You were the NSW parliament’s only Muslim woman, then Australia’s first female Muslim senator. Is being the “first and only” an honour or a drag? It’s a privilege and an honour. I get a lot of support from the subcontinental community and Muslim community. But often people use my religion to berate me. Muslims are seen through a very different lens to other people of faith. The first question I was asked by the media when I became an MP was how I would reconcile my religion and the Greens’ positions on LGBTQI equality. Those sorts of questions are not asked of Christian MPs.
Tell me about the rhythms of Islam in your life. I don’t drink alcohol. I fast during Ramadan. I celebrate Eid. I pray sometimes. The one way I have changed since moving here is that I’ve started swearing a lot.
I think that’s called assimilation. [Laughs] I resisted for a long time! I apologised to Mum when I started swearing publicly, but sometimes I have no better other words to portray what goes on in politics.
You need so much self-belief to be a politician. Do you ever doubt yourself? I didn’t used to doubt myself, but the constant racism, sexism and questioning of my belonging to Australia has made me do so. It’s a hard thing, because this is my home. I’ve been here almost 30 years. For me, the way of dealing with [racists and sexists] is to fall back on the integrity and ethics instilled in me by my elders. Especially one aunt, who had a huge influence on me. A fabulous feminist, she taught me to have the spirit to speak up when I saw injustice happening around me.
You’ve received death threats. One you mention in your book – someone threatening to “put a bullet in your head” – is particularly shocking. My staff are distressed by this hate, abuse and vilification. So many other women of colour and Muslim women who are in the public eye go through similar threats of violence. Over time – and especially after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US – things have gotten worse. Politicians have used fear to dog-whistle, to divide society, to harvest votes. There’s been open racism in Parliament, but people have been standing on the sidelines, not calling it out. The right-wing media has got much worse. And we know far-right extremism is increasing in Australia.
Tell me about someone you have lost who defined your life for the better. Once you migrate, you become even more afraid of relatives dying. You dread that late-night phone call because you’re so far away. And in Islam, people are buried within 24 hours. My father is one of those people I miss desperately, even now. He died in 2004. He was an engineer and me and my siblings, all four of us, followed in his footsteps and became civil engineers. He was so black and white about integrity. For him, either you had it or you didn’t. I really do miss him.
You inevitably make enemies in politics. Is there anyone you wish was dead? Oh, my God, no, I would never wish death on anyone. That’s not part of who I am. I do wish some of them would leave politics and disappear, though.
How do you want to be remembered? As someone who was kind, caring, loving and compassionate, which was my mother’s mantra. And as a brilliant cook!
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