Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud: An interview with Mehreen Faruqi

Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud: An interview with Mehreen Faruqi

Dr Mehreen Faruqi is the Greens Senator for New South Wales (2018 – present). Green Agenda’s co-editor Simon Copland spoke with Mehreen about her recently published memoir, Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud, and what it means to be an ‘unapologetically Brown, Muslim, migrant, feminist woman in Australian politics. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Simon Copland: Thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it. You’ve just published the book Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud. What made you decide at this stage to write a book?

Mehreen Faruqi:  It’s lovely to have this chat with you, Simon. I very deliberately chose to write this book while I was still in Parliament and there are no rose-coloured glasses here, I can tell you. I really want people to know what our Parliament and politics are like while I’m in the thick of it and I can do something about it, and also encourage others to take action as well. And I do want people to know that you can do politics on your own terms and not be captured by the system you came to change.

For me being the first Muslim woman to join any parliament in Australia and as someone who migrated here in their twenties does give me unique perspective and insight into what the reality of being a Brown woman in politics and public life is. So while it’s my story, it’s also the story of many migrants of colour who have come to this country and our stories should be told, and our voices should be heard. And just quickly about the title of the book, that actually embraces the labels that are so often used to denigrate me and people like me. They’re used to ‘other’ us, they’re used to question our belonging to a place that for me, I’ve called home now for 30 years. So I want to be crystal clear that I am unapologetically Brown, Muslim, migrant, feminist woman, and very loud and proud about my identity.

Simon Copland: I think you said it’s showing the reality of what it means to be a Brown woman in politics in Australia. What is that reality?

Mehreen Faruqi: Well, it is the reality that you’re confronted with when you challenge a system steeped  in patriarchy, in privilege, in racism, and sexism. And if you are seen as someone who people didn’t expect to raise their head above the parapet, then really all hell breaks loose. So the reality for me for the past eight years, being a political representative, first in New South Wales parliament and then in federal Senate, is that the amount of hate and abuse that is piled on me every single day for just opening my mouth and joining the public debate. This can be absolutely crushing.

Simon Copland: Obviously I understand how that would be crushing, but I’m wondering how does that affect you on a day-to-day basis? How does that make you feel, and then also, how do you keep going when you face this torrent of ongoing abuse?

Mehreen Faruqi: So, I might start by saying that I’m often asked to speak about how I respond to the day-to-day hate and abuse and the prejudice that I experience. People often ask me, do I expose it? Do I call it out? How do I fight back? And the one thing that we rarely talk about is the pretty grinding effect of this toxicity, the amount of effort that it takes to push back against it, and the impact it has on our lives. It does have an effect day in, day out. Well-wishers would often tell me to develop thick skin, but I think that really misses the point. Because I don’t want to develop a thick skin, I’d rather suffer some pain and be disappointed when the going gets tough, than completely lose my sensitivity and vulnerability.

I don’t want to become immune to the needs and feelings of the people that I represent. I always knew that my time in politics wouldn’t be easy. It’s never easy to be the first, it’s never easy to rock the boat, but also that is the point of me being in the position to disrupt and agitate and that purpose alone, I must say, keeps the fire and the rage alight. And of course it gets even brighter when you have the support and the love of your family, your team, and the thousands of others in the street.

Simon Copland: That must be such a thing in terms of having support of other people and the role that can play. I want to ask, what role can others play? Myself, who doesn’t receive this abuse as a white man, I don’t receive these kinds of things. I wonder what role people can play in addressing that abuse when someone like you receives it in this context.

Mehreen Faruqi: There are many things that white allies or people who don’t feel the brunt of racism every single day, like others in society do. There are so many things that allies can do and I think one of the best things that white allies can do is to provide space, to step aside and to provide space for us to speak out. It’s not as if migrants and people of colour in this country don’t have a voice, it’s that we are not given the platform to raise our voices. And I think for allies, the most important thing to do is to step aside, but also it is quite useful to, within your own circle of friends and acquaintances, to actually talk about these issues and raise these issues wherever they can be raised. The first point on pushing back on racism and sexism is to expose it, and I think that’s something that can be very easily done by anyone.

Simon Copland: One of the things I’m interested in, in the book you talk about being a Brown, migrant Muslim and breaking into a white man’s world and striving to change it without being changed. I wonder how you have resisted those urges to change, and maybe what are the kinds of things that people have pushed you to change on that you’ve had to feel yourself resist?

Mehreen Faruqi: Being a political outsider, which I am, because I grew up a world away, I didn’t come through the usual ranks and pathways of politics within the political machine or being a political staffer. I had those challenges of not having those networks. But not being part of these usual networks and pathways into politics, also meant I actually never saw politics as a career or game to be played or a point scoring exercise. Unlike so many politicians that are around me, I’ve actually lived in the real world and not just in the political realm. I’ve had this wonderful career in civil and environmental engineering, which spans two decades and two continents. I think it is this lived experience that does keep me more grounded and connected with the lives of people that I represent. And so for me, politics has always been a public service.

I very consciously left a career that I loved to try and change the world to be a better place for everyone who lives here and not become part of a broken system. But you have to acknowledge that privilege and political power can be seductive and so you have to very deliberately keep reminding yourself of why you are there. For me, the best way of doing this is to work with and in the community and with Greens members and supporters, and it is them who remind me every single day that I’m there to not be seduced or entrenched in power, but to basically represent them. That’s what I’m there for. You asked the question of what you face in terms of becoming part of that system. You’ve got to resist this urge to become part of this really aggressive politics that exists in our parliaments, to become one of the boys and to shout across the chamber or use these tactics, because that’s the way the game is played. And if you don’t play that game then you are sidelined, there is no question about that. But I’m not there to play a game, I’m there to make people’s lives better, to make sure that the voices of the marginalised are brought into parliament and, even better, to make the journey that I made easier for others like me so they actually have that seat at the table themselves. And you can’t do that by becoming part of the system that exists at the moment.

Appreciating this read? Be sure to CHIP IN to help fund future articles from Green Agenda.

Simon Copland: I have lots of thoughts based on that, because it’s such a good answer to that question. You mentioned that you had this great career and a career that you loved. And you’ve also previously mentioned that you knew that politics was going to be hard, given the abuse that you’re facing and I was wondering about those two things together. What made you decide that politics was a space that you wanted to be involved in?

Mehreen Faruqi: My foray into politics, and by that I mean into parliamentary politics, was pretty accidental. I joined the Greens very purposefully and it happened at least a decade after I had migrated to Australia from Pakistan. Because it does, sadly, it does take that long a time for migrants to find their feet in Australia. I think we could do much better in supporting people who want to make Australia home and supporting them to be part of the community much quicker. My husband and I were both engineers, but couldn’t find jobs, because no one was wanting to open the door for people who didn’t have Australian local experience. And later on you find out, there is a thing called resume racism as well, where just looking at our names would have put on CVs in the bin.

So it did take that much time to settle here, get a roof over your head, find jobs, and then actually think about, okay, how do I want to be part of the community? And for me, it happened when we had moved to Port Macquarie and basically had some more time, finally, to become part of the community. So we helped out with the refugee support group, and with Landcare and Bushcare. And one night around the dinner table at my place, I had some friends from these various groups, and I found out that nearly all of them were members of the Greens and I think that was the Greens group in Port Macquarie. I thought, okay, well, this is where I can use my experiences to do some community service.

That’s how it started. Never, ever with any aim of becoming a politician. To be frank, I could not in my wildest dreams have ever imagined that I could be in the Australian Senate, ever. For one thing, I never saw anyone like me there. So when you don’t see people like you, you never think that that could be a destination. But then for me politics has never been really about politicians or MPs, politics has been about making a change no matter where you are. When I joined the Greens, I joined a political movement. I was a member, then a very active member and convenor of the women’s group, because at heart I am a feminist, to then putting my hand up as a candidate and then becoming an MP. It was all pretty organic.

But I do remember one moment when I thought, oh, I could consider putting my hand up to represent the Greens, and that was door knocking. One of the first times I put my hand up for a candidate was in the seat of Heffron, where I live, which was at that time the seat of the Labor premier, Kristina Keneally. And the election was called and my local group said, “Okay, Mehreen, I think it’s time, you got to do this.” I thought, yeah, okay sure. Having very little money as the Greens don’t usually, and running on people power, we decided that our main strategy would be door knocking. And we were doing it every other night and that whole process, although it was very daunting, just showed me what an amazing privilege it was to knock on someone’s door and have this conversation with them about what they want the world to be like. And then taking their views and putting them on the political agenda was something that was exhilarating and very powerful to me. It really did light the spark for me, that I could take all my experience, which again was a positive, to be able to represent views that may not have been represented in politics and talk for people that may not have been represented at all there. And yeah, and that was the turning point for me, Simon.

Simon Copland: I remember that election, because my friend and I drove up to Sydney on election day and handed out how-to-votes for you.

Mehreen Faruqi: I do remember, absolutely.

Simon Copland: And it must be interesting for you now, because Kristina Keneally is also a Senator and you ran against her and now you’re both in the Senate together.

Mehreen Faruqi: I know, I do chuckle about that at times.

Simon Copland: The next edition of Green agenda is really focused around the notion of dissent. I think you’ve spoken about this already, about seeing your role as a disruptor. What does it mean for you to be a dissenter in a place like parliament, which is steeped in tradition and rules and the machine?

Mehreen Faruqi: In some ways, having forged and pushed my way into a place that is well-known for its whiteness, its maleness, its staleness and its sameness, just my presence there makes me a dissenter. My mother often tells me that I had a very rebellious streak from a very young age when I used to endlessly argue with her about being allowed to do the same things that my two older brothers didn’t even have to ask permission for doing, like playing cricket on the street or staying out late at night. And I did win many of those battles, so I’ve honed a lot of these dissenting skills on my mum. Standing for justice and fairness was pretty ingrained in me, and I was attracted to the Greens because of our party’s propensity to push boundaries and to bring issues on the agenda that no one else actually had the courage nor the inclination to. Like fighting for asylum seekers, for marriage equality or even the famous heckling of George Bush that Kerry Nettle and Bob Brown did, and that I am actually quite proud of.

It’s a really important role that the Greens have played in putting those matters on the agenda and starting the debates and actually making some things that people thought impossible, possible. For me, it’s really important that we continue to incubate ideas that will blossom over time. It’s that tradition of boldness which I have continued. I, for example, brought on the first bill to decriminalise abortion in New South Wales, which no one had talked about for a hundred years in parliament. Or to say ‘nup’ to the Melbourne cup or highlight racism and the rise of the far-right. As a Senator, in our Federal Parliament, I have a platform that only 75 other people have in Australia and for me, using that platform to tell the truth is the most important thing.

But if I could just say one last thing on this, for me, it’s not just about parliament alone, it’s about agitating in our communities, in our workplaces and within our own political parties as well, because I don’t want to settle for incremental change. I do want us to start and lead debates that we should be having now, we shouldn’t be afraid to do that. Some of the things that I talk about in the book are debates about, for example, not just moving toward renewable energy, but also talking about doing it by addressing the structural inequalities that we face at the moment, the environmental racism, the rampant capitalism. We must have debates about why private schools should get a cent of public money, or whether there should be private schools at all. We must question carceral logic and the utility of the prison industrial complex. That’s the role that I’m really proud that the Greens have played and should continue to play as part of our dissent.

Simon Copland: What I’m hearing is that you say is that part of what it means to me to be a dissenter is to ask the questions no one else is willing to ask, or to say the things that are considered too extreme in other parts of discourse. The private school thing, being a perfect example, you could never imagine a Labour or Liberal MP ever questioning whether private schools should get money, but in doing so you’re acting as a dissenter, even though for a lot of places in the world that would be considered a normal statement.

Mehreen Faruqi: Absolutely, absolutely. I think we are a little bit behind in Australia in raising these issues. As a party of the left and a party that is proud to be an agitator and loud about these things we should be doing much more of this.

Simon Copland: I haven’t been involved in the party itself for a while, but when I was very heavily involved, there was an often tense debate about this difference between those who saw the Greens as being a protest party or a dissenting party, and those who saw the party as a constructive party or a party of government or something along those lines. I was wondering how you see that debate and whether those two things are necessarily against each other or whether there’s ways to bring them together.

Mehreen Faruqi: Well, I can tell you those debates are still being held, Simon.

Simon Copland: I imagine they are, yes.

Mehreen Faruqi: It’s about whether we want to be a protest party or a parliamentary party, and it’s good to have those debates. I don’t necessarily think that there has to be a conflict between the two, but what I’m very clear on is that we cannot be captured by parliamentary politics, that it is our principled community campaigning and our movement that has to be the priority. And when we do that we have seen people voting for us and us getting more political representation. One classic example is of Ballina. When the Greens won the seat of Ballina 2015, it was on the back of 20, 30 years of really principled campaigning in National Party heartland.

I believe that the world changes because of mass people’s movements that demand change. The world doesn’t change because a few politicians got to work behind closed doors. So for me, I do see our role is about pitching and contesting radical ideas for what we want the world to be like. We need to convince people to come along with us, because at the end of the day, leadership is about changing hearts and minds and not chasing votes.

Simon Copland: I wanted to ask you about one of the title of your book, which is Too Loud, because I think this is very much connected to the notion of dissent as well. But at the same time, I think that dissent does not necessarily always equal loudness, sometimes people think that the best way to dissent is to do it behind closed doors, this is often what you hear from, for example, members of the Labor left to who think we should do the dissenting behind closed doors, but then present this united front. Why do you think loudness is something that gets criticised so heavily, using your own experience, but also why is it something that is important to you, to be loud?

Mehreen Faruqi: Well, for me, it’s important to be loud because my experience of migrants in Australia is that our Australianness is often conditional. It is conditional on us being grateful for being let in, it is conditional on us keeping our heads down and our mouths shut, it is conditional on agreeing with those in power, and it is conditional on giving up our identity and assimilating. So for us, we are not allowed the same privilege of being able to debate and talk about issues and put our opinions forward, like any other person living in Australia. No matter what I say, my motives are constantly questioned. Whether I’m advocating for stronger animal welfare laws, for abolishing fees for university, on women’s rights, on speaking out against racism, the disgusting abuse that is thrown at me basically demands one thing, that I don’t have a right to say these things and that I should piss off back to where I came from.

And the more you speak up, the more you get attacked. And within those attacks also come these accusations of, oh, you’re just playing the victim or what a drama queen or you’re playing identity politics using my gender, race, religion as weapons, as if these are not the constant subject of the abuse that I receive. I think it is important for us to be really loud and, for me, being loud is also part of saying that we have this right like anyone else who lives here. It took me actually a little while to realise that the backlash that I get wasn’t really about what I was saying, but was because it was me saying it.

Simon Copland: Yeah, I noticed in a couple of your posts where you’ve posted about the book, I’ve had a look at the comments in some of those, which I wonder whether you do that yourself anymore, or if you just try to ignore them. But one of the things I certainly noticed was, because the book is called Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud, one of the comments that I noticed it came from the right a lot, was that you don’t use the word Australian in there and so there’s almost an assumption there that by highlighting your status as a migrant, as a Muslim woman, as being loud, that means you’re not Australian, or that you’re not willing to talk about being Australian.

Mehreen Faruqi: Yeah, absolutely. Because, like I said, our Australianness is always up for question, our belonging is always up for question. Australia has changed a lot in the time that I have been here. When I migrated here in 1992, I actually did feel welcome, I did feel my first view of Australia was that people had worked hard here for egalitarianism. Obviously at that time, I didn’t know the breadth and depth of the dispossession and the vilification of First Nations People, and the more you learn about that, the more you realise the foundations that this country was built on. But I do think in the last 20 years, we have moved much more towards the othering of people that may not fit this image of what a true Aussie might be like.

Simon Copland: Do you have any feelings of why you think that might be the case?

Mehreen Faruqi: Yes, I do. I think if you look back over the last 20 years, maybe after 9/11 was really when people used Muslims at that time to blame and to create this fear, which inevitably turned into the utility of harvesting votes. So when governments haven’t been able to, or haven’t addressed the issues that people actually face, they have found a villain. They have found the faces that they can blame it on. They blame all their inadequacies on people like us. So migrants are blamed at the same time for taking jobs and also being in dole queues and taking our tax dollars. That has been a huge part of the major political parties moving towards creating this division and getting votes.

Simon Copland: And it’s interesting to note that date, September 11 is obviously such an important date. I’m not sure if you know, but I research the right online for my PhD and one of the things you can note, for example, if you looked at Pauline Hanson, when she was first in parliament, she used Asian people as a scapegoat. There’s her famous first speech where she talked about the Asian invasion and then she obviously was kicked out of parliament and now back in. Now you can see that there’s this shifting language, not just from her, but she’s an example, towards Muslim people as being this scapegoat. And it’s the trajectory of their being a scapegoat that constantly is found of other people. And at this point in time, I think most people will always face racism, unfortunately have always done so and it’s something we need to fight against, but Muslim people seem to be the brunt of the target at this point of time.

Mehreen Faruqi: Yeah, I think people find it easy to find scapegoats in people who are already marginalised. You can’t also bypass the fact that there is a huge rise in white supremacy and the far right in this country. We saw the very deadly outcomes of that in the Christchurch massacre.

Simon Copland: Given we’re just on this topic, I feel a bit tense about turning towards the more positive, but I think I’d like to finish off and I want to ask you to try and end on a positive note, which I think you do in your book as well. In your book there’s an epilogue, which is, is it all worth it? I want to ask you, is it worth it?

Mehreen Faruqi: Well, someone just told me today actually, Simon, that they had never read an epilogue as long as the one in my book. But when you ask yourself that question of  ‘was it all worth it?’ there’s a lot to think about.

Simon Copland: It’s a big question to ask.

Mehreen Faruqi: Yeah, I know. The last 30 years of your life and the decisions that I made in those years, were they worth it? Exactly. I think it does demand some reflection and contemplation.

My short response is yes, it is worth it, it has been worth it, but it does come at a cost. It does come at a cost to you and your family and your loved ones as well. Of course there is no doubt that it has been, and it is, an enormous privilege and honour to represent your community and to be the first of the group to be represented in a powerful institution. But with that immense privilege does come immense responsibility as well, that you are there for that reason, to change things for the better for people who might want to do this after you, or while you’re there as well.

And when I say it comes at a cost, there are days that I don’t really feel like getting out of bed, because you have actually been pummelled by abuse and hate. But when I do have those moments of futility, the one thing that gets me out of bed very quickly is a reminder of the wonderful people that I work with and that I’ve met through this time because of what I do. And these are people from every walk of life, people I’ve met at rallies, in women’s shelters, outside abortion clinics, in camping grounds, in bus stops, on polling booths, rain, hail or shine.

People who have opened up their homes and their hearts to me. And it is really these committed, dedicated, and extremely bright people also in my team and the volunteers that come in and out of my office every day who do this work, only because they believe in it and they think it’s the right thing to do. And that just shows me that I’m not alone and they keep that fire of creating change and dissent burning brightly in my belly. And I will be here to shake things up in politics, I’ll take the heat and I will not get out of the kitchen.

Simon Copland: I think that’s a perfect way to end. So I want to just say thank you very much, I really appreciated chatting with you.

Mehreen Faruqi: It’s been lovely chatting with you, Simon. Thank you so much.