In February 2017, conservative Australian media began a sustained attack of a young feminist leader, Yassmin Abdel-Magied. That started a racist petition calling for her to be fired from ABC TV, Australia’s public broadcaster, simply for having participated in a TV panel show, Q&A, where she spoke articulately about her feminism as a Muslim-Australian woman (see the clip below). For weeks, the ABC refused to give into these racist demands.
At the same time, three One Nation candidates were running in the Western Australian election making openly racist, homophobic and sexist comments. These candidates had no political expertise, but somehow their bigotry is not offensive enough to warrant endless national debate. Yet the feminism of an educated and successful young feminist draws ire.
In late April, Abdel-Magied was subjected to further public condemnation over a brief social media post expressing her condemnation of war. One month later, a White male editor incited violence towards her employer, the ABC, and Abdel-Magied was caught in media turmoil once again. This is a case study on the deep-seated elements of Islamophobia (fear of Islam) in Australia, and its real life consequences on young women of religious and ethnic minority backgrounds.
Born in Sudan in 1991 and raised in Australia since age two, Abdel-Magied is an electrical engineer who has a First Class Honours degree from the Unviersity of Queensland. She has spoken about her experiences in a male-dominated science field. She has reflected thoughtfully in having to fit in whilst in the field, working on an oil rig, and what it’s been like for her to be “the first” in many contexts:
I was always one for doing things differently, partly because I could, and partly because I just did what I wanted. Being the first girl at a Christian ecumenical school, and the largest in Queensland, to wear the hijab when I started there in 2002, was pretty exciting. Being the first woman in my company’s department in Australia was even better. I broke the bench press record for girls at school, topped the two male-dominated classes of graphics and technology studies (woodwork) and I prided myself on being able to ‘hold my own among the men’, physically and in banter. Although I was proud to be a woman, I had always been even more proud of my ‘masculine’ qualities. Perhaps this is what frustrated my mother the most.
In the rigging world though, there is no mistaking the fact that I am a woman. I am not as strong as all the guys, though I can hold my own. I am not as foul-mouthed, but I can come back with a quip to keep them quiet (or laughing, depending on the situation)… There is no doubt that it is a man’s world, but it is changing. Australia is lagging behind other countries – in Norway and Europe women are much more routinely employed on rigs. How women change the field or change ourselves to fit in remains an unanswered question, but it will be exciting.
Abdel-Magied is exactly the type of woman role model we continue to cry out for in academia: self-possessed, articulate and well-informed, she is confident about her qualifications and a great spokesperson for the technical and social innovation that women can foster with a science degree.
Abdel-Magied is founder of Youth Without Borders, a not-for-profit organisation empowering young people to bring positive change into communities. She was appointed to her first national board as a teenager and has received various prestigious awards, including Young Queenslander of the Year in 2015, and in the same year, she was named one of the Top 100 Most Influential Engineers in Australia by Engineers Australia. She is a published author who has not only travelled the world on her book tour, but also representing Australia as a young ambassador on a government program. She has launched another company to promote women speakers from minority ethnic backgrounds. She has been praised for her wit and charm as a public figure in international publications, such as this profile in Slate: “Abdel-Magied advocates her ideas with another key element: positivity. Though rage and anger are more than justifiable in the face of many global atrocities, Abdel-Magied approaches her issues with a coolness unseen in most”
Abdel-Magied is intelligent and has been recognised as making an important contribution to society – and all before she reached her early 20s. So why does the media pursue a young Australian woman with such vehement anger?
Well, for starters she is a proud woman of colour who has set the record straight about her religion and her identity as a Muslim. She regularly educates the public, dispelling myths about Islam.
She gave a renowned TED talk on the meaning of the hijab, linking adverse responses to the Muslim headdress to unconscious bias, a term du jour in equity and diversity circles in science, here spoken of in its correct application.
Someone who looks like me walks past you in the street. Do you think they’re a mother, a refugee or a victim of oppression? Or do you think they’re a cardiologist, a barrister or maybe your local politician? Do you look me up and down, wondering how hot I must get or if my husband has forced me to wear this outfit? What if I wore my scarf like this? …Ladies and gentlemen, ultimately, that surprise and the behaviors associated with it are the product of something called unconscious bias, or implicit prejudice. And that results in the ridiculously detrimentallack of diversity in our workforce, particularly in areas of influence. Hello, Australian Federal Cabinet.
Australia is host to endless racist discussions by conservatives, who (unjustifiably) demand that Muslim-Australians be more proactive about reaching out to the broader Australian society. One might have thought that a smart Muslim woman who works to break down religious barriers is doing exactly what conservatives seek. Not so.
After appearing on Q&A, the Australian media unleashed a torrent of hateful think pieces that have yet to dry up, three months later. An online petition called for her to be fired from the ABC. In April, this abuse increased with just seven words, posted and then retracted almost immediately.
Early on 25 April, Abdel-Magied wrote two Facebook posts about ANZAC Day, a national holiday commemorating the sacrifices and valour of Australian service people from World War I. In her first post, she wrote: “Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine …).“
“Lest we forget,” is the national phrase of remembrance reserved for ANZAC Day. “Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine….” is a reference to the two islands where refugees are unlawfully detained for years, and two nations currently under sustained attack. Following responses from followers and the public, she quickly unpublished the post and apologised. In a follow up post, she simply wrote, “Lest we forget.” Despite her recant, this turned into a media furor lasting a month.
Abdel-Magied’s name was a trending topic all day on social media. News sites wrote and responded to hundreds of opinion pieces. In the first two weeks alone, there were 60,000 words written about the ANZAC Day post—a PhD thesis worth of word—76% of this by one news conglomerate, News Corp. Politicians condemned Abdel-Magied’s words. Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and other senior ministers joined in on public discussions as to whether Abdel-Magied should be removed from a government committee. (She wasn’t, but it took days to have this clarified.)
ANZAC Day is a day for remembering sacrifices, but it is also a day that masks the inequalities of war, with Indigenous soldiers and LGBTQIA service people both erased from this history, only now being slowly uncovered. Abdel-Magied’s words are mild compared to other famous condemnations of ANZAC Day, and demonstrate hypocrisy and parochialism amongst right-wing commentators who wanted to remove protections from the Racial Discrimination act in the name of “free speech.” Deakin University historian Dr Carolyn Holbrook said Anzac Day functioned “as a kind of secular religion these days.”
“It has many features of a faith, and what happens is that the figure – the Anzac legend – is sacred. Anzac is sacred for many Australians, and if someone dares to question it … then they cop the consequences of it.”
So, it is somewhat ironical that Abdel-Magied’s critics attack her religious views, which are complementary to Australian egalitarianism, whilst espousing a sacred view of a non-religious day and using this to promote inequality.
There is nothing wrong with a feminist pointing out the fact that Australia locks up asylum seekers in indefinite detention and that there are wars happening in the present day. As a feminist, there is no reason for her to venerate the losses of some classes of people ravaged by war, but stay silent on horrors happening today. The vitriol continued unabated, with a renewed call to have her fired from her role with ABC TV.
The Australian media has a well-documented problem with misogyny, that extended to our first and only woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who is White. In Abdel-Magied’s case this sexism is compounded by racism, as a woman of colour, and Islamophobia, as a Muslim woman. Even though Muslims have been part of the Australian nation since before European invasion, fear of Muslim “otherness” increased during the first Gulf War in the 1990s. This fear grew exponentially after the bombings on September 11, 2011, in New York, laying the architecture for Islamophobia for the next 16 years and counting. This in turn has led to deep marginalisation amongst Australian-Muslims, especially youth. In a survey last year, one in ten Australians were identified as being highly Islamophobic, expressing extreme fear of Muslims. Needless to say, Australia needs to reduce the stigma attached to young Muslims, especially for their wellbeing. Sadly, this wasn’t to be through better treatment of Abdel-Magied.
Late on 23 May 2017, the conservative publication Quadrant published a hateful article by its online editor, Roger Franklin. He argued that the recent bombing in Manchester, UK, should have happened to ABC TV. Franklin argued that the previous night’s program, Q&A (which airs on the ABC), should be more alarmed about terrorism. The Q&A panellists argued that there was a lot of scaremongering about terrorism that wrongfully targets Islam in ways that are damaging.
The next morning, the ABC General Manager Michelle Guthrie condemned the callous article by Quadrant. The ABC reported that they had alerted the Federal Police given the Quadrant had effectively called for a terrorist attack on the ABC.
By early afternoon, one of the editors of The Australian newspaper, Chris Kenny, argued that Quadrant had made “a worthwhile argument” but the comment on terrorism had gone too far. Nevertheless, Kenny argued that the ABC was harbouring “jihad denialism.” (This is not an actual concept, by the way.) Bear in mind that Australian’s national intelligence organisation arrested White supremacist groups in late 2016 for planning terrorist attacks in Australia and again for stockpiling weapons in January 2017 for the same cause.
Kenny has been one of the ABC’s loudest dissenters, skewering them over Abdel-Magied.
Just before 5pm, only one day after Quadrant’s tirade, the ABC announced that they had fired Abdel-Magied, stating cut-backs. The timeline is this: three months of mud-slinging, including of four weeks of intense vitriolic attacks on a young Muslim-Australian woman, and less than 24 hours after White men used their national platforms to direct White supremacy towards the ABC, the ABC relented.
Our public broadcaster effectively told young women of colour that White male bigots will have their way.
The Feminist Rising
The media treats this young scientist with malice not just because she is a woman, but also because she is a Muslim woman who does not conform to the submissive stereotype the media is invested in.
Dr Susan Carland, sociologist, writes:
For all the cries of wanting ‘moderate,’ as opposed to ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘radical,’ Muslims to speak up and dominate the presentation and definition of Islam in Australia, the situation of Yassmin has shown there are those in Australia who don’t actually want either type of Muslim, and never did. Their response to Yassmin – which isn’t just a rejection of her opinions, but a full-scale assault on her existence – is indicative of far more than just their feelings towards her. It finally puts into full technicolour display the truth of their feelings towards Muslims: that the only acceptable Muslim is a non-Muslim.
Despite all she continues to endure, Abdel-Magied’s star continues to rise through hard work and resilience. She has just announced a book engagement in Ireland. May her career continue to flourish; but let’s be clear: when we talk about why women are pushed out of science; when we talk about violence against women; when we talk about the need to uplift more women leaders; we are talking about women like Abdel-Magied. Australia keeps foolishly demonstrating that don’t deserve her high calibre talent, yet there she is, achieving more than most do in a lifetime, and proving everyone wrong.
Australia’s collective fear of Islam, as projected onto a bright, young woman, reflects very poorly on our national priorities. This Islamophobia, which spiralled out of control almost two decades ago, is holding our nation back. It’s time to let go of this unwarranted concern over Muslims, who’ve shown for generations that they are upstanding citizens who give back to the community.
As we waste more precious time channelling hatred towards the brilliant leaders of tomorrow, we hold them back from fulfilling their full potential. If women of colour scientists like Abdel-Magied can continue to thrive in this ugly climate, imagine what they could accomplish with the support of the nation.