That Speech: Obama in the House!

Nov 18, 2014 by

Can you spot the back of my scarf? lols.

“How much time did you get with him?”

The message was insistent.

“Oh I duno, maybe 10 seconds? Five?”

“Take me through every single second…”

I grinned, cast my mind back to the brief moment of the handshake and let my thumbs fly…

#obama

A photo posted by Yassmin Abdel-Magied (@yassmin_a) on

 

The News

 …the coolest kid/leader in town – President Barack Obama – was coming to visit my alma mater was everywhere.  Fan girls and boys extolled their excitement with exclamation marks and witty status updates, an exuberance tempered only by the ire of the UQ (University of Queensland) students who realised that ‘day kids’ (students who didn’t stay at college) wouldn’t get a chance to attend. Understandably, it was an unpopular decision, to say the least.  The news that only 40 or so students from every residential college was able to secure one of the sought after tickets rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way.

I have it on good authority that it was the University’s decision, and may have been due to the fact that they had to get RSVPs and confirmations with only a few days notice. The US Consulate/White House (as far as I have been led to believe) was keen to get as wide a demographic as possible but left it in the hands of the Universities and schools.  Make of that what you will…

I was fortunate to snare a spot in the crowd, thank you US Consulate!  Awkwardly though, I didn’t realise the tickets had to be picked up a couple of days before the event (at UQ!) until I was called up by the staff on the collection day!  Sitting in my office in Perth, I scrambled to get a family member to pick up the invite for me. Predictably, no-one in my family picked up the phone! A friend came to my rescue and operation “Ticket Collection” was a success. (Shout out to my saviour Romy!)

I arrived in Brisbane on the morning of the event, rushing home from the airport with my little brother at the wheel and hurriedly deciding what to wear. It had to be comfortable, I thought, in order to be able to handle the incredibly sticky Brisbane heat.  Not too crazy I told myself, but also with just enough ‘Yassmin-ness’ (read: flamboyance) to be appropriate.  Smart Casual, the invite said, but since when did anyone pay attention to what the invite says? I went high waisted pants (*cough* cue *cough) and killer high heels (modest, of course!), so that I wasn’t just tall but towering. Ha, nothing like height to demand presence right?

Securing the Seat

Doors opened at 10.45am: I strolled in and secured a spot three rows from the front.  I hadn’t realised the President wasn’t arriving for hours, so couldn’t understand why the place wasn’t immediately full.  As I looked quizzically around the center, the guy next to me explained:

“Well, this is what happens when you rock up two hours early…”

Ah, indeed.  Fortunately though, there was plenty of entertainment. 

Politics of the young people in the crowd aside, the invite list was fascinating.  Once the room began to fill up, there were a few hundred students in the risers complemented by hundreds of the men and women who help shape Australia.  In the far right hand corner of the room sat the ‘heavy hitters’, and boy were there a few! Ex-Governor Generals, Premiers, former Premiers, business men and women and stalwarts of the Australian political scene.  Wayne Swan, Qunnie Bryce, John Story, Sam Walsh, Bronwyn Bishop, Colin Barnett, Campbell Newman and Tanya Plibersek to name a few. It was daunting, but honestly? An awesome opportunity to make some new friends, I thought.  The worst part was not recognising someone I really should have, particularly when they clearly think you know how important they are (sorry Colin Barnett).  Something I am working on…

 Funnily enough, one such ‘High Net Worth Individual’ commented on the number of heavy hitters in the room.

“The thing is,” he said. “I am not sure they are used to being made to wait!” …and yes, waiting is what they were doing.

Doors opened at 10.45am, but the President didn’t make his entrance until after 1pm. That is a lot of time for someone who deems their time critically important, but alas, if not for Obama, then who for?

The Entrance

The Vice Chancellor of UQ stood up to make a speech.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity… but I’m going to get off this stage because I know no-one is interested in what I have to say! I’m like the warm up act for the Rolling Stones!”

People chuckled, but it was true. There was a buzz in the air. Everyone was excited to be there, and even the loftiest figures a little bit groupie-like.  The background music would occasionally fade out between songs, and every time there was a moment of silence, the room would instantly hush in anticipation.  This is the moment, we were all be thinking, and then a note of the next song would ring out and the building erupt in (slightly nervous) laughter.  The tension was palpable…

Then, the moment we had all been waiting for.

A booming voice over the loud speaker: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the President of the United States of America…” The rest of the statement was drowned out as everyone leapt to their feet, cameras in hand, half cheering, half taking selfies.  It was a little bit hilarious…
(Obviously, I was not immune. Here is my video of the entrance…)

The announcement of #Obama # universityofqueensland   A video posted by Yassmin Abdel-Magied (@yassmin_a) on

The Big O

I am not a massive fan of Obama’s policies, and anyone who has had a discussion with me knows my opinions on his legacy.  That being said, there is no denying his power as an orator.  He came out and instantly the masses swooned, laughing uproariously at his aussie jokes and comments about “Fawr X”.

His charisma is undeniable, and he used it to good effect: starting out bolstering the Aussie pride and subtly reinforcing our status as allies.

“As the world’s only super power…” he would say, a silent barb towards China.

“These are our choices, oppression or liberty.”

The real clincher however, came after he mentioned Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.   The real surprise was what dominated the headlines; Obama’s commitment to an International Climate Fund, aiding developing countries tackle the effects of climate change.

This is a fascinating development, particularly as I am personally interested in the effects of energy poverty and the dilemma around setting up countries to gain equal access to clean, cheap and sustainable energy.  More on this at a later date…

The Handshake

It happened like this:

(All jokes aside…)

Speech was made, and he moved to the side of the stage. We had no idea if he was going to meet anyone, but the moment he started descending via the stairs, the crowds surged towards the barricade. There must have been ten secret service / body guard guys on each side, warning people not to shove cameras in his face as he walked along the black fence and greeted individuals.

I was aided by my enormous heels and wide hips.  As I swung my way to the front, a former colleague from the Queensland Museum smiled at me.

“Get in there Yas!”

I grinned back. Oh yes indeed!

As the President turned towards me, my mind raced. What do I say? This wasn’t the time for a foreign policy barb I supposed…

The handshake was firm, and his eyes fixed on my face, seemingly like an uncle I hadn’t seen in a while.

“Thank you sir” was all I managed.

“How are you,” he said (I think. It is a bit of a blur).  He looked right at me (slightly up, I was really tall), perhaps slightly surprised to see someone who looked like me in the Australian crowd.

“Good, thanks…”

The lack of inspiration in my answers is slightly embarrassing in hindsight, as was the fact that I didn’t go for the fist bump instead.

The aftermath

Lots of squealing. From everyone involved…

Solid handshake with the President of the United States. #auspol #thishappened #obama

A photo posted by Yassmin Abdel-Magied (@yassmin_a) on

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Sajjeling: #WISH: a step in the door

Nov 6, 2014 by

This piece was originally posted for the fantastic blog Sajjeling. Check it out! 

This was a hard piece to write, mostly because critiquing movements that are helping the community can be construed as unconstructive and vindictive.  However, I repost it in order to hopefully air alternative perspectives. I do not want any critique to de-legitimise what women have felt the campaign has done, but use it as an opportunity to reflect and then ask ourselves: what is next?

***

Perhaps not surprisingly, a campaign that calls for women of all stripes to don the hijab, take a photo and post it online has garnered mixed reviews over the past few weeks.

#WISH, or Women in Solidarity with Hijabis, came about with the idea of show support and solidarity for Muslims, and, particularly, Muslim women, around the country.

With hundreds and thousands of views, digital interactions and imprints, and almost 30,000 likes on Facebook, it is certainly making an impression in the wider Australian community. Women have used it as an entry point for discussion, posting their photo in a hijab and usually accompanying it with a message of hope or solidarity.  On the surface, it all seems very positive and very encouraging, as it provides a space for those who support Muslim women and sisters to very visually ,and publicly, make a stand.

However, responses from other parts of the Muslim community have rejected the premise of the campaign entirely as belittling and disrespectful of the religious nature of the hijab. Not only does the campaign minimise the religious nature of the hijab, but it can allow people to engage without the difficulty of taking on the identity per se; the privilege to be able to remove the hijab and rejoin society as an accepted member of the mass group is one that doesn’t exist for many Muslim women as an option at all. Therefore, women who feel like they have ‘joined’ the group or, after wearing it for a week, realised how ‘difficult’ it may be or how ‘perceptions change’ when you are wearing a hijab are simply Orientalising the garment rather than engaging with its true meaning.

 

Nevertheless, in spite of commentary about the effectiveness and impact of the campaign, it is worth noting at the outset that it was begun by a Muslim woman in Australia. Therefore, it should be treated as reflective of the wishes of some members in the community.  Some may argue that the campaign is a reactionary way of dealing with the superficial manner in which the public engages with religious belief, however that argument, again, becomes an assumption around a Muslim woman’s capacity for autonomy and choice. Rather than re-emphasise the perception that Muslim women are oppressed and helpless, especially in the face of adversity, this prime example shows that those very women are capable of taking matters into their own hands and finding new ways to change the narrative.

Another campaign in Australia, “Racism, Hatred, Bigotry – #NotInMyName”, is also pushed by a Muslim Australian woman, further defying stereotypes of men being the only leaders in the community.Objectively, there is no denying that the campaign is not the answer to all the Australian Muslim community’s problem, nor does it engage in critical policy creation or find solutions to the increasing incidences of racial and bigoted acts.However, perhaps this is a case of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

What the campaign has been successful at doing is allowing many women to engage with the Muslim community in a way they may not have done previously, perhaps because they are drawn to the superficial beauty of the hijab, however ironic that may be.

Most of the women who do engage are doing so in an effort to learn and to demonstrate their solidarity.  Although some may fall under the ‘well intentioned but possibly misguided’ banner that volunteer activists sometimes do, there is still a positive intention that is worth recognising and working with.

Who are we to decide or determine how people learn about Islam?  The Muslim communities expend immense amounts of carbon dioxide talking about how there is little knowledge or information about Islam in the wider community. Should we shoot down one of the most successful campaigns that has allowed positive information to be shared with thousands?

#WISH is not the whole answer, but it is not none of the answer either. What it does is open the doors to a conversation about what the religion means, what the reasoning behind its wearing is based on, and ultimately, what Islam is all about.  It is a non threatening, low-barrier-to-entry way of engaging, and although it may make us as Muslim women feel insecure, frustrated, culturally appropriated and exploited even, no change is made without sacrifice and change is certainly not made if we continuously refuse to engage with the initiatives that have been positive and ultimately, successful.  Right?

Honestly and personally speaking, the campaign can be uncomfortable for some Muslim women, although I speak for myself here. It takes a religious act that for some means daily struggle and constant judgment, and allows it to be worn by many others as a simple ornament, like any other item of jewellery.  The significance of the hijab can be lost in that transaction, and not only is that sad, but it is a misrepresentation of its meaning.  It should be noted that the concept of ‘hijab’ itself isn’t even only just about the headscarf, it includes modestly dressing across the board, and modesty in our actions as well.  #WISH does not communicate that larger message.

But it doesn’t pretend to, either.

Yes, it may be uncomfortable; but is rejecting it the only answer?

Perhaps it should be thought of in this way: #WISH can be the foot in the door.  It may only be a little bit of foot in the door, and perhaps it’s only in the door frame to test the waters.  Nonetheless, if we are serious about changing the narrative and engaging and educating the wider public, the door at least has to be a little bit open. Will we continue to squabble about how the foot got there, holding our post-colonial grudges in our hearts, or will we try to forgive the lack of knowledge and work to ensure that the vacuum is filled?

The choice is ours.  Next move, hijabis.

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Sassy Sudanese Sister: Holla!

Nov 4, 2014 by

Sometimes professional people in the community say some strange things.  One such Professor in Sudan said on the national channel (Blue Nile) that “all Sudanese women were short and ugly”.

How charming.

This was the fantastic response…

(Partly in English, partly in Arabic – but the passion needs no language to be understood!)

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Niqab wearing women and their professions

Oct 27, 2014 by

The niqab, burka and things women women use to cover their heads and faces due to faith are of great fascination for much of Western society. Much of the commentary precludes opinions from the ‘primary source’ (women who wear these items of clothing), and as such there are significant and often damaging assumptions made about the subjects.

‘Subjects’ is an uncomfortable but apt term, as many niqabed Muslim women are seen as foreign objects of curiosity and conjecture.   They are rarely ever perceived as human women who have hopes, dreams, kids, families, gardens, laundry and all the same dramas as every other human.

So given the fact that I don’t wear the niqab, what gives me the right to talk about this topic?

Nothing really, to be honest, and I do my best not to talk on behalf of, but to hopefully propose alternative narratives in an effort to change perceptions.  This post is one such example.

As you may or may not know, I spent the first half of 2012 in Sudan with my grandmother, learning how to cook, become a ‘good housewife’ and studying Arabic at the local university.  The university I went to, unbeknown to me at the time, turned out to be an Islamic based – and very traditional – institution for international students from all over Africa. This meant that the classes for men and women were separated and many of the women were from all over Africa, rather than just Sudan.

I was fortunate enough to befriend many of my fellow classmates, although it was an interesting experience as our life experiences were very different!  Funnily enough, because we were in an all-women class, all the ladies would remove any niqabs they wore and many would have their hair out (the 45 – 50 degree heat wasn’t conducive to many layers of clothing). As such, my ideas of them were not founded around what they wore but their varied personalities and stories.  I’d actually forgotten they all wore niqabs until I saw the following photographs on a former colleague’s Facebook page:

What are these photos, you may be asking? Are we seeing women being trained up for some crazy operation that we don’t understand?

No, what you see are African (Ugandan and Nigerian) women being trained as mechanical engineers and technicians.

Not only do these women have to brave the standard ‘women in engineering’ perception, they have to do so in an extremely hostile and patriarchal culture.  They learn how to take apart engines, weld and manufacture equipment, and do so with flair.

It is inspiring.

They’re smart and driven, but also feminine and devout. Sure, it isn’t easy. There is no denying the difficulties… but these are examples of women who do almost everything they want to, and what they wear in no way oppresses them.

Kinda cool huh? Glad you clicked? I am too :)

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Defence Australia wants to know what we think. Help me tell them.

Oct 20, 2014 by

Ladies and Gents, occasionally we have to use the tools the system has given us to agitate some change. That time may be now…

Defence Australia is calling for submissions from the community to inform the Defence White Paper, which will guide Australia’s Defence spending for the next 20 years. 

They want the community to send in thoughts – and if you have ever wished you could change the way Defence spends their money or thinks about things, this is the opportunity you have been looking for.

It is so important for marginalised and minority voices to be heard in this sort of forum.  I’d like to make sure, in whatever way I can, that these voices are heard.

Therefore, if you want to write a submission (or a short paragraph showing your feelings!), check out the links below:

WHITE PAPER (What on earth a ‘white paper’ is…)

COMMUNITY CONSULTATION (Some info about the consultation process)

PUBLIC SUBMISSIONS (Where you make a submission)

2014 PAPER (What the 2014 paper said).

If you don’t want to write your own submission but want your voice heard, email me: yassmin@youthwithoutborders.com.au and tell me what you think, or we can have a chat in some other way.

Make sure your voice gets heard. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Sydney for Changemakers Festival! (and some links!)

Oct 18, 2014 by

Quick update: I’ll be in Sydney this weekend!

There are a couple of cool things happening: for one, Youth Without Borders Sydney is catching up (click HERE for details).  I’ll also be taking part in the 3things event through the Changemakers Festival which should be quite awesome – come along on Sunday morning if you’re free (details HERE).

I’ve also been honoured to be highlighted as part of birdee’s Changemakers – the guys and gals are too kind!

Don’t forget to like / contribute to the campaign: Racism, Hatred, Bigotry: #NotInMyName

A couple of things to keep you busy on a Saturday morning:

Do you think the ‘Age of Loneliness’ is killing us?

An essay on ‘Terrorism and the Muslim veil’

I really enjoy good graffiti and have begun using Instagram to record some of what I see around the world.  Tag me if you find some #graf you’ve enjoyed…

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#Perth #graf #tagsandthrow #streetart #perthgraf #graffiti

View on Instagram

THIS COMIC: Twisted Doodles

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Links, Links, Links! 13th October 2014

Oct 12, 2014 by

There is a lot of interesting stuff on the internet.  Here are a few of the articles that caught my eye this week…

***

1. A completely different perspective to one that is usually told: The niqab makes me feel liberated, and no law will stop me from wearing it

“I’ve always been the sort of person who loved to experiment, but I never expected that wearing the niqab would be something I’d try.”

 

2. How ignorant commentary on Sharia law increases discrimination

 

3. Is it fair to blame the West for trouble in the Middle East?

“In his book A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the emergence of Islamism, Dr S. Sayyid describes five arguments that explain the spread of what is commonly called Islamic fundamentalism, Islamism or militant Islamism.”

4. The Myth of Religious Violence

 

5. An alternative perspective on the Emma – Wassim interview on #Lateline that even the PM lauded…

But Alberici’s own responses to Doureihi’s questions reinforced Doureihi’s claims that some kind of underlying narrative was at play. She was becoming flustered by a phenomenon — an interviewee answering her question in a manner he wished — that she should be well used to. Heck, politicians do this all the time. HT is a political party. Doureihi is a Muslim politician wannabe.

6. Is Islam a Violent Text?

This is SO good. Read it.

 

Channel Ten’s new show. What do you think?

 

Oh and in case you missed it, have a listen to Ian Hanke, Jane Gilmore and I on Outsiders for Radio National with Jonathan Green.  On the Sunday morning show we are talking the Lateline Interview (Emma-Wassim) and the current state of play in Australia…

 

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