Words || Alicia Scott
Dr. Mehreen Faruqi is a Greens MP in the NSW Legislative Council. When elected into parliament in 2013, she became the first Muslim woman to have ever been a member of any Australian parliament, and continuously stands up against Islamophobic sentiment. Mehreen holds a whopping ten portfolios for the NSW Greens – including environment, status of women, and animal welfare – and represents a strong voice for progressive politics statewide. Despite receiving torrents of sexist and racist abuse every day, Mehreen’s resolute strength and compassion in the face of bigotry is empowering to see in today’s political climate.
Thank you for speaking with me today. You recently hosted Diaspora Symposium: Refugees and Asylum Seekers, which brought together leaders to discuss ways to promote a human approach to asylum seekers in Australia. Why is this issue close to your heart?
Thank you so much for inviting me for a chat. I grew up in Pakistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it has taken millions of refugees fleeing horrific circumstances. It is shameful that a rich country like Australia won’t provide a safe haven to a few thousand people who need it most. Any response to people seeking asylum has to be based on respect, compassion, and safety, not the cruelty and punishment that is being sanctioned by our governments.
You migrated to Australia from Pakistan in 1992. What was your experience like setting up a new life in Sydney and Port Macquarie?
When I migrated to Australia almost 25 years ago with my husband and one-year old son, we did feel welcome. Our experience living in the small coastal town of Port Macquarie was by and large positive. While we would experience some forms of discrimination because of our ethnicity, we did not face a rising tide of racism and hate towards immigrants and Muslims that is becoming more mainstream. Of course, I would be lying if I said all this was easy, because it wasn’t.
You’ve witnessed Pauline Hanson’s roller coaster ride into politics. As a South-Asian Muslim migrant, do you feel targeted by Hanson’s hateful speech?
I am one of the tiny 2.2 per cent of Australians who are Muslim, and even if we were one homogenous mob, it’s hard to understand how we could be swamping Australia! Senator Pauline Hanson’s claims, while not factual, both play into and fuel the existing islamophobia in our society today. This bigotry has been going on for some time, including dog whistling from both major parties on asylum seekers, and the halal certification hysteria. While I’m not surprised by her sentiment, I can’t deny that it is confronting when my belonging to my adopted home is challenged so blatantly.
Your recent social media project saw you respond to racist, sexist, and Islamophobic trolls by posting satirical ‘love letters’ on Facebook. How did you come up with that idea?
The volume of racist, sexist, and downright violent messages I get has been steadily increasing since I’ve taken up my role as Greens MP. It doesn’t matter what campaign I’m running – banning greyhound racing, abortion law reform, standing up for refugees – the abuse just keeps flowing in. Reading hate mail is not only quite distressing for my team and me, but there is a danger that it becomes normalised.
The ‘love letters’ project emerged as a way of exposing what many in society experience, but we did it in a way that cuts through. We turned to the sentiment expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Combatting bigotry and xenophobia is ongoing work. We have a few more projects up our sleeves but I won’t do the big reveal just year!
Speaking of projects, tell me about the important campaign you are leading called ‘End12.’
In 2016, abortion sits in the Crimes Act in NSW. It really does boggle my mind that in the 21st century we are still ruled by archaic, century old laws dictating women’s ability to make reproductive health choices. My bill is the first-ever in the history of NSW to attempt to repeal Division 12 of the NSW Crimes Act and decriminalise abortion. There is massive support in the community to do this, the campaign is gaining momentum and politicians need to align with this sentiment. This will not be an easy task, but one that has to be done.
Before you entered politics, you spent most of your life studying and working as an engineer. What advice would you give to woman students entering male-dominated STEM fields?
I come from a family of engineers and am a true ‘engineering tragic!’ My dad used to say, “Engineers can do anything and everything.” Engineering and science are great education and career choices, which are crucial to understanding and solving the big issues we face today like climate change and health. Hopefully young women pursuing these courses can be role models for the next generation and encourage more girls in school to choose STEM subjects.
One of the portfolios you hold is transport. Macquarie University station would have to shut in 2018-19 while the Sydney North West link between Rouse Hill and Chatswood is built. How will MQ students be affected by affected by Baird’s privatised plan?
The Sydney North West rail link is the beginning of the privatisation of our public rail network. The Epping to Chatswood line was completed just a few years ago at the cost of $2.4 billion to the public. It defies all engineering, transport, and economic logic to spend billions more to privatise it. This will also mean shutting down the line for up to twelve months, forcing passengers to travel on replacement buses. As our roads are already congested, this will add more travel time for students and others previously using the train service
Final question. If you could share a halal snack pack with any Australian politician (past or present), who would it be and why?
Why not go straight to the top? I’d love to have a discussion with Malcolm Turnbull about authentic leadership, one that builds consensus not division. What is unfolding before us is a toxic ‘divide and rule’ model on serious matters such as marriage equality, renewable energy, and social cohesion. This is not the type of leadership Australians want or need. What better way to do it than over an HSP? Of course, the HSP would have to be vegetarian and in environmentally-friendly packaging.