We are at a moment in time when there is a massive and growing movement of advocacy and activism around the world to achieve gender parity, to dismantle injustices and we have louder and louder voices calling out sexual assault and harassment. This is quite breathtaking and inspiring to see.
It is also a very opportune time to reflect on the fact that throughout history, women across the world, from all walks of life, have either been leaders or been central to struggles for civil rights, environmental justice and equality.
Women like seamstress Rosa Parks who is recognised as the ‘mother of the freedom movement’ because of her courageous refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger.
Biologist Rachel Carson whose bravery in persistently writing about human impacts on nature sparked the modern environmental movement more than 50 years ago.
The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by women, namely Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.
There is one specific group of women which remains conspicuously invisible when examples of women in leadership are given - Muslim women.
The tree-hugging women from the Chipko movement in India in the early 1970s inspired environmentalists all around the world by stopping the chopping of thousands of trees by forming a human circle around them, even at the risk of their own lives.
There are countless examples to go through. While some of these women are recognised, a vast majority of others remain invisible.
There is one specific group of women which remains conspicuously invisible when examples of women in leadership are given - Muslim women. It’s quite rare to hear examples of Muslim women leaders, even though in contemporary times many Muslim women have been heads of states, while Australia and the US have struggled with having women leaders.
Just recently, we lost a stalwart of human rights, Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani lawyer and activist who established the first-ever all women legal firm in Pakistan and was one of the leading defenders of women’s rights and human rights. As a lawyer, Asma defended bonded labourers in Pakistan and as a UN envoy, she defended the rights of the Rohingya of Myanmar, the Kashmiris, the Palestinians, and the Christians in Pakistan.
But did we hear about her here?
What many have forgotten, or perhaps don’t want to remember, is the very long history of Muslim women leading the charge from time immemorial. Just a few of examples include Hazrat Khadija, Prophet Mohammad’s wife, who was a merchant in 620 AD. Umm ‘Ammara who was fighting at the front line of a battle in 634 AD, and of course Razia Sultana (from my part of the world), who became the first female Sultan of Delhi as far back as the 13th century.
It is very rare, if at all, that we ever hear about these women. Why is this so?
Historically, Muslim women’s stories have been erased and consigned to mere footnotes and the overarching narrative about Muslim women these days is that we have little or no agency.
The overarching narrative about Muslim women these days is that we have little or no agency.
The fact that, in 2013, I was the first Muslim woman to be an MP in any parliament in Australia was interesting to the media, partly because of this entrenched view. I have since fielded questions about my faith, my cultural background and even my marriage – questions that not many other public figures in Australia are subjected to.
The way Muslims and Islam are presented in the mainstream is rife with stereotypes – it involves portrayals of Muslim women, often presented as passive victims of male power, who are simply unaware of their own oppression and must be told repeatedly that they’re oppressed, they’re oppressed!
When it comes to discussion surrounding the Hijab, what is most often glaringly missing from the conversation are Muslim women themselves and their decision to choose what they wear. Or there is the other extreme, where Muslim women are exoticised, their agency again taken away, and presented as the subjects of some kind of warped colonial fantasy.
People want us to fit into a box of what they think a Muslim woman should be – and when you don’t, it really disrupts their narrow world view.
Some of you might remember there were proposals from the Liberal Government not long ago for women wearing face covering to be only allowed to watch proceedings in parliament literally from a glass box!
We cannot ignore this.
Because stereotypes are powerful, powerful things – and that is why negative stereotypes are so utterly damaging. People want us to fit into a box of what they think a Muslim woman should be – and when you don’t, it really disrupts their narrow world view.
One of the most damaging effects of this strict categorisation of Muslim women is the complete wiping out of the complexities, pluralities, and histories of the different cultures we all come from. I mean, just look around this room, and you’ll find a rich and vibrant mix of people – not a homogenous, identical set of women.
But we are not given the privilege of individuality which is most easily and naturally afforded to other groups of people. We are expected to be shackled by this forced idea of our homogeneity.
And God help you if you are a brown, migrant Muslim woman from Pakistan, especially in the public eye! That is indeed a triple whammy and I say that from first-hand personal experience.
Like most of us, my views about politics, social justice, women’s rights, multiculturalism and much more have been formed over time and informed by the many influences in life starting from where I was born and grew up, my religion, the people I’ve met as I’ve travelled, and of course my life in Sydney and in regional NSW where I lived for many years.
But when the narrative on Muslim women is so restrictive, it often becomes a case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’.
In peoples’ minds there is this image of what an Australian should be or what a migrant Pakistani Muslim woman should be, and you don’t fit one or the other, then, well, you’re told to “go home”.
Some don’t want me in Australia because I’m a Muslim and that makes me incompatible with the Australian way of life. But when I’m out there campaigning for progressive change that most Australians support such as decriminalising abortion or equal marriage, then suddenly those same people want me to adhere to their view of my religion, criticise me for not being a good Muslim and to back off from these campaigns.
After being elected to the New South Wales upper house, the media immediately focused on the question of how I as a Muslim, would reconcile my faith with the Greens’ support for LGBTQI rights. MPs of other faiths are not asked these questions. The standards are indeed different.
I was once told at a feminist forum by a very prominent Australian feminist that I was trying to create division when I pointed out that the spotlight on the ‘gender gap’, which merely focusses on the inequality between men and women, conceals the reality of the marginalisation and discrimination the diverse groups of women face, for instance Aboriginal women, migrant women, women of colour or indeed Muslim women.
While Muslim women are at the frontline of the public disadvantage and abuse, they remain in the background of the political responses.
Women in general are disproportionately affected by war, poverty, climate change, inequality, racism, violence, and harassment.
And for a number of reasons, Muslim women living in Western countries have become the most likely targets of vile and hateful attacks in public, on social media and on traditional media.
Public cries of "get out of my country and go back to where you came from" are all too familiar to us. Indeed, I have also been on the receiving end of many such messages delivered through social media. One kind contributor recently told me that "Muslims are complete scum", before clarifying that "Muslim women are worse than the men".
But sadly, while Muslim women are at the frontline of the public disadvantage and abuse, they remain in the background of the political responses.
Politicians' meetings with "community leaders" generally consist of photo shoots and roundtables with prominent men within ethnic and religious communities. This is not to say that these meetings are unhelpful, but we should all be concerned if those most vulnerable to violence on our streets are not part of finding solutions to end it.
While there is no shortage of Muslim women who work prominently within the community, and who are well-positioned to provide advice and support, very few are invited to become part of the national conversation.
I find it ironic that while women are the most affected by these challenges, rather than being invited to the forefront to resolve them, they in reality get limited access to the decision-making table.
This also perpetuates the exceptionally narrow, one-dimensional and reductive portrayals of Muslim women and actively contributes to constructing and representing a false account of us being homogenous and lacking agency.
So who should take responsibility for changing this?
It’s beyond time for us to stop knocking on doors. It’s time to push the doors open and knock them down.
While the full burden of this should not be on our shoulders, it is a reality that more of us have to become bolder, and face this challenge head on.
You might remember that a few years ago, the then PM and self-appointed Minister for Women Tony Abbott was criticised because there was only one women in his government’s cabinet, this was his response:
"Nevertheless there are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry”.
I said it then and I’ll say it again:
It’s beyond time for us to stop knocking on doors. It’s time to push the doors open and knock them down.
One of the best pieces of advice I got when I came to Australia was actually from a student counsellor at UNSW where I was studying and going through a difficult period. They told me to feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s my threshold of being bold. When you know what the right thing to do is, when you know the consequences may hurt you, hesitation is natural. But you know you have to do it, so you do.
Women leaders throughout time have had one thing in common – none of them set out to make history, they just did what was right.
Yes, it’s not easy…but doing easy things is no fun anyway!
We know we are strong, resilient and capable.
Women leaders throughout time have had one thing in common – none of them set out to make history, they just did what was right. When needed, we’ve simply rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
So let’s get to work again, let’s raise our voices, let’s agitate, let’s disrupt the narrative, and let’s make sure we are heard, over and above the rabble of narrow minded agendas.
And let’s do it in our own unique way. Because in our diversity lies our strength.
Dr Mehreen Faruqi, a Greens NSW MP, is the first Muslim woman elected to any Parliament in Australia. This is an edited extract of a speech she made at Sydney University Law School’s Muslim Women and Agency in the Australian context symposium, held on the 21 and 22 of February.