Australia

Mehreen Faruqi enters the Senate, 75 years after Australia’s first female MP

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On the day of her maiden speech, Australia’s first female Muslim senator reflects on how far women in politics have come.

Amid the chaos of Tuesday’s leadership spill, a political milestone risked going unnoticed.

With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull left licking his wounds after fending off a title challenge, Greens’ Senator Mehreen Faruqi rose to give her maiden speech.

Senator Faruqi, as she is now known, became the 100th woman in the Upper House. But the occasion was momentous for another reason: she is the first Muslim woman ever to claim one of the Senate’s red chairs.

“I am very grateful to the 99 women before me who have actually forged the way for people like me,” she told SBS News on Tuesday.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi
Mehreen Faruqi is Australia's first Muslim female senator.
Supplied

As she shares her story with the nation – that of a Pakistani migrant who arrived in 1992, raised two children and carved out a successful career as an academic and engineer – she hopes to help reflect the diversity of the Australian experience.

“Obviously there’s a lack of diversity across Australian parliaments,” said Senator Faruqi, who last week finished up a five-year stint in NSW’s Legislative Council.

“They don’t look like contemporary Australian society; they don’t look like the streets and suburbs that I live in.”

Australian parliaments don’t look like Australian society … they don’t look like the streets and suburbs that I live in.

Mehreen Faruqi
Senator Faruqi moved to Australia from Pakistan in the 1990s.
Supplied

Her message for the Senate stands in stark contrast to that of her new colleague, Fraser Anning, who last week used his maiden speech to call for a ban on Muslim immigration, dubbing it a "final solution".

It was a “very disgusting” speech, Senator Faruqi said, but “it’s not just Senator Anning, to be really frank”.

“I think generally Australians are very open-hearted people, but there are of course underlying elements [in the minds of some] which are further exploited by people in parliament,” she said. 

Only a year ago, One Nation’s Pauline Hanson entered the Senate in a burqa.

Australia’s Muslim community are “anxious”, Senator Faruqi said.

“When things are said, or when there’s a terror attack somewhere, people living in the community, in peace, are made scapegoats. We have seen attacks on Muslim women on public transport, people continuously attacked on social media.”

She has been a victim herself.

“I’ve received handwritten letters with those attacks, my son [ABC journalist Osman Faruqi] recently received death threats, so it does make us feel really fearful as to what might happen.”

Pauline Hanson wearing the burqa in parliament
Pauline Hanson wearing the burqa in the Senate.
AAP

The 55-year-old, whose speech fell on the 75th anniversary of Australia’s first female MP being elected, noted women from all parties who have stood for office gave it their all.

“The difference women in parliament make is that they really fight hard for things to change for women,” she said.

Enid Lyons became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1943. Despite the notable achievement, the wife of a former prime minister and mother of 12 once remarked that her Liberal colleagues “only wanted me to pour the tea”.

Today, only 23 per cent of Liberal Party MPs are women, while Labor is edging towards a 50-50 split. The Greens have as many women as men in the Senate.

Senator Faruqi described former Greens deputy leader Larissa Waters’ taboo-smashing decision to breastfeed in the Senate last year as “a beautiful moment … that showed we’ve come a long way.”

Greens Senator Larissa Waters
Larissa Waters breastfeeds baby Alia Joy in the Senate in May 2017.

But, she said, she didn’t want it to be another 75 years before true equality was reached.

“There was a World Economic Forum report that said gender parity will be reached in 2133 globally.”

“For me, that is quite unacceptable. We really need to fight harder, because unless we do we cannot take things for granted.”

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