'I feel betrayed by my country': Yassmin after the storm
A seven-word post on Facebook unleashed a world of trouble for Yassmin Abdel-Magied - who reckons the punishment did not fit the crime.
In the eye of the storm, Yassmin Abdel-Magied went to see a psychologist for the first time in her life. The former Queensland Young Australian of the Year, engineer and author was in trouble because of seven words she'd written on Anzac Day: LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…). She had quickly removed the Facebook post and apologised, but it was too late: a national fury was unleashed.
She was accused of a "vile slur" against dead Australian soldiers, of using a sacred day to make a political point about refugees. Death threats started arriving. Videos of beheadings and rapes clogged her email and Twitter account. She had to move house and change her phone number. Senior politicians called for her to be deported and sacked from a part-time ABC TV gig. Outraged Sky News host Paul Murray struggled to get his mouth around "this sheila's" name. "I've mispronounced," he said. "But who cares?"
Somehow, Abdel-Magied's psychologist had missed all of that. "What's the problem?" she innocently asked her new client.
"Ah," said Abdel-Magied, who soon found another psychologist. "I'm kind of like a national outrage?"
The 26-year-old is telling me this story in the lobby of Canberra's slick East Hotel. It's late June and she's wearing a long formal white jacket that gives her a queenly air; her nails are painted bright yellow. She's just hosted a literary lunch at the bookshop Muse for her 2016 memoir, Yassmin's Story. During lunch, snug in the bosom of a sympathetic group – left-wing, cultured Canberra types – she was the faultless communicator: self-deprecating, inclusive, kind and warm. But now, reflecting back on the past few months, she's sad and on edge, a shadow of her optimistic self. "Sorry I sound so angry," she says. "I'm so sorry."
Abdel-Magied is angry about many things. Two months have passed since the Anzac Day post, yet The Australian newspaper is still sending journalists to her public engagements. On this day, politicians are attacking her for comments she made on a panel about Parliament's unrepresentative nature. She's not just angry, though. The storm that swirled around Abdel-Magied has shattered something quite deep in her. "I feel betrayed by my country," she says.
IN 1992, Abdel-Magied arrived in Brisbane from Sudan as a chubby 18-month-old with her parents. The family – dark-skinned, hijab-wearing Muslims – stood out in the Brisbane suburbs. It was a loving but strict household, and Yassmin and her younger brother, Yasseen, went to a private Islamic primary school. She embraced mainstream Australia, though: came to obsess over State of Origin rugby league, learnt how to design a car chassis, played backyard cricket and could down nine Weet-Bix in one sitting. Abdel-Magied believed she could "outperform" her brown Muslim female identity; be more Australian than your average Aussie.
After co-founding a youth charity at 16, she graduated valedictorian with first-class honours in mechanical engineering at the University of Queensland. She went on to become an expert in drilling holes for oil and gas, and since her writing and media commitments took off, usually sleeps four to six hours a night to get everything done.
The Anzac Day furore taught Abdel-Magied that she was Australian, yes, but only so long as she was not too outspoken. "I love Australia, I'm super patriotic," she says. "Yet I feel like I've been duped, like I've been sold this false sense of belonging."
At this point, I'm not sure if Abdel-Magied is going to cry. She hasn't applied for any engineering jobs – "I've been recovering" – but PR professionals have advised her that no company will employ her while she's so controversial. She last worked as a drilling engineer with Shell, but in March the company declined her request for a second year of leave to pursue her advocacy work. She lost her ABC gig presenting Australia Wide in May; the broadcaster said it was unrelated to the Anzac Day post but did "counsel" her. Companies have cancelled speaking engagements worth tens of thousands of dollars.
"Before Anzac Day I was knocking back corporate gigs left, right and centre, but now the only ones that are coming in are from overseas," she says.
If you've seen Abdel-Magied on the ABC panel show Q&A – where she built her public profile via regular appearances since 2013 – you can't miss her confidence. She's been knocked around post-Anzac Day, but her basic operating mode is to back herself to the hilt. She is, she says, "a smart mouth in a hijab", someone who's always asked for forgiveness rather than permission.
''There’s a presumption that I support things like female genital mutilation and extremist Islam, unless I explicitly say that I don’t.''
And she's been unconventional from the start. She was born, as her mother Faiza El Higzi says, "in a world of her own," encased in an unbroken amniotic sac, a rare birth called en-caul. When hospital nurses took Abdel-Magied to the nursery, the newborn screamed unrelentingly. "She woke up all the new babies, she led a riot of them all," Faiza tells me on the phone from Brisbane. "That was Yassmin at one hour old."
Abdel-Magied comes from a long line of "very strong women". Her maternal grandmother, Saydah El-Gindi, ensured her four daughters were educated before getting married: there's a doctor, a scientist, an architecture lecturer and Faiza, an architect. Abdel-Magied's father, Midhat Abdel-Magied, is a descendant of wealthy merchants who migrated to Sudan from Egypt in the 1800s. In her book, Abdel-Magied writes that she's related to "almost all the big names" in Sudan's capital Khartoum. Today, the families of influence are different, and her extended family's assets have been sold off, including factories that made everything from macaroni to candles, but "the old-money pride and correlating conservative values still remain".
Midhat Abdel-Magied left Sudan to take a PhD in electrical engineering at London's Imperial College. In 1989, when he was back teaching at the University of Khartoum, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir overthrew the democratically elected Sudanese government in a military coup, instituting a harsh form of Islamist law, including tougher policing of women's clothing. Bashir wanted to "Arabise" Sudan, with public institutions, such as universities, to operate in Arabic rather than English. Midhat stood against this and was fired.
At about the same time, Faiza, who was working as an architect, was talking outside her office to a female mint-tea seller one night. A government security man kicked the tea seller and said street vendors were now banned. Faiza stood up for the woman, following which the security man threatened to take her to one of the harsh "tent courts" that had sprung up in the public squares of Khartoum. Heavily pregnant with Yassmin, and with an angry crowd watching on, Faiza refused to apologise. Eventually Midhat arrived to pick her up and they escaped in their car. "The family urged us to leave the country around this time," says Faiza.
In 1992 they joined the great Sudanese diaspora, leaving for Australia via Egypt, under the pretence of a weekend away with family. On his previous European travels, Midhat had found Australians friendly and thought the country would be more of a meritocracy for migrants than England. Faiza had the connection to make it a reality. For years she'd written to a pen pal, a Brisbane-based Jehovah's Witness, Ian Hamilton. He and his wife sent the Abdel-Magieds skilled migrant visa forms, then took the family into their old Queenslander home upon arrival. The two families, despite being devout followers of different religions, became lifelong friends.
Faiza cried every night for her first two years here. Like many migrants, she and her husband struggled to convert their qualifications into jobs. Midhat retrained in information technology and Faiza took two master's degrees, in international trade and education, and a graduate diploma in project management. Midhat got work as an IT business adviser and Faiza in non-government organisations and then the Queensland public service. Each missed their original calling. If Faiza ever remarked on a beautiful building, Yassmin felt sad: her parents had abandoned their professional dreams for a better life for their children. "That tugs on a person's soul," she writes in her book, "either anchoring you to reality, or drowning you."
About 15 of us are waiting at the Muse bookshop for lunch with Abdel-Magied. Her memoir – published when she was 24 – sits in front of each guest. With her toothy smile, the author seems to pop out from the cover. Big ink-blue earrings dangle from her lobes; she sports a spotty jacket, with a jade headscarf tied at the front in a giant knot. "Do you think our friend will be getting around like that in Canberra?" the retired woman next to me leans over and whispers. I presume she's referring to the headscarf. Absolutely, I say. Out the window I see the tall figure of Abdel-Magied emerge from a car, a green scarf swirled atop her head.
Abdel-Magied has been visibly Muslim since she announced to her family, aged 10, that she would start wearing a hijab. When people stared, she told herself in "secret self-empowering Beyoncé talk" that it was because she was "so good-looking that people couldn't turn away". At her Islamic primary school a hijab was normal, but she was the first girl in the history of her high school – the Christian ecumenical John Paul College – to wear a headscarf. People shouted "towel head" in the street, but she never removed it, including when she led the University of Queensland's car racing team, travelled the world reporting online on F1 races (another passion) and worked on oil and gas rigs (she wore a hard hat over her "tea cosy", as a colleague once called it).
Her commitment to Islam is absolute. "I believe there is one God," she says. "I believe Mohammed was the prophet of God. I believe that one day I'll be asked on the Day of Judgment if I have lived a good life. And I will be held responsible for my actions." Asked where her commitment comes from, she cites family, probably the Islamic primary school she went to, and regular visits back to Sudan. "It's inextricably a part of who I am, so I have never really conceived of myself in any other way," she says. "I think my parents provided the right environment for it, but they also provided an environment focused more on social justice than faith, so those two things are inseparable for me."
Growing up, Abdel-Magied's parents were strict on who she could hang out with (no sleepovers, no unsupervised, out-of-school-hours fraternising with boys). Searching for a Muslim husband, she's still grappling with parental expectations. She's flirted with the idea of marrying a non-Muslim ("The problem is, I love the Australian male. The more neck tattoos and more utes they own, the more I am into it.") but doesn't think it would work (nor do her parents). One problem she cites is alcohol, which, as a Muslim, she doesn't drink. "Alcohol is pretty ubiquitous in Australian society. How do I convince someone to give up alcohol for a god they don't believe in?" She recently moved to Melbourne, where she lives with friends in a converted warehouse. It's dawned on her that "all the guys with beards aren't Muslims … just hipsters".
You can trace Abdel-Magied's journey to becoming, in her words, "Australia's most publicly hated Muslim" to three events. The first was last September, at the Brisbane Writers' Festival. She was sitting in the front row with her mother, listening to the keynote speech by American author Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Shriver, who had been accused by The Washington Post of racism in her depiction of non-white characters in her book The Mandibles, attacked the growing "climate of super-sensitivity" and the idea that novelists writing outside their own experience – depicting characters from minority groups, for example – is a kind of theft, an appropriation. "The kind of fiction we are 'allowed' to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we'd indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with," she told the audience.
Twenty minutes into the speech, Abdel-Magied got up and walked out. In a piece published in The Guardian, she said the speech became a "celebration of the unfettered exploitation" of the experiences of others. "The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my 'place' in the world," she wrote.
The article went viral. The ensuing controversy had festival organisers on the back foot, and a right-of-reply session was hastily scheduled. It was not just right-wing commentators who reacted against Abdel-Magied's response; many in Australia's literary community also thought Shriver's comments sensible and Abdel-Magied's reaction over the top. Fairfax columnist and novelist Anson Cameron accused Abdel-Magied of "demanding the ghettoisation of literature".
Today, Abdel-Magied says she never said authors could not write outside their experience. (She did, however, say in the article: "It's not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can't get published or reviewed to begin with.") "That was one line in a 1400-word piece, and that wasn't the main point," she says. "We are asking them to do a better job of writing characters outside of their experience, rather than falling on to stereotypes and tropes that are old and tired and actually have an impact on our day-to-day lives and structures in society. And we also want it recognised that there's structural inequality in the publishing industry."
In February, Abdel-Magied hit the headlines again, this time after a fiery exchange with Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie on ABC TV's Q&A about Sharia law. The spat made for good television: two women, leaning across host Tony Jones, yelling and pointing at each other. In the middle of the fight, Abdel-Magied said: "Islam, to me, is the most feminist religion." Some in the audience laughed. Later, Lambie told Abdel-Magied to "stop playing the victim".
The to me is Abdel-Magied's interpretation of the Muslim faith. Where Islamic teachings are enforced in a misogynistic way – such as in Saudi Arabia, where women are flogged for adultery – she believes it's cultural, a patriarchal state wilfully misinterpreting the religion. "I'm not going to deny that some countries run by Muslims are violent and sexist and do oppress their citizens," she said in a post-Q&A Junkee video that's been viewed nearly six million times. "But … that's not down to Sharia [law]. That's down to the culture and the patriarchy and the politics of those particular countries." She struggles with this issue on her regular trips back to Sudan, where she once learnt to braid intestines for a traditional Sudanese salad. She finds herself "defaulting" to traditional gender norms, transforming from a "terribly outspoken, opinionated, sassy chick to a relatively demure housewife-in-training" and peeling off to the kitchen while the men talked politics. On her most recent trip, in January, she says she began to challenge these self-corrections.
Abdel-Magied's Q&A performance was followed by a battle of petitions. Thousands of Muslim supporters, leaders and activists signed an online petition accusing the ABC of failing to provide Abdel-Magied with "a safe environment" from Lambie's "racist, Islamophobic and crude" attack. A counter-petition calling on the ABC to "publicly condemn and fire" Abdel-Magied eventually gathered tens of thousands of signatures.
Meanwhile, The Australian reported that Abdel-Magied had been on an $11,485 taxpayer-funded tour of "oppressive Islamic regimes", such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, but had failed to criticise these countries for their harsh treatment of Muslim women while visiting. (The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it funded the 2016 tour, in which Abdel-Magied was the sole speaker, to promote Australia as an "open, innovative, democratic and diverse nation".)
The idea that she should condemn these hardline Islamist countries – while visiting or just generally – makes no sense to Abdel-Magied. As far as the tour goes, it was not part of her brief. "Why is there that expectation? I was there representing Australia and trying to do so in a positive way," she says. "I am Australian. This is the country that I live in. This is the country I call my home. What do those countries have to do with me?
"It's not my job to criticise other countries. It's offensive to me that people will not allow me to be Australian enough to simply just engage in Australian issues. They want me to apologise and explain stuff that happens in other countries. I don't ask every Catholic to explain paedophilia; I don't ask other people to take responsibility for things that have nothing to do with them. It's so offensive and so exhausting."
This is part of a wider issue that makes Abdel-Magied despair. As a well-known Muslim, she says she's constantly called on to denounce violent Islamic extremism and explain why she wears the headscarf. In February, she walked out of a podcast interview with Mamamiapublisher Mia Freedman. "One question literally was: 'Do you condone female genital mutilation because I've never heard you condemn it?' How insulting is that?" In the introduction to a later podcast with another high-profile Muslim woman, academic Susan Carland, Freedman admitted she made "mistakes" in the interview with Abdel-Magied, who "became angry" and "the interview fell apart". It was not broadcast.
"This sort of framing of the conversation sets me up to fail," says Abdel-Magied. "The premise is offensive. There's a presumption that I support these things [like female genital mutilation and extremist Islam] unless I explicitly say that I don't. Yet, we assume reasonable people would naturally denounce these things without being asked. Why would I be any different?"
Following Q&A, Abdel-Magied responded to a Facebook comment on a friend's post criticising the prosecution of her argument. "What specifically was problematic and how can I do better in the future, inshallah [God willing]?" asked Abdel-Magied. She was responding to Wassim Doureihi, the spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, considered a radical Islamist group. Abdel-Magied maintains she didn't know who Doureihi was. The Australian's subsequent headline read: "Feminist activist sought advice from Hizb utTahrir." The article was taken seriously by some who'd supported her. When she explained the situation to one of them, they replied: "That's such a relief. We thought you were pretending to be moderate all this time."
On Anzac Day this year, Abdel-Magied slept in. She normally goes to the dawn service – she had sat on the federal ANZAC Centenary Commemoration Youth Working Group in 2013 – and was "bummed" she didn't make it. When she got up she wanted to say something, so she posted "Lest We Forget" on Facebook. But she felt she needed to add something else. "I wanted to show that I am connecting with it more," she explains. "I wanted to show that, okay, lest we forget. What else shouldn't we forget? Lest we forget lives lost. What other lives should we also not forget about? I was trying to show that I was connecting with the spirit of the day [in a manner] that was deep and meaningful and nuanced." So she added Manus and Nauru in reference to the asylum-seeker camps there, and the conflicts in Syria and Palestine.
Abdel-Magied switched her phone off because she was writing. Then a friend popped over. The Anzac Day post, he said, was "not cool" and people would think she was "hating on the diggers". She says now that her comment was naïve and "a total tactical error", but at the time she couldn't understand her friend's interpretation. She took it down anyway and apologised on Facebook. At this point she'd not seen the outrage brewing online. "I jokingly said, 'Wouldn't it be funny if someone wrote about it?' " According to one data analysis, 64,000 words were written about the topic. And it wasn't funny at all.
When the storm was in full swing, pushed along by The Australian, people called Abdel-Magied "un-Australian" in the street. Coalition backbencher Eric Abetz campaigned "as a matter of urgency" to dump her from the Council for Australian-Arab Relations. Other senior Coalition politicians – Peter Dutton, Barnaby Joyce, Mitch Fifield and Tony Abbott – lined up to castigate her, while backbencher George Christensen suggested self-deportation. Others, where she lived in Melbourne's Greens-voting inner-north, congratulated her and said she should never have apologised; people before her, including academics and politicians, had questioned the nation's increasingly singular focus on that day.
Abdel-Magied withdrew from her public engagements for the next four or five weeks. She streamed a lot of TV shows (Anne with an E,the Netflix Anne of Green Gables remake, Borgen, Occupied); she hired a car and went for long drives. Her father said, "You should listen to people who are wiser than you." Her mother, distraught at seeing her daughter attacked by powerful people, said, "You need to think about things before you say them." Abdel-Magied was unimpressed. "I was like, 'Mum, a little bit of sympathy would be nice.'"
She turned to two other high-profile public Muslims for help: Susan Carland and her husband, Gold Logie winner Waleed Aly. Carland cops her fair share of online hate, but was shocked by the degree of vitriol levelled at her friend. "It really seemed like the intention was to destroy public Yassmin," she says, noting that Abdel-Magied is everything certain groups would want in a Muslim: modern, feminist, loves Australia, loves democracy. "It is so sadly telling about the public conversation in Australia at the moment. This is the most despair I've ever felt about the way we talk about Muslims and Muslim women and multiculturalism and who belongs in this country."
Several themes emerged in the criticism of Abdel-Magied on social media,in newspapers and in Canberra, including anger that taxpayers funded her Middle East tour and her job at the ABC (presenting stories about Australia), and a sense that she puts being Muslim ahead of being Australian. Then there was the idea that a good migrant is a grateful migrant; one that does not "snipe and snigger at us", as one letter writer put it. In some comments, there was also an undertow of sexism; another letter writer called her a "self-promoting woman", as if this is somehow a crime.
IN HER first year after graduating, Abdel-Magied was posted to a coal-seam-gas rig with PathFinder, a company owned by oil and gas services giant Schlumberger. Abdel-Magied was one of two women on the site, 400 kilometres inland from Brisbane. The other woman worked in the camp kitchen. "I remember the way she used to interact with people," says her then-supervisor Iggy Venables. "No one had anything bad to say about her."
Later she worked for global energy giant Shell in more senior positions. She completed a drilling accreditation course in 18 months that normally takes up to five years. Abdel-Magied says a manager warned her when she joined Shell that she could either be "Yassmin the individual or Yassmin the engineer". Not both. "I was like, 'What does that mean?' And they said, 'You want to be careful what you do here because the industry is going through some tough times.' And I thought, 'I'm going to be such a good engineer you won't be able to do anything about it.' "
Abdel-Magied was technically gifted but Shell did do something about its outspoken employee, disciplining her in March 2016 for publishing – without its permission – her memoir (which didn't mention the company) and a prior article about working on the rigs (which concerned Schlumberger and didn't mention either company). In a statement to Good Weekend, a Shell spokesperson says the company doesn't comment on current or former employees for privacy reasons, but "wished Yassmin well in her future endeavours".
Abdel-Magied says Shell described the publication of the memoir and article as a pattern of "non-compliant" behaviour and rescinded a promotion that would have involved supervising a rig off the coast of Brunei. She subsequently asked for a year's leave to concentrate on her book tour and advocacy work.
During this time, she arranged a prized job in Shell's London-based new energy division. The role was to start in April this year, but Abdel-Magied wanted another year's leave to fulfil her ABC filming commitments, finish another book tour (she'd just released a new edition) and concentrate on the speakers' bureau for women of colour she'd launched called Mumtaza. Shell declined her request.
Abdel-Magied thought they'd parted by mutual agreement on good terms, and that she could and would eventually return. After the Anzac Day post, however, she read unattributed comments in The Australian Financial Review in which one Shell executive referred to her as a "rolled-gold liability".
"I was very clear that I didn't represent the company in public," she says. "I tried so hard to be the best engineer I could, then for them to go and say I was a rolled-gold liability. Out of all the things, that was the most hurtful."
The executives may have been unimpressed but Ash Palairet, Abdel-Magied's drilling supervisor in 2015 on a Shell offshore rig three-and-a-half hours by chopper off the West Australian coast, is among her biggest fans. He says she excelled at her work and was also a natural leader who dealt well with the rig's blokey atmosphere. He recalls a discussion about childbirth in which the men were saying how difficult it was to watch a loved one go through so much pain. Abdel-Magied responded that it was tougher on women, who actually carried the babies. "It got heated," remembers Palairet.
"She put on her hard hat and left the office. I found her out on the heli-deck hip-hop dancing to let off some steam. She was all-out free-styling. That summarised Yassmin."
Palairet continues: "She's still young but she's destined for something big. She breaks down barriers and lifts our awareness as a society. She's pushing the buttons of the establishment, and letting the rest of us be the judge of their responses."
Abdel-Magied, who arrived on the rigs with orange nail polish to match her hi-vis vest, says she loved her offshore workmates, despite their sometimes offensive talk and different political views. "Through all of the stuff that has happened to me, I've got messages from these blokes who you might think vote for One Nation, saying 'Hey, we've got your back, we've been defending you,' " she says. "I was proud to call them family."
In late June, Abdel-Magied was talking to her mother, feeling sorry for herself. "You are not a victim," Faiza admonished. Soon after this conversation, Abdel-Magied unleashed a torrent of tweets announcing her return to public life. One read, in part, "Staying silent left a vacuum that other voices gleefully filled with hate and vitriol that was deeply racist." And she had a message for women like her: "To those who see what has gone on and think why on earth would I subject myself to that? I hear you. But I'm here to tell you, I need you, too."
A week later, Abdel-Magied made another Twitter announcement: "Folks, it's been fun, but I'm off to partake in the Aussie rite of passage – I'm moving to London!" She posted a selfie: bold, smiling, thumbs up, with a backdrop of the Earth taken from space.
But what's the truth here: Aussie girl on rite of passage or someone whose job prospects have dried up in her home country? Hounded out of Australia or simply in need of a break from the role of young Muslim spokesperson? Abdel-Magied is coy about exactly what she plans to do once she leaves in September. "Some things I want to keep for myself for now. But there will definitely be a lot of writing." Is she writing another book? "Maybe. I can't say anything."
Does she feel as if she has been hounded out of the country? "Yes and no. For a couple of months I felt very frightened, isolated and, yes, hounded. But when I made the decision it was from a place of strength and wanting to take control over my future. It was a decision I made for myself." She's not sure how long she'll stay away. "Who knows? I might meet a nice Englishman and just stay. But I don't know – my parents want me to come back next year."
For her detractors, Abdel-Magied's announcement meant just one thing: good riddance. "Can I drive you to the airport, Girlie?" one tweeter replied to a Daily Mail online story. Her biggest supporter, Faiza, believes it's about time to get away, to heal. Faiza has little doubt that when she's stronger, her daughter will return and continue "the fight": for equality for migrants, for people of colour, for Muslims. For Muslim women.