Ever felt that gnawing nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach?
For me, seeing the Black Lives Matter movement is incredible but also brings up painful long- buried memories of racist bullying growing up in Australia as an Pakistani-Muslim Indigenous woman.
I grew up in an isolated mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. My father worked for a local mining company. How did we end up here? It’s a long story that traces all the way back to the Afghan-South Asian cameleers.
You see my great grandfather Gulam Badoola arrived in Australia in the late 1890s, recruited from British-colonised India as a cameleer to navigate Australia’s deserts. Here he met and married a Badimiya Yamitji Indigenous woman named Mariam Martin and so began our connection to this land. When Mariam passed away in the 1930s, just shy of 30 leaving behind four children, Gulam packed his family back to India. At that time, there were stories of Indigenous children being stolen by the government so naturally my great grandfather feared they would be taken, raised by non-Muslims and lose their religion and culture.
Mariam’s kids grew up and got married in India (now post-partition Pakistan) removed from their Indigenous culture and connection to the land. When trucks, trains and railways arrived, the cameleers were made redundant. The cameleer descendants however, continued to work in transport. In the 1950’s, Gulam's son, my grandfather Numrose decided to return to the land of his birth - the Pilbara, his traditional land. He found work in transport and later brought his Indian-born children. When dad first arrived in Australia in 1974, he still remembers the sting of being called the n- word by a white Australian as a 17- year old, the first of many times that epithet was hurled at him. My dad went on to marry a Pakistani woman, and had me and my two younger sisters.
Being the only Muslim family in the mainly white Pilbara town was not easy. I copped racism and Islamophobia. I have memories of being verbally abused, spat at, hit and punched and having rocks thrown at me. I remember being called a “blackie” and being pushed off my bike as small school girl riding home from school. I still remember the stinging burning pain of the skin from my elbows and knees being scraped into the dirt after being pushed off my bike, the red Pilbara dust on my clothing and tears streaming down my face. The worst racism I felt was during the Gulf war. My mother wore a hijab, this made her a visible target for abuse. I remember us being called all kinds of names, “sand n****r”, “terrorists”, “black boong” and on and on. Mum had her hijab ripped off, she struggled to go grocery shopping and would send my father instead.
Through all the abuse we suffered I did fairly well in school despite being accused of cheating by teachers for my trouble (my parents only have up to a Year 7 education). I remember running home crying due to the horrible things teachers would say, and my mother needing to make regular trips to the school to advocate on my behalf. I remember once being ridiculed by a white teacher, who said that if I didn’t stop speaking in class he would tell my father, who would probably beat me, as “that’s what Muslim people do”.
I didn’t quite fit in with the Indigenous children as having light skin and being Muslim confused some of them, so I remained on the outskirts not really belonging to any group.
When I reached year 11 my parents decided they had had enough and packed up and moved to Melbourne in 1993. I went from being the only Muslim in an entire town to an Islamic school where the main ethnic groups were Lebanese, Turkish and Egyptian. Talk about a culture shock! Many of the kids had internalised racist stereotypes. When I mentioned proudly that I had Indigenous ancestry, they instead ridiculed me and used similar derogatory terms used to describe Indigenous people in white communities. I was accustomed to this behaviour and managed to “laugh off” the pain, but it had an extra sting coming from fellow Muslims.
The pain of exclusion was funnelled into academic achieving. I went on to study medicine and became a doctor, the first in my family to finish school and go to university. I still feel a strong connection to this land but it is layered in sadness.
It saddens me that many people, including migrants and Muslim communities are not aware of the true history of this country – stolen wages, stolen generations, massacres and frontier wars and how this has harmed Indigenous communities and continues to today.
But it saddens me even more that people are not aware of (and in awe) of the incredible ancient 100,000 year history and culture of this continent. For Muslims it’s a chance to reject the idea we are outsiders to this country - knowing our stories and families, our spiritualities and cultures from the Maccassans to the cameleers are so intertwined and anchored in Australia’s long history. There’s so much to share and commemorate. For me it starts, with being unapologetically proud of being a Pakistani-Muslim Indigenous woman. It’s starts by sharing our stories and celebrating who we are.
This article is part of the SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have a pitch, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.