That’s how Yassmin’s bio on Twitter runs. When we saw her talk at the panel on cultural appropriation it was evident why she might be seen as a trouble-maker, most of the times it’s because she speaks the truth and does not flinch. She talks with fervour about rascism, the implicit unconscious bias that white supremacy breeds, about intersectionality in feminism, and she does not crunch words or sugarcoat. She is fighting for what she believes in, ‘fighting the good fight’, and is trying to change how the world looks at Muslims, and Muslim women. Yassmin is single-handedly trying to change the world, and we are all for it.
Her Ted Talk ‘What does my headscarf mean to you?’ is a thought-provoking insight into how and why we view people around us the way we do, and in her memoir ‘Yassmin’s Story: Who do you think I am?’ she takes us on a delightful journey through her childhood and teen years, up till now, and through her eyes we see the world look at us as muslims, and it’s harrowing, overwhleming, but then we also look at Islam through her eyes and it is hopeful and full of positivity and acceptance and peace.
While she was hustling from one panel to other, interview to interview, we got her to talk to us for about 20 minutes, and it was glorius. She spoke about cultural appropriation, being a Muslim woman in Australia, how to deal with guys who play the devil’s advocate, and why she recommends reading ‘How to win friends and influence people’. And might we just add, she has impeccable fashion sense, and the first thing we thought when we saw her be was ‘She a beyonce.’
Here’s the full interview for you to read, enjoy, think about, and have fun with:
Tanvi: Should we begin?
T: So i wanted to ask you about something you brought up in the panel on cultural appropriation, and they said they’ll pick it up later but never did. You talked about going from one class to another and what the dynamic is like. (Y: Mm) Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah look I think class is one of the things that in many of these social movements we forget about, or unless the movement itself is about class, we dont really talk about, and I think feminism is a massive one. But the reason I brought it up in the panel was because it’s something i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, in the sense that the class my family is from-even though in Sudan they weren’t in a separate class-when they came to Australia it was different, and also the class of the community, the Sudanese community in Australia is one that is lower. The challenges facing people are more about being able to get jobs, being able to look after their kids and so on. So it’s a much more survival kind of challenge than it is about being on boards or being CEOs, the challenges are about ‘I’m being beaten up by my husband and I don’t have financial security so I can’t leave.’
“It isn’t to say that because I’m born one thing or because I am one thing, I can’t necessarily understand or empathize with another, but it is acknowledgment that I no longer face those issues on a daily basis.”
And I think it’s a fascinating question around ‘Do you have the right to talk about something that you used to be?’ And it’s something that I’ve been personally challenged on. I have benefits now because I have a platform-a writing platform, because I have money to be able to travel and to be able to do things with, I have financial independence. I no longer face the same issues that many Muslim women in Australia may face in their communities. So do I have the right to speak about it? I’m not sure, I’m not sure. I think it’s something that I have to a) be constantly sort of checking your privilege and I often talk about checking your privilege cuz I think as we are constantly changing the answer is constantly changing. But also it isn’t to say that because I’m born one thing or because I am one thing, I can’t necessarily understand or empathize with another, but it is acknowledgment that I no longer face those issues on a daily basis. So it’s no longer ‘this is my experience’, it can be ‘this was my experience and these are the challenges I did face;this is how I got out of it and this is why I know its so important that we continue fighting that fight.’ But if we’re not aware of it then we do to others what has been done to us.
Kimaya: That reminds me, I was sitting next to this woman at the first panel, and we got talking about you (and your book). And she is from Melbourne, (Y: Mm) she was born and brought up in Mumbai, but now she’s Australian. She was talking about how a person like you is so necessary in Australia right now. She said ‘Yassmin is an unconventional Muslim.’ (Y: hmmm) What’s the situation of Muslims and towards Muslims in Australia right now?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah. So the thing is there aren’t there many Muslims in Australia to begin with. So a) Muslims don’t have a huge population b) they’re largely in a lower socio-economic (class), a majority of them came as refugees and there’s inter-generational disadvantage there. c) (Muslims) are disproportionately oppressed because of what is happening in the global environment, so like ISIS and Trump and Brexit, all these things and immigration. We also have a terrible offshore asylum seeker processing policy, which is like a proxy for the challenges people have with brown people such as Muslims coming in our country and changing our culture blablababla. So what we essentially have in australia is a society that had a white Australian policy until the mid-seventies, so it’s broadly quite white, has no real acknowledgement of its history, so it doesn’t really talk about the indigenous issues, and it’s largely been isolated from major issues because it’s far away and nobody (except the Japanese in the second world war) had too much of an issue.
But people because of changes economic and so on are more mortified and politicians have used fear to exploit the differences between mainstream community and the Muslim community, and the only examples of Muslims that are in the press (it’s a long way of getting to this point) are largely traditional people that kinda don’t do us any good. You get like the old chief that doesn’t necessarily speak very- like the English is not Australian English. The only things you hear about Muslim people in the news are terrorism or burkini, people wanting to ban the burka, corruption in the Islamic Council’s money, etc etc. It’s largely negative and largely to do with terrorism. All of that is really irrelevant, the point is really that mainstream Australians don’t have exposure to Muslims and the only picture they have of Muslims in their mind are conservative and traditional.
“This is the battle that I face that within my own community, because I am unconventional, that is seen as sometimes not good enough, right? ‘You need to be a certain type of Muslim in order to be the right type of Muslim.’ But the reality is that there is one-point-something billion Muslims. We’re not all the same.”
But the reality is there are loads of Muslims in Australia that aren’t conservative/traditional, and that’s valuable a) for the mainsteam community to know that there isn’t just one type of Muslim, but b) for the Muslims growing up in Australia to also understand you don’t have to look like one type of thing to be a Muslim. And this is the battle that I face that within my own community, because i am unconventional, that is seen as sometimes not good enough, right. ‘You need to be a certain type of Muslim in order to be the right type of Muslim.’ But the reality is that there is one-point-something billion Muslims. We’re not all the same. There’s definitely room to be unconventional and different and there’s definitely an Australian-Muslim identity that just hasn’t been crafted yet. And we dont like have the luxury in places like America where you have generations of Muslims or the UK, where everyone’s got a Muslim friend. Most Australians don’t have Muslim friends, so they have no exposure, so it’s kind of about trying to show an alternative.
K: Going back to cultural appropriation. You sort of touched on this in the earlier panel. How would you define the thin line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation? When does exchange turn in to appropriation?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Mm-mm-mm. I mean , great question. I think (cultural appropriation) is definitely something that constantly needs to be interrogated and there’s no criteria, there is not a definitive checklist but number one is to think about intention and the other thing is ‘Is the intention one that is immersed in respect of the culture and its people?’ or ‘Is the intention one that feels superior therefore has the entitlement to take anything else from another culture?’ And I think this sense of entitlement is what fuels things like colonialism. So when you appropriate, you feel entitled to somebody else’s culture and furthermore you feel like you may know better or that the other culture doesn’t have the right to question your appropriation of it then you’re into problematic territory. Something that frustrates me a lot is this kind of concept that there’s only one type of civilization and there’s only one type of doing things right. There’s more ways to be right, more than one way to exist. What is right in India isn’t necessarily the same as what is right in Australia. Yes there maybe human rights that underpin it all but there maybe different ways in thinking. Just cuz you don’t like it and you don’t understand it doesn’t mean its wrong.
T: Sometimes it’s difficult to judge whether something’s appropriation or not. Like here I see white women wearing bindis, for instance. (Y: yeah yeah yeah) And i’m confused like maybe they should be allowed to do this? Like or is it okay? Is it not?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I mean that’s a tough one. I think Indian culture, the various cultures within Indian culture, whatever you want to define that as is one that has been appropriated a lot- I know my cousins in Sudan appropriate Indian culture. My cousin wore a saree at her engagement and I’m like—- I don’t know how I feel about this. But at the same time I feel that it is different to a white woman wearing a saree. And I can’t quite understand why. But I think maybe it is about the history. It is about colonial history and whether we like it or not that definitely has an impact on how we see these things now. But I think if a white woman is wearing a bindi, ‘Is (the white woman) wearing (the bindi) beacuse she has thought about it and she recongnizes it’s cultural um significance and she’s doing it out of respect, or is she wearing it because she’s going to a party and she wants to look cool?’ And kind of like interrogating those things and being like ‘Hey if you’re wearing it because you think it looks cool just be aware that it’s not necessarily okay. And if somebody tells you that it’s not necessarily okay, don’t get defensive, be humble enough to accept that you might be doing the wrong thing.’ It’s that defensiveness that then puts other poeple out. And you don’t have the right to be defensive about something because it’s actually not yours to begin with. You kind of have to encourage everyone to be like ‘Alright, take a step back, check yourself’. Are our intentions pure and of respect and of empathy? Or are they about I want to do whatever I want to?
T: This is kind of a personal question about. You must be encountering people who always play the devil’s advocate whenever you bring up stuff about feminism or cultural appropriation or being Muslim, usually men, don’t want to generalize, (Y & K: *laugh*, Y: yeah) who will play the devil’s advocate and who will not listen to you how do you sort of personally deal with that? Isn’t it frustrating?
K: I saw how you responded to those white men in the earlier panel (Y & T: *laugh heartily*) it was really sort of amusing the way they were trying to argue.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: And you like you see their behaviour automatically becomes very defensive, right. Because they see as a personal attack. 1) I try and understand where they’re coming from because if I dont understand where they’re coming from, I can never beat their own game. so 1) is taking the time to listen. Sometimes it’s bloody frustrating. So personally the way I deal with it is through humour. That is how I have found ways to deal with it, to kind of make light of something that is very difficult or tricky. And also to never take it too personally. Because often it’s not about me, it’s about themselves and their own issues and there are very few people whose opinoins I actually care about. When it gets too much, I essentially opt out for a little while and regroup and I go back to the people who sustain me and I go back to the stuff that nourishes me, that whole self-care thing. And then i go back out into the world.
Cuz everyone’s want to play the devil’s advocate but the reality is the more haters I have the more I know that I am on the right path. Like no big change is happening where everyone’s like ‘Yayyyy!’, so there’s always people who defend the status quo.
“Everyone wants to play the devil’s advocate but the reality is the more haters I have the more I know that I am on the right path.”
K: So what according to you is the book or books that are most relevant to our times right now?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Ooof! Ooof! Most relevant to our times. If you want to understand race in Australia, the book I would recommend is called ‘The Hate Race’ by Maxime Beneba Clarke. She writes about growing up as a black girl in Australia and western Sydney, and that’s a heartwrenching but very interesting book. I reckon, Ta-Nehisi Coates. For me race and gender are the things that I think about a lot. So Jimmy Baldwin’s an author to read. Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’’s really interesting. He’s fascinating. I think one of the things we don’t talk about enough is what globally are the causes or roots of the issues we’re facing and it’s about the framework in which our society’s structured, and we don’t question the framework, we don’t see that we’re all playing this sandbox and we’re trying to fix what’s going on but not outside the sandbox. So I think the neo-liberal order that we’re in is one that isn’t perfect and it’s showing its cracks and we need to understand it well in order to be able to figure out what to do about it. Ummm what esle? Uuumm. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Yeah. The heart of social change is about getting people on your side, and involved in the movement. You might have the best arguement but people don’t like listening to you if people think you’re a dickhead, excuse my French. Activism is as much about cultivating a movement of people that are invested in you and the issues that you care about as much as the argument itself.
“You might have the best arguement but people don’t like listening to you if people think you’re a dickhead, excuse my French. Activism is as much about cultivating a movement of people that are invested in you and the issues that you care about as much as the argument itself.”
For me, this is my personal view, the delivery and the performance is how you get people involved and then you get them kind of hooked onto the argument and so on. That first human connection often comes through stories, through developing that little bit of empathy. I’ve made so many friends who are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum to me because I love motorsport. So when I sit down, I don’t talk to them about politics I talk to them about Formula One, becuz they’re not going to listen to me if I sat down and be like ‘Lemme tell you about feminism’. I have tried that, it doesn’t work. So you find ways to connect with people that are beyond the issue you care about and once you’ve created that connection then they’re interested in listening to you.
Article by Kimaya Kulkarni