26/01/17 Australia , Society & Politics # , , , , , , , ,

‘Get involved, because this is where we live’: An Intersectional Conversation with NSW Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi

‘Get involved, because this is where we live’: An Intersectional Conversation with NSW Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi

Interview with Sukhmani Khorana

As women of colour, we are often told that we are doubly oppressed. However, my joy at seeing Pakistani-born engineering academic Mehreen Faruqi become an elected member of the New South Wales Legislative Council in 2013 was disproportionate to this two-headed oppression. It was, in fact, a quadrupled kind of elation. Not only is Faruqi a woman from a racialised community, but she also happens to be a first generation migrant, and from a Muslim background. And so, I nod furiously both when she talks about needing years to settle in before we consider the political landscape in our adopted home, and also when she mentions the heartening conversations now taking place between Indigenous and migrant communities. This, however, is not the average subcontinental nod, but an embodied gesture towards taking our agreements to quarters where they may be met with reticence.

I may never be persuaded to go door-knocking, but I do emerge from her office in the NSW Parliament, on the eve of Invasion Day, feeling freshly enthused about caring, and about politics.


Political Participation and the South Asian Diaspora

SK: Are South Asians in the Australian diaspora now more active in politics?

MF: There is very little gender diversity in Parliament, let alone South Asians. I now sit in the Upper House of NSW Parliament which has the least percentage of women of any house in Australia. It is only about 21 per cent [of women]. It is probably unfair to criticize South Asians for that because it is a place that is dominated by middle-aged white men.

When I am amongst the South Asian community in Australia, I often talk to people I know about getting more interested in politics in Australia. Often the conversation when we sit around turns to politics back in Pakistan, and people know every last detail of what is happening in Pakistan or India, but not a lot about politics in Australia. I don’t want to generalize, but I do encourage people to get involved because this is where we live, and where our next generation is going to grow up.



Settling in, and the next generation

MF: Talking about the next generation, I think what lies ahead is really positive. I know that at the University of New South Wales, there were four consecutive years where the presidents of the Student Representative Council (SRC) were from the South Asian diapora (so children of migrants). So that is really changing. Also, you see people from South Asian backgrounds being very active in grassroots processes. You may know Subeta Vimalarajah from the University of Sydney who started the campaign to remove GST from sanitary products.

Also, to be fair, when I came here, politics or joining politics was the last thing on my mind. The first thing is to settle in.

SK: The first generation has more practical concerns.

MF: Absolutely, and it does take a while. It took my husband and I probably ten years before we started thinking of really getting engaged in the community. So now it’s important that we pass on this message to the next generation that it is really important to have a say in decision-making. It is not just through becoming an MP, but through actually becoming active in politics. You don’t have to do that by joining Parliament; there are so many other ways to become active (such as community groups).



Women of Colour Rise Up

MF: In terms of the participation of women, it is important to have affirmative action, which the Greens and the Labor Party do have, to remove barriers. Given the wider sexism and inequalities in society, it is the women of colour who suffer even more. We know about the reduced life span of Indigenous women. When we talk about women as a group, again we are generalizing and missing the dissimilarities in terms of the levels of discrimination faced by say, women of colour, transgender women, or refugee women.

SK: When the recent Women’s March happened across the world, do you think that glossed over the differences?

MF: I went with my daughter to the Sydney march, and was pretty inspired and energized by it. You could see huge diversity of people (women and others) in that march. But, I think our challenge now is to harness that energy and excitement, and actually do something with it. Our challenge is to come together and unite. It does matter that we recognize the issues that a white woman faces are quite different to the issues that an Indigenous woman or a woman of colour faces. We have to acknowledge that, but that acknowledgement doesn’t mean we are divided.


SK: What is the best way then for white or Anglo women to express solidarity with Indigenous women, women or colour, and LGBTIQ communities?

MF: What is most important is to hear and listen to those women. I think it is the voices of those women that need to be heard from the horse’s mouth, as they say. To give you an example, when I came to Parliament, I decided to host a Women’s Day breakfast in parliament every year. Because we had feedback over time, we decided to make it only for women and those who identify as women. We did face a bit of criticism for that. For the speakers on that day, it was really important that they include women of colour. That has now become very popular, and is only one example of how we can do things.


SK: Are role models still important?

MF: It does make a difference because people see it. In the long term, it will only make a difference of those women actually work hard for the rights of others. It is great that we have a female Premier now, but what are the actually going to do for the rest of the women.


Image of street art in Italy obtained by Creative Commons from Flickr

Image of street art in Italy obtained by Creative Commons from Flickr


Muslims, Anti-racism and Door-knocking

SK: What do you make of the controversy over the billboard featuring two young Muslim girls wearing Australian-flag imprinted hijabs?

MF: I felt very strongly about the billboard being taken down in the first place because of the threats from very conservative right-wing groups. But, the other issue of raising money and putting that billboard back is one that I have divided views on. I am definitely in the ‘change the date’ camp as I feel that it is ludicrous to celebrate Australia Day when we shattered Indigenous people on the day.

There are so many things to celebrate about Australia, and we should do it on a day where everyone can enjoy it.

I have another issue with the symbolism with regards to Muslims. We are just like any other group, so why do we have to be perfect, and why do we have to be used as a symbol for certain things? On the other hand, when some incident happens which has negative connotations, the media is very quick to pinpoint if the person associated was a Muslim. We are diverse, like any other community in Australia.

It is a complex issue, and people often ask me what they should do to help eliminate racism and Islamophobia. It is not an easy question to answer as there is no one thing that you can do. I know that there in a Greens Councillor in Brisbane who is door-knocking his constituents, and actually talking about racism. I’ve always believed that grassroots conversations are the best way to change opinions.

SK: And whose responsibility is it to initiate or have those conversations?

MF: I think society as a whole has to carry that burden. The so-called political leaders in Australia haven’t helped much. We’ve seen Liberal Party MPs, for instance, making racist comments, and others not being critical of it.

At the end of the day, change always comes from the people, and it always will. I started door-knocking five or six years ago when I got really involved with the Greens, and it is a scary thing to do. At the same time, it restored my confidence in humanity. I was so surprised that most people are just nice. Yes, I did have doors shut on me, and people say to me that ‘you are not even from here, why are you involved in Australian politics’, but these were few and far between.

My resolution for this year is to have the hard conversations. We often tend to move around with people who think like us, and in political parties, that is even more so. We’ve got to get out of our bubbles where we furiously agree with each other. How else will we broaden the movement for change?


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22/07/16 Arts & Culture , Australia , Society & Politics # , , , ,

On Anger, Empathy and Turning the Other Cheek: Notes on Responding to Racism

By Sukhmani Khorana

Schooled in the Indian system, I received a good dose of Gandhian philosophy, and official historical accounts of his entwinement in the anti-colonial struggle in the subcontinent. As a ten-year old, I remember being particular struck when I read about his strategy of passive resistance, namely, when someone slaps you, turn your other cheek towards them in a bid to curb their aggression. I know this idea comes from Christian doctrine, but it just happened to come to us via Gandhi first.

I was reminded of this while trying to unpack Waleed Aly’s recent #SendForigivenessViral editorial on Channel Ten’s The Project in response to media celebrity Sonia Kruger’s clearly Islamophobic comments. While I concede the value of ‘having a bigger heart’ in inter-personal conflicts for the sake of one’s own well-being, I am not sure that self-help dogma should be uncritically applied to growing systemic problems like racism. At the same time, I don’t want to entirely dismiss the role of symbolic measures of solidarity such as the Halal Snack Pack offered to Pauline Hanson by Labor Senator of Iranian descent, Sam Dastyari in the wake the One Nation Party founder’s return to senate. Perhaps we need to learn to distinguish between ignorance, insult, and benign attempts to foster community, and respond accordingly.

An example of the above came to light when Pakistani-born NSW Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi posted an image of an inflammatory comment on her public Facebook page that she couldn’t possibly ‘forgive’. While she usually curates these sexist and racist slurs in a satirical album called ‘Love Letters to Mehreen’, there are some that don’t even deserve a joke. If you have ever had an egg thrown at you on the basis of how you dress or look, you probably know what I mean. If you really do manage to call for more eggs under the circumstances, you are either superhuman or have an enormously diminished sense of smell.


Credit: Dr Mehreen Faruqi’s public Facebook page

What I am suggesting is that violence and passivity are not the only two possible responses to bigotry. Also, anger need not be conflated with aggression when it comes to tackling structural problems produced by decades, if not centuries of oppression. As cultural studies scholar Sara Ahmed argues in her essay on ‘Feminist Killjoys’, ‘Political struggles can takes place over the causes of unhappiness’. Isn’t it far more conducive to channelise one’s natural anger over the discrimination of certain groups to legitimate and non-violent protest, than to forgive individual perpetrators of racism and never address the system that produces them?

In a similar vein, not all manifestations of empathy are vacuous. As researchers, activists, politicians, social workers or politically-minded artists, people often begin with an experience of personal hardship or witness someone else’s, and move from empathy to reason and action in a journey that becomes their career or vocation. My research on the reception of refugee documentaries in Australia constantly comes up with the ‘finding’ that even left-wing identifying individuals prefer asylum seeker narratives that invoke emotions with stories that have a silver lining. Again, what could be productive, going forward, is to understand under what conditions these affective responses turn into catalysts for collective responsibility and action.

And finally, what do we make of symbolic gestures of solidarity with marginalised groups that often seem to coalesce around items of food or food culture? Let’s not put every institutionally-funded Harmony Day on a political pedestal. Still, it is a relief to see grassroots initiatives, both online and offline, that aim to educate, celebrate or merely offer an alternative to the demonisation of Halal-certified food. Besides the now well-known ‘Halal Snack Pack Appreciation Society’ on Facebook, there are various food businesses around Australia that train and employ former refugees and offer less patronising possibilities in the discourse of ‘welcoming diversity’. Still, lets not mistake these gestures for a full-blown revolution, or use them as a substitute for socio-political change in the longer term.

So, are there any circumstances under which those of us at the receiving end of racism (implicit or explicit) should offer the other cheek? It would be far better, depending on the nature of the bigotry, to protest with a placard, or educate over a kebab. Having said that, those with privilege have more options.

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12/04/16 Diaspora & Travel , Society & Politics # , , , ,

First Impressions of South Asian Minorities in Hong Kong: When my intersectionality axis went for a spin

When I saw Hindi cinema actor Anupam Kher play a jeweler in Hong Kong in the critically acclaimed Ang Lee film Lust, Caution (2007), my interest was piqued. It made sense, I thought, given the British colonial connection. However, I had read or heard little about the Indian diaspora there, especially compared with its presence in neighbouring South-east Asian nations such as Malaysia and Singapore.


During my recent trip to the island for the Hong Kong Film Festival, I stayed in Tsim Sha Tsui, a district with a high concentration of businessmen and traders of South Asian origin. This in itself in not surprising, and I have previously encountered ‘ethnic enclaves’ during many a visit to ‘multicultural’ cities of the Global North, such as London, Paris and Toronto. What I was unprepared to see or experience, though, was the racial hierarchy that South Asians seem to deal with despite being long-term residents of Hong Kong.


It also so happens that my Hong Kong-based friend and colleague, Lisa Leung, has written a book with John Erni on the history and contemporary conditions of South Asian minorities on the isle. According to them, it took a decade of campaigning before Hong Kong’s first anti-discrimination legislation, known as the Race Discrimination Ordinance (RDO), was passed in 2008. Given this is a recent legislation, perhaps it is not surprising that there are many more battles to be won in the spheres of education, employment, social well-being, and everyday conviviality.


Almost two weeks after my visit, I am still swinging between outrage and intellectual curiosity with regards to how non-Chinese minorities (constituting six per cent of the population) in general are treated in Hong Kong. This is not because I was the subject of any personal slights, or faced any overt discrimination in the course of my social and economic exchanges as a tourist. Yet, as I walked down Nathan Road and passed South Asian tailors and their sales reps beckoning Anglo tourists, my intersectionality axis was going for a bit of a spin. I wondered why the brown man had to dress in an impeccable suit to look respectable, while the white male traveller could traverse the streets of a rather fashionable class-conscious society in thongs and shorts. Of course it helps to dress well when you own a tailoring business, but pre-determined assumptions about class and race were getting entangled here before a conversation had even begun. Perhaps Macaulay, famous for his ‘Minute Upon Indian Education’ that was responsible for the introduction of the English language and curriculum in British India, would be slyly smiling in his grave at the sight of such postcolonial mimicry.


On a closer examination though, this is more than mere mimicry. Several generations of South Asians in Hong Kong have been engaged in the same businesses as their forefathers, and this varies from the employment patterns of Indian and South Asian diasporic groups in comparable countries (including Australia). Leung and Erni’s research shows that ethnic businesses in Hong Kong have come to reflect a minoritization of ethnic minorities from the mainstream. At the same time, at the height of the city’s ‘umbrella revolution’ in 2014, some coverage suggested that Hong Kong’s ethnic minority youth also took to the streets in the name of democracy. However, segregation in schools on the basis of ethno-linguistic origin continues, and impacts not only future economic opportunities, but also feelings of belonging.


As I have a chat with my AirBnB host, also a descendant of Indian migrants on the last day of my visit, I am struck by how much he is in awe of Australia. He recalls his days as a hospitality student in the Blue Mountains with such wistfulness that it momentarily makes me forget our own problems with racialization of Indigenous and migrant communities. His reverie is nonetheless useful in helping me think about the contextualised meanings of non-whiteness.


While whiteness may have becomes a universal signifier of sorts, especially when travelling in the Global South, can we say the same about brownness, blackness, or even yellowness? In my case, especially when travelling on my own, questions about my ethnicity and how it is perceived vary greatly and often depend on the dominant culture’s discourse. While this discourse may be inflected by whiteness and/or colonial hierarchies, as is the case in Hong Kong, it is also a locally-bred phenomenon. Given this, we need to find a language to critique the racism of any dominant culture without subjecting the members of that culture who happen to be minorities in other contexts to the same racialised discourse. This would entail developing a practice-based understanding of intersectionality that universalizes and particularizes experiences and identities with care.


We may be inevitably South Asian by descent, but this should not be a barrier to belonging in an affective and political sense to other places where we live, study, work, and socialize. In other words, we can be more by consent, and this is a right sometimes implicitly withheld.

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18/08/15 Australia , Society & Politics # , , , , , , , , ,

Nahin Hindi Kuch Nahin

Nahin Hindi Kuch Nahin

By Gary Paramanathan

Growing up brown in the Western Suburbs of Sydney in the 90s was PTSD level trauma at worst, and character building at best. For those who were lucky enough to share this wonderful experience with me, you’ll know that the West was not what it is now. Parramatta the heartland of Western Sydney for example never had an Eat Street back then. If it did, I never found it with my own eyes as I looked past the flashing neon lights of the franchisee run take away joints. There was the old Westfields, there were odd shops along the station, and there were the video game stores that were my little safe haven amongst the chaos, aggression and the downtrodden folks in the capital of the West. Blacktown, Cabramatta and many of the buzzing hubs of the West today were on the South Asian version of the “do not travel” advisory guide.

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21/07/15 Diaspora & Travel , Society & Politics # , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I Am Half Spanish

I Am Half Spanish

By Gary Paramanathan

My best friend and I have this running joke, I’ll say “I’m half Spanish” and she’ll ask “which half?” usually this rapport is met with slight amusement or dismay by the rest of our friends. I am not half Spanish, I’m entirely Sri Lankan (whatever that means?) So why this joke? It is our special little jab, we pull it out when we sense someone is in denial of his or her South Asianess.  By in denial, I mean trying to fabricate an identity that is a bit more mainstream, more appealing, and more special than the average South Asian. This kind of identity transition seems important especially in the dating world, where “mixed” is in and single origin is out. You only have to browse through any of the top dating apps to see South Asians, readily selecting “mixed” heritage.

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02/06/15 Arts & Culture , Australia , Diaspora & Travel , Society & Politics # , , , , , , ,

’Why Do Indians Smell?’ The Case for the Self-Referential Racist Joke

’Why Do Indians Smell?’ The Case for the Self-Referential Racist Joke

By Sumedha Iyer


“Why do Indians smell? So blind people can hate them too.” My mother told me that joke when I was in my early teens. I was both offended and energised by it. This sucks, that smelly Indian person could be me! But it’s my mum too, and she’s telling the joke. Which is delicious. Like samosas and chutney. Wait, that’s a stereotype. Am I being racist? My head hurts.

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