• With the rise of identity politics, many Australian migrants are grappling with an idenity crisis. (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt) (AAP)Source: AAP
Identity layers go beyond culture and religion. It’s tribalism that makes us feel whole, and Australia is full of tribes.
Amal Awad

21 Nov 2016 - 12:11 PM  UPDATED 23 Nov 2016 - 3:46 PM

TV presenter Waleed Aly recently spoke of Australia’s identity crisis, calling Australians a “congregation of the confused” who subdivide and muddle their identities. He has a point. But I would argue that if this is indeed the case, then it’s an affliction for all western societies that have a multi-cultural element.

Consider the events in the US, a nation still breathing the fumes of an aggressive presidential election that asked voters to identify themselves in the process of selection. You weren’t just pro-Hillary or anti-Trump; you stood against Trump’s misogyny, racism and general bullying behaviour. If you didn’t like Hillary, you too were gender-hating a woman; how dare you not vote for her? She was the first potential female President-elect and people had the audacity to look at her war record?

In reports of the event at which Aly proffered his thoughts on identity, the presenter also suggested that we’re looking for a “national identity” in Australia. This piqued my interest, because – while I agree that Australia is a mess of identity badges – I’m not sure we’re capable of finding a distinct identity, no matter how malleable we are.

Identity labels don’t begin or end with ethnicity, nationality or religious conviction anymore. We speak of all major aspects of our lives in terms of identity – our sexuality, how we eat, how we consume things, and our thoughts on the environment. There are a lot of ‘-isms’ to negotiate in today’s world.

It’s something that struck a chord with me because I’m in the thick of writing a book on the lives of Arab women, and in the process, theorising on this major problem facing Australia – that we’re a fear-based nation of splintered identities, and we wear these identities like a history of trauma.

You hear it more often now – migrant kids will tell you how they’re told to go home in the country they’ve been raised in, but when they visit the homeland, they are welcomed, but don’t quite fit in.

My focus hasn’t been on a national crisis, per se; rather, I’ve been deep-diving into the complex and challenging outcomes of children of immigrants in a western country not having a fixed identity. More specifically, my book deals with the experiences of women of Arab backgrounds, both in Australia and in the Middle East.

Arab. Muslim. Christian. Alawi. Shi’ite. Atheist. Feminist. Artist.

Tiny labels that hold great weight, and shape how those who identify as them see themselves.

For just about every woman I interviewed in Australia, whether they were born and raised here or not, identity was an undercurrent of their life experiences. And often, there was a sense of trauma – of pain never dealt with, because identities were plentiful but not necessarily appropriate to them. For many of us, we negotiate ideas imposed on us by society, our families, culture, religion and our social circles. At a young age, it can mean you unlearn a lot of what you know about yourself. It’s difficult to work out who you are, so you attach labels so that you feel you belong somewhere.

In the Middle East, cultural identity was not an issue to the same extent as in Australia. While some will argue the Arab world is going through an identity crisis on the back of events like the Arab Spring, I didn’t get that impression. Fiercely proud and nationalistic, Arabs are actually more politically astute and focused on succeeding in their daily lives, to the point of arguably being in denial. Living right next door to war and political unease, the people I spoke to have every reason to be afraid. Yet they aren’t. Their frustrations are real and relatable – having a life of purpose and meaning, paying the bills and supporting their families. They weren’t defined by how others saw them.

National identity: how fear of foreigners shapes us
In a globalised world, can national identity still be defined by the borders of a country?

Yet in Australia, where I was born and raised, I have come to understand what it means to live in fear; to exist in a perpetual state of angst about the bubble bursting at any moment. That all of the tragedies of the world that haunt us will happen to us here. In a state of complete ignorance of Australia’s dark history, people worry about things that have not happened, as though Australia’s record is unblemished and pure.

And it begins when we’re young. I grew up knowing that I was neither entirely Australian nor Arab. I knew I was Muslim, a fact that had an impact on all aspects of my life. Feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere in particular prompted me, at various times, to cling more fiercely to identities that didn’t truly represent me, but rather, masked the reality of life as a hyphen-identity.

You hear it more often now – migrant kids will tell you how they’re told to go home in the country they’ve been raised in, but when they visit the homeland, they are welcomed, but don’t quite fit in.

The rise in identity politics is a response to the racism many ethnic minorities are experiencing, but it’s not necessarily helpful. Without needing to eschew identities completely, it’s important to understand that no one can define who you are for you.

For all of the whining from people who want to “reclaim” Australia – an audacious goal given we live on stolen land – it has taken me years to understand that no one gets to tell me what it means to be Australian. As I have written before, it’s my values that make me who I am, not my country.

Amal Awad is currently working on a new book, Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Lives of Arab Women.


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