dinner.
This is a regular adventure for the 36-year-old, who is teaching her four children about the life of a "huntress", as she calls herself. She says local shop owners in her western Sydney suburb have become accustomed to her wandering down the streets in camo gear and headscarf.
"They're used to it," she tells news.com.au when we head out to the lush countryside just west of Sydney, before you reach the Blue Mountains.
"The majority of the time, I look like a girlie-girl, but when I'm out there, I'm in my bush outfits.
"I always still style myself, do my nails ... It's fine to look pretty when you're out there."
She confesses that the first time she went to a shooting range, she was dressed in her usual elegant hijab and heels - and stuck out like a sore thumb. Everyone froze and turned to stare at her.
"I had to make them feel comfortable," she says. "I just laughed."
'THIS IS DEATH AT THE END OF THE DAY'
Kadeja learnt about hunting from watching her Lebanese-Australian father shooting birds as a child, but only really got into it after helping out with pest control on a trip to his home country eight years ago, shooting rats "as a big as cats" with an air rifle.
She now mostly shoots deer because she loves halal venison, but she's also hunted goats, foxes, rabbits and wild pigs using two bolt-action rifles: a Tikka T3 Hunter 243 and a Savage 22 Magnum, as well as a handmade Russian Kizlyar knife to butcher the meat.
Kadeja says that for her, hunting is about conservation and eating local meat.
"It's always about eating clean, you want to eat healthy, you want to live longer," she says. "It's just beautiful, even cutting it up, you can see how fresh it is and the smell of it is different, the texture, the look of it ... when you cook it afterwards, you find the flavours you put into the dish show up more.
"It's also keeping numbers at a certain level with animals, you don't want an overpopulated type of species where it's going to ruin everything for other animals as well ... when it's an introduced species its actually going to cause more damage to the native species."
The teetotal, single mother is now a card-carrying member of the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia (SSAA), travels to interstate hunting exhibitions and hangs out with keen trophy hunters and taxidermists.
"I respect them so much," she says. "They've made sure when they go there that the meat is distributed to the community and nothing goes to waste. I respect hunters that do the right thing."
The trained hair stylist and beauty therapist even works in the industry, finding and hiring out hunting properties like this one.
"Some owners are against it and I give them the chance to tell me why," she says. "You start talking and then they understand. I hunt ethically. I make sure I'm going to cause - you can't say no pain, because this is the way of life, this is death at the end of the day. And I do get upset, I really do. I sit and I look at the animal and I stroke it and say, 'thank god, you are a blessing', and I make sure that the shot that I'm going to shoot, the aim is the most minimalist pain the animal will endure.
"One shot, one drop - to the head, to the heart and that's an instant kill. If they're young or breeders, I avoid them."
THE FOUR RULES OF FIREARMS
Kadeja says she is not a feminist, but thinks "everyone should be equal" and that "women can be good at men's stuff."
There are fewer women than men in hunting, and among those, Muslims are "like a pin in a haystack", she says, but she believes she fits right in when discussing the bush. Many of them even say women are better at hunting because "we're patient and we've got that mother instinct in us, we care a lot".
That's why Kadeja is happy to speak about her hobby and show "it's not scary once you learn." She even hopes to get into training other women later on.
"It's not about shooting, it's about self esteem, to show a woman that you are capable of doing something ... you can be whatever you want to be, a mechanic, whatever," she says.
Her eldest daughters, who are 17 and 15, both have their hunting permits, and the younger one, Sabrina, is out with us today. "I don't talk about it with (friends) because they don't really know anything," says the teenager, who says she loves going on two-day trips with the family.
She hopes to go into the law profession, like her older sister, Noura.
Khaled, 11, is studying to get his licence as soon as he turns 12 and is legally allowed a permit. Mariam, the youngest sibling at 9, is the only child not in training, but she still knows about guns.
"I've taught them from the very beginning, I hold the keys to my safe, you don't know where it is, you're not supposed to know where it is, don't ask where it is," says Kadeja. "They're very well-behaved kids and they understand ... because I'm a firearm owner, I have to teach them the rules and the safety that always comes first.
"The four rules of firearms are, always treat a firearm as if it's loaded, even knowing that it's not. Always remove your finger off the trigger, never leave your finger on the trigger or near it. Never point your rifle or firearm in any way towards anyone - whether human or animals - for no reason, because accidents can happen."
She says her children understand the rules, because she has instilled it in them from when they were very young. "I always remind my children this is a blessing. It's not a funny game, it's something that we should be proud of and teach people, teach them the knowledge that there's nothing wrong with it. There's nothing wrong with harvesting your own meat."
The Sydney mother of four says she knows being a Muslim woman makes her like 'a pin in a haystack' in the hunting world.
The Sydney mother of four says she knows being a Muslim woman makes her like 'a pin in a haystack' in the hunting world.Source:Supplied
Kadeja has taught her children about firearm safety and the oldest three are learning to hunt. From left, Khaled, 11, Sabrina, 15, Mariam, 9, and Noura, 17.
Kadeja has taught her children about firearm safety and the oldest three are learning to hunt. From left, Khaled, 11, Sabrina, 15, Mariam, 9, and Noura, 17.Source:Supplied
'IT'S NOT FUN TO MAKE A MISTAKE'
Kadeja says the key skills for hunters are patience and steadiness.
"You've got to take your time, no rush, because if you rush, you'll make a mistake. It's not fun to make a mistake, it's not a happy outcome," she says.
But as long as hunters respect the land and don't do anything illegal or treat hunting as a joke, Kadeja sees no reason why shooting shouldn't be more popular in Australia. "A lot of clubs are for the animals, it's not all about hunting, we're trying as much as we can to survive in this world because we're a small minority, it's a hard battle.
"Hopefully we can come across in a good way and teach other hunters as well, you've got to do the right thing."
The group of friends she's with don't have much time for animal rights campaigners, proudly showing off a buggy sticker that reads: "PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals."
Is Kadeja concerned about hunters who do break the rules and hunt young or native animals? Does she share activists' concerns about guns falling into the wrong hands?
"Luckily, I've been surrounded by law-abiding firearm owners," she says. "I've not yet met a person that does not, and me as a person, I try to avoid people that do not obey the law. I avoid it as much as I can and I haven't been associated with anyone that has broken the law in that way, in anything."
Kadeja explains that all hunters have to read books and take tests before they get their licence, and even then they need to shoot a rifle in front of a certified supervisor.
"Once they see everything's right and you are 100 per cent with your test, they give you the OK and you go through your screenings," she said. "I think the law should give the ability to people if they want to hunt or shoot a rifle, even if it's just target shooting at the range, sporting for the Olympics."
For her, hunting isn't about the kill. "It's not just about looking for the animal or hunting the animal or shooting the animal, it's the actual, like when you go out there, the experience of being outside, you become one with the atmosphere, you become one with nature.
"From the beginning of time, humans were hunting. This is part of our survival skills."
As she leaves the range to drive home in her 4X4, Kadeja turns on one of her favourite country songs and the lyrics blast out: "Huntin', fishin', and lovin' every day / That's the prayer this country boy prays / Thank God He made me this way / Huntin', fishin' and lovin' every day."