A senator’s fight against Australia’s racism and sexism

Senator Mehreen Faruqi. Image via Facebook

In my years of public life, I have been a witness to and a target of hate’s exponential growth in Australia. The year after I became the first Muslim woman politician in Australia, we reached a new and disgraceful low when the federal parliament’s presiding officers enacted new rules. Muslim women wearing a burqa or niqab would be forced to sit in glass enclosures segregated from the public gallery if they visit the “people’s house” in Canberra. While that proposal didn’t get very far in the end, the notion of policing Muslim women is still very much alive, whether it’s putting us in boxes, shutting us up or curbing our thoughts.

Not a day goes by when I don’t receive a hateful, abusive message on Twitter or Facebook. Others make phone calls; still others send emails. Some even write letters. A man once sent me an extremely sexually explicit and abusive letter with a signature from his church. When I brought this to the church’s attention, he sent me an apology explaining that he was upset because Turkey had invaded Greece. As I saw it, he wasn’t sorry for writing the letter; he was sorry he got caught. What does Turkey invading Greece some 400 years ago have to do with me? Well, I am a Muslim, and Turkey is a Muslim state. So obviously I must be responsible for the actions of all Muslims throughout time. How bloody ridiculous!

If you are a Muslim migrant, where you come from will haunt you forever. Public demands to “get out of my country” and “go back where you came from” are familiar to all of us. If you are a woman, it gets worse. One contributor to the ever-growing pile of hate mail told me that “Muslims are complete scum”, before clarifying that “Muslim women are even worse than the men”.

The more you speak up about these slurs, the more you get attacked. Accompanying the now predictable hatred are the haters’ assumptions about why I speak out. It’s to attract more loathing, they say, so that I can play the victim. Someone called my office to tell my staff I was a drama queen. Others accuse me of playing identity politics, using my gender, race and religion as weapons – as if these are not the constant subject of the abuse I receive. I admit, I don’t shy away from saying things that others find controversial. But surely we can provoke conversations on controversial issues without descending into racism or sexism.

Accusations of “playing identity politics” in order to cause division are designed to shut us down. Identity politics itself has become a maligned negative concept, as if people of a certain gender, race or religion use it to gain advantage in society. As if it’s not the pervading racism and sexism that are the problems but the people railing against them. This completely ignores the lived reality of those who face systemic disadvantage because of these very attributes. Those claiming we play the “race card” or the “gender card” to get ahead, and even using the catchcries of “cancel culture gone too far” or “political correctness gone mad”, have probably never felt the corrosive effects of discrimination, racism and insults that are meant to diminish, silence and control us.

If anything, those who use the term “identity politics” as a weapon are the very ones most guilty of it. If anyone has benefited from their identity and played it to their advantage, it is the old white men who run this country, its companies and its institutions. It is ironic, too, that the people accusing me of playing identity politics are also the ones who cannot see beyond my race, gender and religion. No matter what the subject I might be speaking about, they will reduce it to my race and religion.

A racialised stereotype of Muslims is rife in society. In 1978, Edward W. Said eloquently laid out the concept of “Orientalism”, by which was meant the cultural characterisation of Muslims and Arabs as inferior (and the elevation of European culture as superior) in order to justify the colonialisation and subjugation perpetrated by Europeans.

“In newsreels or news-photos,” Said wrote, “the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.”

Not much has changed. We are viewed as conservative. Muslim men are portrayed as Middle Eastern, with beards and turbans, or as gun-toting terrorists. The caricature of a Muslim woman is one wearing a hijab or a burqa, which are taken as signs of oppression. Muslim women are presented as passive victims of male power, not free to make up their own minds.

At one end of the spectrum, this submissive depiction of Muslim women “others” them in Western societies, and is seen as threatening and undermining Western values and cultural identity. At the other end, Muslim women, along with women of colour, are exoticised and fetishised. We are reduced to mere objects of desire in some kind of warped colonial fantasy. White women have told me how beautiful my tanned dark brown skin is. In state parliament I was once told that a white MP used to call me “butter chicken” because he liked my voice and accent. These are not compliments. This is cringeworthy, condescending infantilisation. Both stereotypes subjectify us in extreme ways. They rob us of our agency and individuality.

Muslim women are not a homogenous, identical set of people, but these narrow depictions wipe out the complexities, pluralities and histories of the different families, cultures and ethnicities we come from. Like other people of faith, Muslims come in all shapes and sizes. We have a variety of political views and values. We too deserve the benefit of individuality naturally afforded to others – but the reality, for millions, is a life muted by these negative (mis)representations.

While we are rendered invisible by this racialised stereotyping, the visibility of veiled Muslim women makes them easy targets of Islamophobic attacks, which usually spike in the wake of a terrorist incident. Women are targeted in shopping centres, in open public spaces and on public transport. The Islamophobia Register lists alarming details of the harassment Muslim women face. A woman wearing a head scarf was tripped over by a man as she was walking with a toddler. A mother and daughter were rammed by a car in another alleged incident. A high-school student reported being attacked by a classmate. Some Muslim women said they removed their head scarves in public for fear of being attacked.

Despite the abuse they received, Muslim women remain in the background of political responses. Politicians meet prominent men within ethnic and religious communities, round tables are held with these “community leaders” and photoshoots are organised – but all too often women are glaringly missing. There is no shortage of Muslim women within the community who are well positioned to provide advice, yet very few are invited to become part of the national conversation.

For me as a Muslim woman, this abuse, subjectification, stereotyping and exclusion is personal. Of course, politics and identity are inextricably entwined. The personal is political. Why shouldn’t it be? I didn’t suddenly appear on the Australian political scene from a vacuum. It wasn’t that someone waved a magic wand and there I was, a replica of Western perceptions. Our past makes us who we are in the present.

Our identities are multilayered, dynamic and evolving. Our experiences are rooted in the socio-political contexts we’ve lived in. But these too easily get erased for a clickbait headline like this one, which I read in the Daily Mail in May 2017 following hearings of the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Human Trafficking: “EXCLUSIVE: ‘Feminist’ Muslim Greens MP defends arranged marriages and is ‘happy’ hers was organised by her PARENTS – and says it’s different from being ‘forced’ to wed a man”.

My sin? Clarifying with a witness that a “forced marriage” is not the same as an “arranged marriage”, and that millions of people are introduced to their partners through family connections before deciding themselves if they wanted to get married. Omar and I had fallen in love the day we met. Quite possibly, though, we wouldn’t have met or got married without our families’ involvement.

I think it’s very unlikely that the Daily Mail journalists listened to the audio of hours of Legislative Council committee hearings. It still brings a wry smile to my lips when I think about who went running to the media when they heard me say it. Their world must be small and meaningless if a headline in the Daily Mail is a win for them.

It wasn’t the first time the Daily Mail tried to pin me down with a dog-whistle headline. When they asked my views on halal slaughter, they were told I supported mandatory stunning of animals – something that was happening already in almost all halal slaughterhouses in Australia anyway. They decided to run some incredibly deceptive headlines, presumably in an attempt to drive a wedge between me and the Muslim community. They didn’t, of course, mention in the article that I’m a vegetarian, and personally I don’t think any animal should be slaughtered.

Some don’t want me in Australia because I’m a Muslim. For them, my way of life is incompatible with modern Australia. Others tell me to stick to my religion and not to meddle in “our way of life”. They don’t want me to campaign for decriminalising abortion or legalising drugs. Either way, I’m accused of being divisive.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever be Australian enough for some. Not even, as I wrote in August 2018, if I stood on Bondi Beach serving sausage sangers in an Akubra, draped in an Australian flag with a Southern Cross tattoo on my arm.

I just don’t fit the mould they have made for me. I am Muslim but I don’t wear hijab. I’m from Pakistan yet I am progressive, and assertive. I wear shalwar kameez and I wear a hardhat too. I don’t drink but I can swear like a drunk. These oddities, it seems, make me a sinister paradox.

That’s when the shit really hits the fan. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.


This is an extract from Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud by Mehreen Faruqi (Allen & Unwin), out now.

Mehreen Faruqi

Mehreen Faruqi is a Greens senator. Her forthcoming memoir and manifesto, Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud, explores her time in parliament and our current moment of reckoning.

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