“Feminist, Engineer, Migrant”

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Words || Shivani Srivastava

Dr Mehreen Faruqi does not follow the story of your average New South Wales politician. Emigrating from Pakistan in 1992, she completed studies in environmental engineering, and worked as an engineer and as an academic before moving into politics. In 2013 Dr Faruqi joined the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Greens, becoming the first female Muslim member of parliament. After her appointment into the Senate in 2018, Dr Faruqi was re-elected this year as a senator for New South Wales.

Senator Faruqi has been a long time activist and outspoken advocate for the ‘pro-choice’ movement, the environment and animal welfare among other things. In 2016, she introduced a bill to decriminalise abortion in New South Wales which was ultimately defeated in the Lower House. As the 2019 bill to decriminalise abortion has passed the Lower House and the Senate prepares to discuss and vote on the amendment, Senator Faruqi discusses her role as an activist and destigmatising abortion in New South Wales.

What do you think started your interest in activism?

Growing up in Pakistan, I was lucky enough to be from a family where my father was adamant his two sons and two daughters would go to university. This wasn’t just because he hoped for us to get good jobs. For him, this was first and foremost about learning, opening our minds, thinking critically and making decisions by sifting through evidence.

Once your eyes are open to the injustices occurring on a daily basis – against First Nations people, women, people of colour, people with disability or LGBTQI people – activism becomes inevitable.

Activism is about challenging power, and my mother tells me I started doing that at an early age with constant questioning and my insistence that I be allowed to do the same things my two older brothers did – play cricket and fly kites. For me this was always about justice and equality. There are a growing number of people across the world who are fighting for just that in their workplaces and local communities. They may not consider themselves activists, but they are.

Senator Faruqi, you are the first female Muslim senator in Australia, you describe yourself as a ‘Feminist, Engineer, Migrant’. What effect have these experiences had on you as a person and as a senator?

Identity is important. I am who I am because of the many influences and experiences I’ve had throughout the wonderful twists and turns of my life, from my Pakistani and Muslim upbringing, my closeness with a ferociously feminist aunt, my education and career as a civil and environmental engineer, and, of course, the big decision to a move to a new country.

There is no doubt being a migrant Muslim woman of colour in politics is challenging, especially at a time when your belonging to the place you call home in relentlessly questioned and you face increasing demands to ‘Go back to where you come from’. But I refuse to give in to racism and sexism.

I’ve embraced all parts of my life. I will not be limited by how others want to label me, but defined by who I am. I am unapologetically feminist. Engineering has been a profession that provided me with opportunities to work in local government, as a researcher and academic. As a first generation migrant to Australia, I am proud to join so many others who’ve contributed to this country. These are the life experiences that inform my work as a Senator.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with embracing all the things that make us who we are and being damn proud of them.

Do you think we have done enough to encourage women into leadership positions in the workforce but also specifically in parliament?

The evidence is pretty clear that as a society we still have some way to go before we achieve gender equality. I was quite shocked to find out when I was sworn in that I was only the hundredth woman to serve in the Senate.

After the most recent election, there has been an increase in the proportion of women in the Commonwealth Parliament, but we are still at only 36.6%. It is really frustrating that in 2019 we have only just cleared the one third mark.

Obviously, there is no lack of talented women who can be politicians and are more than capable of being leaders, but patriarchal structures create barriers that make it harder. Gendered expectations of what women can and can’t do, a lack of political networks and ‘boys clubs’ all hamper women’s participation. 

As much as we still need to dismantle structural barriers, we also need to form new alliances and support networks. My hope is that women across party lines can join together to make this a priority.

Do you think women of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (‘CALD’) face additional hurdles in breaking the ‘glass ceiling’? What should we be doing to overcome this issue?

Absolutely. Of the 227 MPs in Canberra, just 22 were born overseas, just 9 were born of non-European parents and just 5 are Indigenous Australians. I think the proportion of those that are both women and from CALD backgrounds would be miniscule.

We live in an incredibly diverse society so why is that not reflected in our parliament? We know that whenever people of colour and especially women of colour enter the public spotlight, it is usually followed by sustained racism and sexism. That turns a lot of people away from pursuing politics. It really troubles me that ordinary citizens in a democratic society feel disempowered to participate in politics. 

I know from first hand experience that, as a migrant, getting involved in politics seems like the last thing you want to do. Your focus is on settling in, and building a new life which takes time and hard work. But democracy should be for everyone who lives here, not just the privileged few who have established networks and access to politics. We need to overcome the barriers that hold some of us back just because including more support for migrants moving to Australia. 

Senator Faruqi, you have been a long-standing advocate for decriminalising abortion in NSW, why do you think this is an important issue? Is this something that only affects women?

It is unacceptable that in the 21st century we are shackled by century-old laws that criminalise women for making decisions about their bodies.

That is why I made it a priority to bring this issue back on to the public and political agenda and break the silence that has stigmatized abortion. I worked with the community across NSW, with doctors, lawyers, health professionals, academics and women’s groups for years to bring the first bill to decriminalise abortion and create safe access to NSW parliament.

Of course, as a woman, abortion law reform is personal as well. We, and no one else, should be able to make our own health choices without fear or the burden of criminality hanging over our heads.

This is a real problem in New South Wales. If a person has the money and lives in an urban centre like Sydney, they probably will not have a lot of problems accessing a pregnancy termination. But what about women in Broken Hill, Walgett or Moree? People who do not live on the east coast are hard-pressed to find a specialist clinic. Access to terminations in public hospitals is largely based on the luck of the draw, dependent on a particular hospital’s policy and even the opinion of the particular treating physician a person is allocated. Would we accept this for any other health matter? I think not.

 Everybody should have the right to bodily autonomy and everyone, including trans and other gender diverse people, who require access to reproductive health services should have unambiguous legal rights to do so.

How will things change once abortion is decriminalised in NSW?

I have my fingers and toes crossed in hope that the current bill passes NSW Parliament. It will be a huge step forward, but we can’t pretend it is the end of the campaign. I am deeply concerned by some of the amendments that were accepted. There should be a community campaign to push back on these arbitrary limits to women’s autonomy. 

Once the bill is passed, we must move to swiftly address issues of limited abortion access for women, especially in rural and regional areas and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, migrant women and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Access to reproductive health shouldn’t be a geographical, racial or class lottery. All public hospitals should offer pregnancy termination services through bulk billing so that no one is left out of pocket. That’s the next frontier for the abortion rights campaign. 

What advice do you have for the younger generation, or for people still at university?

One of my favourite portfolio areas is ‘Education’ and as a former academic, TAFE and University are close to my heart. It is our collective responsibility to build a movement that unashamedly asserts higher education as a public good and universities as life-making, not profit making.

This is possible. We just have to get our priorities right, and we need to create political will. While there is always some apathy, pessimism and cynicism about politics, there is much room for hope and excitement. 

There’s huge momentum for change. Just look at the school students striking for action on climate change, or the extinction rebellion movement, or movements like the Green New Deal in the US, lead by young congress women who are championing social and environmental justice as two sides of the same coin igniting a spark of hope.

Social and political change has been and, perhaps, will always be hard fought. But I will say this; if you keep at it – it’s going to happen.