May 2021


The moment of reckoning

By Mehreen Faruqi
Any addressing of parliament’s abuse, misogyny and sexism must also tackle its racism

I am a lifelong feminist and activist. But even I’ve been struck by the unbridled rage and seemingly boundless energy of Australian women in 2021. All eyes are on Canberra as women across the country demand an end to sexism, rape culture, and the mistreatment of women both in parliament and the community. It is so long overdue.

I can’t help but consider, however, that this movement runs the real risk of only achieving change for a select group of privileged white women, despite the best intentions of many.

Let me be clear. I’m so thankful that parliament is having its reckoning. I’m glad women MPs and staff, past and present, are speaking out about the discrimination, harassment, abuse and violence they’ve endured. They – we – deserve justice. But we must pose the question: would these experiences have come to light if they did not affect the privileged? Stories of women who are, for the most part, white and upper class are in the spotlight. We must include the stories of women of colour in parliaments and the community who are ignored by the media and political establishment.

In my own experience, the culture of sexism in Australian parliamentary life is compounded by racism and white supremacy. Take my name, an integral part of my identity, my culture and my background. Getting someone’s name right is a sign of respect. It’s an indication you see them as an equal. Yet my colleagues get my name wrong all the time. In a public Senate hearing, I had to patiently correct then senator Ian Macdonald several times. He kept pronouncing it incorrectly anyway.

Even worse was the time the MP Craig Kelly, during a community meeting in parliament, mispronounced my name and then told the room full of people of colour that “we should have simple names”.

I wish that was as bad as it gets. In the NSW Legislative Council, when I was speaking about the government’s irrational exuberance in expanding coalmining, one MP commented that I should cook with cow dung as a million families do in the subcontinent. Another accused me of using “terrorist sorts of tactics” when I was raising a procedural point.

More recently, while speaking in the Senate on the Christchurch mosque shootings – a subject of immense personal significance and seriousness to my community – one Liberal senator repeatedly screamed over me that the terrorist was “a socialist”. This completely dismisses what the New Zealand royal commission found to be the “extreme right-wing Islamophobic ideology” that motivated the terrorist.

It’s galling that MPs feel so comfortable in the chambers of parliament to fling racism across the aisle, safe in the knowledge that Hansard doesn’t record their interjections.

This doesn’t scratch the surface of what is said in the rooms and corridors outside the chamber. A colleague in state parliament told me that one Liberal MP had given me a nickname that referred to a popular South Asian dish. And the sexism and harassment my colleague Lidia Thorpe has faced from men in the building in her first months as a Greens senator saddened me immensely, but did not surprise me.

For women of colour, the direct racism is matched with indirect marginalisation of our perspectives. During the parliamentary debate on the Coalition’s industrial relations omnibus bill in March, I pointed out that, as well as the bill being anti-worker, it was racist and sexist. The bill’s effect of increasing the precarity of casual and part-time workers, reducing collective bargaining power and suppressing wages, I said, would particularly harm those over-represented in low-paid and precarious work: women and migrants.

This comment was the subject of ridicule. Identifying the discriminatory impacts of legislation that the government claims isn’t gendered or racialised hits a certain nerve with the privileged. Mere mentions of systemic racism are often dismissed in the Senate as not based in reality. The white men the Australian parliament was built for – the cohort who still dominate its chambers, corridors and cafes – seem to find it almost unbearable when someone like me enters their space and points out that racism and sexism are not only expressed through blatant actions such as racist name-calling or sexual assault, but through entire systems and institutions such as the parliament. Not that they often acknowledge the name-calling or assault in any case.

It’s impossible to feel safe in a workplace with constant reminders, from the likes of One Nation, of why people like me don’t belong here. When parliamentarians call for a ban on Muslim immigration, question the value of multiculturalism or talk about immigrants in condescending ways, their comments might not be directed at me, but they may as well be.

And all that’s before you add the toxic masculinity of parliament that has been highlighted this year. It’s no secret that our parliaments are aggressive workplaces where shouting matches and sledging are the norm. You are expected to develop a thick skin and act “like a man”. If you don’t, then you are easily written off or sidelined. The “rough and tumble” of politics has real consequences for those of us who refuse to behave like the white men and show no interest in conforming to their system.

In this, my working life in parliament is nothing like the outside world. I’ve worked in many places in my professional engineering career, including consulting firms, local government and a large university. Most of them were dominated by white men. But none of them were anything like parliaments, where you are so marginalised, so invalidated, and made to feel so small.

It is all too clear to me that I’m an outsider in parliamentary chambers. I grew up a world away in Lahore. I’m a brown-skinned migrant. I didn’t come to parliament through the usual pathways of student politics or a job as a staffer. I had no networks or “boys’ club” connections. I think that’s a good thing. A parliament must reflect society, not be an elite institution. But until that happens, being an outsider does mean that you are shut out. It means you are not taken seriously. You watch as MPs in other parties bypass you to negotiate with your male colleagues. It means many MPs consider you not worth befriending or don’t acknowledge you with anything other than the most superficial of conversations.

The brutal reality is that parliament can be a lonely place for a migrant, Muslim woman of colour. In 2013, I was the first Muslim woman to enter any parliament in Australia. Things haven’t changed much since. It’s not just about the number of MPs like me, it’s about the way the place works and whose voices it amplifies and deems valuable.

In discussions about representation, much is said about the importance of being the first of a group to be represented in a powerful institution. There’s no doubt that it is an enormous honour and privilege to be that person for numerous communities. But you’re the first for a reason. Against all odds, you’ve managed to get elected and found a way into a place that is far from welcoming. You then have the immense responsibility of trying to change it for the better. That’s why I’ve decided to be myself, to refuse to change to fit the hyper-masculine, white culture of the place, despite the toll it takes. After all, I got involved in politics to shake things up, to make it easier for others like me to make this journey. I’ll take the heat, but I will not get out of the kitchen.

It will take much more than resistance from the few MPs of colour to shift the people, culture, procedures and backward norms that permeate parliament.

It strikes me that parliament’s moment of reckoning on sexism and men’s treatment of women has coincided with ever-escalating racism. If our fight for equality is to be with and for all women, this must be our moment to build both a feminist and anti-racist country.

This is our opportunity to coalesce the rage we feel against injustices, and to unite in ways we never have before.

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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