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'I came to heal': Yassmin Abdel-Magied on starting again in London Open in fullscreen

Shams Al-Shakarchi

'I came to heal': Yassmin Abdel-Magied on starting again in London

The Sudanese-Australian author and engineer faced a national backlash in Australia [Courtesy of Y.A-M]

Date of publication: 28 September, 2018

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The New Arab Meets: Sudanese-Australian author, engineer and social justice advocate Yassmin Abdel-Magied on rebuilding her life in London.
"I'm shocked people think I'm controversial, because have you met me? I'm the most chilled out person. The most controversial thing about me is that, like, I love dad jokes."

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is still bemused by the description, though she says she became the "most reviled Muslim in Australia".

It feels cruel to mention it, that comment she posted which saw her picking up the pieces of her hard-fought career and moving to the other side of the world, especially having clocked so many achievements at a young age (chronicled in the memoir published when she was 24). But after our conversation, 18 months on from the fallout, it's not entirely impossible to believe the mess, traumatic as it was, was meant-to-be.

"I believe everything happens for a reason, and there must have been a reason for my life to have panned out the way that it did," Abdel-Magied says, speaking to The New Arab as she marks a year since she moved to London.

"I came to heal, I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. When I decided to leave Australia I literally quit everything for the first time in 12 years. I was like, 'I wonder what it would be like if I started from scratch?' And London was that opportunity. We can be whatever we can be in this city which is incredible."

I'm lucky that I was resilient enough, that I had faith, I could pay for therapy and I could leave the country. But not everyone is that lucky and has those options, so make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else again

A young, black, visibly Muslim woman, she said she has always been seen for her "otherness". Born in Sudan, Abdel-Magied arrived in Australia before she was two years old, her family one of only two Sudanese families in 1992 Brisbane.

She excelled in class where she was the first headscarf-wearing student in her Christian high school's history. She co-founded a youth charity and was named in 2007 Young Australian Muslim of the Year and in 2010 Young Queenslander of the Year. 

A self-confessed petrol head, she graduated with first class honours in engineering, and worked on oil rigs, often the only woman, certainly the only Muslimah, on the platform, dumbfounding colleagues with the "tea cosy" under her hard hat.

She was listed among Australia's "Top 100 Most Influential Engineers", and used her passion for youth, women and minority empowerment as a public speaker and on Australian television as a regular panellist and presenter.

"LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine...)," Abdel-Magied posted on Facebook in April 2017, on Anzac Day. The reference to refugees, in part Australia's detention of asylum seekers on remote Pacific Islands, unleashed a national fury. Many saw the politicisation of the sacred day as disrespectful to fallen troops. The storm that followed Abdel-Magied's post, which she deleted and apologised for, was unprecedented.

She has been frank about the vitriol that filled her news feeds, the axed TV appearances and speaking engagements, and the therapy she sought. Amid the outrage, one government senator urged her to "move to an Arab dictatorship".

"Twitter is still a dumpster fire," she says of the restless critics who continue to bombard her online, but she adds at least in Australia, the tide seems to have turned.

"The last time I was back in Australia, I didn't get reported on in the same way I was reported on in the past.

"I was told 'there a lot of people defending you', and I was like, 'where were they?' And I made that point in public and I think, finally, those people are realising that silence is complicity and there was pushback and I think, I hope, there is a new narrative.

"I'm fine, I'm lucky that I was resilient enough, that I had faith, I could pay for therapy and I could leave the country. But not everyone is that lucky and has those options, so make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else again."

Now in London, she admits she relishes the anonymity that comes with starting from zero in a new city.

"I've never had the space to explore what it means to be a Muslim woman of colour without everybody asking me all the time what it means to be a Muslim woman of colour.

"When you become somebody who speaks about these things from the age of 10, the boundaries are drawn up quite early, but when I came here I see lots of different models of that and wonder what mine are."

It seems she has plenty to keep her busy. While engineering has taken a back seat – "it's very difficult to work for a big corporate company and to have a public opinion" – her second book, a young adult fiction novel, is in edits, while she writes the proposal for her third, looking at the intersection of technology and ethics.

"It's a provocation in a way, how do we build models that incentivise the behaviour we want to see? All the people that make basic assumptions about using the internet come from the same parts of the world and have the same values. If you had an Indian grandma design Facebook, would it have the same features? Probably not, but all of us are using the same platforms reflecting the same values that are perhaps not ours and that's the thing I'm trying to flesh out."

Exercising caution in a society reliant on technology is something Abdel-Magied says we should all be thinking about.

"The way that tech is part of our lives now it can't be just a thing for a small group to be knowledgeable about. We all need to have some level of literacy around this stuff.

It comes back to people who have lived in very safe environments, where they're not afraid. What a wonderful thing, they live in a safe environment, they're not afraid of the government or some nefarious bad actor using that information

"I'm highly uncomfortable with Alexa, mic-ing up your entire house, are you mad? These people have never lived under a dictatorship is all I can say. It's not about whether I'm doing anything right or wrong, it's the fact I don't like enabling people to peek into stuff that's none of their business. Anything can be twisted into anything. 

"It comes back to people who have lived in very safe environments, where they're not afraid. What a wonderful thing, they live in a safe environment, they're not afraid of the government or some nefarious bad actor using that information. Am I being too paranoid? Perhaps. But perhaps you don't walk in the street without checking both ways even though you trust that people won't deliberately run you over.

"I think we need to teach ourselves generally that, even though there's a safety net, there is a need for personal responsibility."

Her views are arguably borne out of the public furore she faced at 26. Being at the mercy of the media with little safeguards, she says that "One of the most frustrating things about the last year is that who I am is not on my terms in the public space".

While she admits she shouldn't get complacent, her experience has undoubtedly left her empowered.

"I feel more grounded here with the resilience and the foundation to be able to take on big new projects and absorb big new shocks.

"I now have this space as someone in their mid to late 20s to think from scratch, and that's such a wonderful gift I know I'll probably never have again."

Watch this space, London.

Follow Shams Al-Shakarchi on Twitter: @shams_shakarchi


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