media · podcast · race · us presidential election

Race podcast ‘In My Shoes’ as featured on ABC’s Radio National Earshot program

Check out Episode 1 and 2 of my new two-part race podcast ‘In My Shoes’ exploring race and identity in modern Australia featured on ABC’s Radio National program ‘Earshot’ here. You can also stream the podcast on itunes. Click on the hyperlink and scroll down to  Episode #37 and #41 to play.

Here’s the accompanying piece where I talk about the inspiration behind the program.

Sarah Malik reflects on the life experiences that led her to produce In My Shoes.

‘Migrants are ruining this country,’ he hissed. The words dropped like acid and felt like a punch in the gut. I turned to my desk, staring blankly at the screen, my ears burning with embarrassment.

I walked outside and ordered a coffee, staring at the cloudy foam swirls before going home to vent to my sister. He was an old man, irrelevant, a dinosaur, we fumed.

Perhaps it was a valuable insight to observe the last gasps of a Trumpian type in his natural habitat, we reasoned.

Now, against all predictions, the impossible has happened. Donald Trump is in the White House. There are reports of hate crimes being perpetrated against minorities across the US.

It feels like a slow corrosion of the soul to know these types of people have been emboldened by assent from the top.

I’m a journalist by trade. I also grew up as one of five children of Pakistani migrants in the western suburbs of Sydney.

I ate biryani with my hands and dutifully wore figure-concealing shalwar kameez. I left home at 20, entering the outside world in a kind of Muslim version of the Rumspringa.

But I always return; how many can resist what is familiar? It’s complicated negotiating the strange pull of what you love.

I was like a high-wire walker, trying to navigate traditional, working class Pakistani roots, a conservative religious culture, a largely white-dominated working environment — at the mercy of the changing political winds of a society that provided no mirror to my experience.

It felt like I was living two, three or four different lives, each with their subtle and sometimes strict codes of conformity.

My maladaptive default mechanism has always been to bury fear and unease deep inside, letting it coil up until I have the words to make sense of it, rather than risk confrontation and ostracism.

This was as true growing up within a cloistered culture as it has been living in a wider society that makes judgemental and clueless assumptions about that culture.

It has always felt unsafe, depleting and ultimately useless to risk confrontation with people I care about, people with power and people who will never know what it is to like to live with a constant sense of dislocation from my environment.

As a journalist I thought I had become inured to the weird and wacky, brushing off bluster with a laugh, but the rise of the far right feels personal.

All the individual kindness, consideration, art and thinkpieces in the world seem obsolete the world of Pauline Hanson, Trump and Brexit.

The In My Shoes documentary is an attempt to make sense of the experience of negotiating race in modern Australia. My intention is to put you in the shoes of the people bearing the brunt of this.

The interviews are an attempt to explore how to navigate these fissures in a personal and creative life. I wanted to explore how this discomfort can be isolating, but also provide fuel for anger, art and storytelling.

It’s about using my own position within this sphere to open up a conversation between friends and equals about difference. The second episode focuses on women and the dual challenges of responding to misogyny and racism, both in wider society and within communities.

The documentary was inspired by my own experience of navigating disjuncture.

I have spent a career trying to go ‘beyond’ myself. As Stan Grant opined, ‘I wanted the right to explore the whole world.’

I saw my activist friends enmeshed in community and identity politics burn out, fuming at a media cycle in which they existed always as subjects, refracted through the gaze of power. I want to be the power, not its subject.

But in the current political landscape, to go ‘beyond myself’ feels like a negation, a continuation of the shapeshifting I have done my entire life. I had perfected the code-switching dance of the chameleon, reading the cues of an environment, morphing into what I needed to be to survive, amputating myself in the process.

I have fantasised about being a white person, enjoying the ease of a seamless life, affirmed by my environment. The ultimate luxury: to be free of a political and personal landscape that at every turn forced me to question, guilt and doubt myself.

The only times I have ever experienced alignment and relief are the rare moments I have been brave enough to be myself, existing uncomfortably within all those different spaces, at times to my detriment.

This ability to shift and change registers has made me sinewy and curious, interested in the other. I have an intimate understanding of being that other. That’s a plus for my work, and ironically allows me to easily adjust and connect with different kinds of people.

I wanted to have the kinds of conversations I have in private, out loud, with people whose work has illuminated the tensions I’ve experienced.

The people I interviewed in this two-part series have been a source of inspiration to me. They emphasise the power of words, art and scholarship to validate, create new understandings and challenge old ones.

These conversations gave me solace. I know there are others in this in-between space, anxious and struggling to speak about an experience they have no precedent or roadmap for.

They also showed me how my insider/outsider status can be a useful place to deconstruct power. Who knows its contours better than the person at the receiving end of its indignities and silencing?

As British writer Hanif Kureishi said: ‘It could be, the stranger, with a mixture of naivety and knowing, might be in a position to tell us the truth about ourselves, since he sees more than we know.’

This article and the podcast was originally featured on ABC Radio National’s Earshot website on Thursday 16th November, 2016.

harassment · hijab · human rights · islam · women · women's rights

French beach burqini ban as featured in Daily Life

I love the beach. I live right near one and as the weather warms up, there is nothing more glorious than walking the golden shores and sinking into the cool water. But it hasn’t always been a comfortable fit. The beach always seemed to be a white people place, like the fictional Home and Away, filled with chiselled blonde bodies, far away from Sydney’s western suburbs where I grew up.

I remember awkward outings as a kid to the coast with waddling Aunties in voluminous shalwar kameez who would lift their loose shalwar to dip a foot in the water before running away to eat pakoras. We ethnics were no good at water things and especially for girls, it was never encouraged. On the other side of the equation, hairless bikini babes only please.

burqini top stories
When the Cronulla riots broke out in Australia in 2005 it seemed to confirm the metaphor of the beach as a kind of cultural battleground welcome only to a certain kind of person; the last glorious Anglo frontier against the dreaded Muslims. The riots have been endlessly analysed through the lens of race, with gender in the background. Most of the rioters were young white men going mad in a kind of macho posturing over women and property centred around protecting “our things” (white women, beach) from “them” (the not white, strangely clad interlopers). This in itself reflected a problematic male entitlement that gets to dictate the norms and responds with violence at perceived infringements of power.

Then the ‘burqini’ came along. The burqini was an ingenious Australian invention that facilitated swimming for conservative women who observe Muslim modesty guidelines. Some of my good friends are burqini babes. They are lawyers and academics, mums and corporate executives, some are even swimming instructors.
In 2006, Mecca Laalaa became the first burqini-clad Muslim woman in Australia to become a lifeguard, trailblazing a road for Muslim women to not only participate but own the surf. It reminds me of the last scene in Puberty Blues, a coming of age story of teen girls set in the 1970’s Sydney Shire, when the girls decide to go from being spectator eye candy to grabbing surf boards and diving into the ocean against cries of the astonished boys yelling “chicks don’t surf”.

And it’s not just Muslim women who want to surf in these suits – the exquisite Nigella Lawson once famously sported a burqini for sun protection. For those who want to remain fair and lovely or don’t feel comfortable with the body beautiful display otherwise required on the beach, various forms of the suit gives freedom to frolic with joyous abandon. All good right? Wrong.

A swimsuit that encourages those of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds to participate, have agency and be physically active and comfortable should be a win for all women right? Wrong again.

In France, anyway. The French mayor of Corsica has reportedly become the third in the country to announce a ban on burqinis, following weekend clashes fuelled by a row over the outfit, sparked by a man incensed over a photo taken of one of his party – a burqini clad woman.

The oddly named French Women’s Rights Minister failed to oppose the move, having previously spoken against the “archaic” garment. Now these women who were perhaps even braving the disapproval of the more conservative in their own community will be back to watching from the shoreline. They will be exactly where the right wing French and Muslim fundamentalists like them to be, on the sidelines – all in the name of their freedom and dignity of course.

I’m sure the ban will be a liberating experience for the Minister; because banning things and policing a woman’s access to the public space is always a great celebration of freedom and a good answer to male violence. Vive la France!
Once again, it is women who pay the price and are the pawns used in the cultural battleground between knuckleheaded men and the wider violence of a male dominated state apparatus. An apparatus that echoes the values of those in power, with the faint whiff of former European colonial overlords straining to accord equal status to the subjects they once ruled over.

The message is clear; your belonging here is conditional, engage only our terms or not at all.

The ban is an attack on minority communities, already subject to increased surveillance and harassment, who occupy the very bottom of the social hierarchy; and its most vulnerable members – Muslim women.

Women who not only have to navigate sexism within their communities, but also the brute force of state authorities intent on crushing their autonomy – and rendering the men in their lives humiliated and impotent against these incursions. All for ‘freedom’, in the most Orwellian sense of the word.

This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life website on August 17, 2016.


human rights · islam · sexuality · spirituality

What’s it like to be gay and Muslim? As featured in The Saturday Paper

For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Picture: Flickr/ Billy Simon
For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Picture: Flickr/ Billy Simon

Gay Muslims in the West can face lack of acceptance within their families and their religion, as well as experiencing wider prejudice against their faith, fostering a complex and contradictory identity.

The first thing you notice about Sol Alliya Yoga is her gold sparkly fingernails. Her painted hands flutter to her face when her eyes become animated, reaching reflexively to comb through her dark cropped hair.

It’s been two months since Sol left her parent’s home in Punchbowl in Sydney’s south-west after her family struggled to come to terms with her homosexuality.

One night during Ramadan when her family was out for the nightly tarawih prayer, she packed her bags and called her friend to pick her up from her family’s home.

Sol, whose family hails from Indonesia, remembers the moment as a period of high anxiety but also exhilaration.

“I have stuff in the back, stuff in my lap and my heart is just beating really, really fast in the tiny Prius.”

For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Not only can they experience rejection from their communities, but also Islamophobia from the wider society, as well as feeling alienated from a gay subculture that exalts Anglo aesthetics and experiences.

“Why do you even like them anymore?”

Sol’s parents found out about her same-sex attraction after reading her diary.

Although Indonesian culture is open towards sexual minorities, where pop culture is saturated with openly gay and transgender celebrities, Sol’s conservative parents refused to accept their daughter was attracted to women.

Punchbowl is Australia’s Muslim heartland. Sol studied at the local private Malek Fahd Islamic School. Her parents regularly attended lectures of controversial Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir and carefully monitored Sol’s friends and movements.

After the diary incident, her parents took her to a Muslim psychologist who promised to perform “gay conversion therapy” and “cure” Sol.

“She told me how she converts all these gay people, and she’s like, I can quote: ‘Even people from Canberra drive all the way here so I can stop them from being gay.’ ”

After three sessions, Sol refused to continue with the therapy, but still clings to her Muslim identity and is open to a relationship with her estranged family.

She says there is an assumption that gay Muslims from migrant families automatically drop their cultural identities when moving in their wider “liberated West” circles.

“I find it so strange when people say once you leave your family you drop them forever and can live your own life,” she says.

Mainstream gay culture often fails to acknowledge the challenges faced by gay people of colour in navigating family relationships, faith and racism, Sol says.

“They really just don’t understand how strong the familial bond is with us. They just don’t get it. Like, why would you ever think about going back? Why do you even like them anymore?”

“Do you still love me?”

For another Muslim woman in Sydney – whom I will call Sana – carving out a space for herself in the queer Muslim narrative is a continuing struggle.

A self-confessed book nerd, she devours American Muslim reformist thinkers such as scholar Scott Kugle, feminist Amina Wadud and gay imam Daayiee Abdullah, all of whom advocate for queer inclusion from a pro-faith perspective.

“I couldn’t understand how a God I understood as loving would be so cruel to one segment of the population, especially if they can’t really change that,” Sana says.

For Sana, the internet has also been a refuge, a way to connect with other young people struggling to navigate a world of shame and secrecy. From Twitter to secret Facebook and Yahoo groups, online communities have allowed young gay Muslims to reach out to each other and talk about spirituality, identity and politics.

The 22-year-old acknowledges her road to coming out has been easier than for other young Muslims, who have been forced to leave home or live painful double lives.

“My experiences were nothing like people who have been kicked out of home and have nowhere to go, or others who were getting into marriages of convenience,” Sana says.

Growing up in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney’s south with an unconventional mixed-culture Indian-Chinese-Malay background gave Sana and her 17-year-old brother a sense of freedom. Unmoored from what can be cloistered ethnic and religious communities, she was spared some of the ostracism experienced by others, but she admits missing the sense of solidarity such groups engender.

Sana’s liberal family always encouraged her and her brother to question and engage with faith, but she admits to still feeling nervous in revealing her sexuality.

She remembers breathing heavily when, at 19, she sat down to tell her parents. She recalls her father’s shocked face and the silence.

“It felt like eternity waiting for the reply. I think my first question was, ‘Do you still love me?’ Then my mum hugged me.”

She says the challenge is compounded by an exclusivist gay scene.

“I felt like they catered to white people or I had to constantly justify why I believe in God.”

Sana, uninterested in the mainstream gay scene centred around bars and clubs, dreams of meeting the right girl in a book reading or knitting club. But she says dating can be difficult in a world where she feels neither fully accepted in gay or Muslim circles.

“It’s still upsetting to know that you can’t really be yourself. You have to live as if your identities are mutually exclusive.”

“Just be proud of who you are.”

Ahmad found losing his religion both liberating and frightening. The 25-year-old says social and family ostracism played a large part in feeling he had no place as a gay man in Muslim circles.

Ahmad  still remembers posting a Facebook profile picture with his partner and being the source of gossip.

Like Sol, Ahmad grew up in Sydney’s south-west, in Lakemba, among a large Muslim community. His religious Malaysian-born family placed a premium on Islamic education. At 20, some time after graduating from Malek Fahd, Ahmad went to Syria to study Arabic. It was there, he says, that a shift began.

He went to the Middle East anticipating a renewal in his religious zeal. Instead, what he found in Syria inspired him to take the road he had never imagined he would take – that of living as an openly gay man.

“I was expecting to go the Middle East and find the most religious people. Instead it was regular people figuring their life out,” he says.

The experience made him rethink his relationship with his faith and explore his gay identity. No longer feeling compelled to live a painful life fearing he would somehow give himself away – self-conscious of his demeanour and whether things he said “sounded gay” – Ahmad finally felt he could be free to be himself.

But the revelation did not come without a cost.

“I feel like I lost something,” he says. “I lost that certainty that comes with my religion.”

Growing up, Ahmad understood being gay was taboo. Homophobic comments were rife. He heard of gruesome punishments for “sodomites”, who were to be thrown off cliffs onto spikes for their transgressions.

“One day you get the realisation that all of that is you. That entire bag of homophobia falls on your head,” he says.

Even after his father found gay porn on his computer as a teen, his reaction was to pretend it never existed.

“I always thought I’d be a good Muslim boy. I’ll marry a woman and go through the mechanics of it,” Ahmad says.

But the double life, the stress and the pretending became too much.

Ahmad says family is still integral to his life, despite the tension his homosexuality causes. He now lives on campus at his university and has even brought his ex-partner home for Eid.

“I never imagined in a thousand years I would do something like that.”

He says the challenge for gay Muslims facing places where they experience rejection begins first with finding a place to celebrate and honour the beauty of being different.

“Just be proud of who you are.”


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This article was originally published in The Saturday Paper . Read the original article here. Subscribe to this excellent paper here.

Pakistan · Uncategorized

Mild mannered teacher by day, Burqa Avenger by night


Pakistan has a new feminist superhero. Her weapons of choice are books, pens…and a burqa. Recently I was interviewed by Melissa Wellham from Mamma Mia on my thoughts on the burqa-clad heroine.

For those not familiar with the Burqa Avenger, she is the brainchild of Pakistani popstar Haroon. The animated TV series aims to counter Taliban opposition to women’s education through its heroine- a mild mannered teacher who dons a disguise to turn into Burqa Avenger by night, battling local goons to keep her school open.

Like Kim Kardashian, Pakistan seems to have become famous for the wrong things, like the shootings of schoolgirls, acid attacks and gang rapes. But these high-profile stories have also mobilised thousands of Pakistanis protesting against the degradation of their society. This new heroine I think is part of that protest. Like I told Mamma Mia:

Burqa Avenger is a smart, powerful, subtle, strong Muslim woman.

She’s a fantasy most Pakistanis long for … We wish we had super powers that could magically neuter extremist nuts and the corrupt politicians that enable them, in a society where the right to go to school has exposed women and girls to violence.”

“By having a niqabi feminist heroine – at once both indigenous to Pakistani culture and Islam, it reclaims those forces as a source of power for Muslim women, neutralising criticisms of feminism and human rights as a western impost and cleverly repositioning Burqa Avengers’ enemies as antithetical to mainstream Islam and local values.”

Check out the first episode here:

Burka Avenger Episode 01 with English sub-titles from Unicorn Black on Vimeo.