DR MEHREEN FARUQI: Equality in Representation
Dr Mehreen Faruqi is an Australian Greens MP in the NSW Upper House, an engineer, academic, activist, and person with a good sense of humour.
Dr Faruqi is a candid voice in conversations about race and curates Love Letters to Mehreen, a collection featuring the racist and sexist comments she receives in office delivered with 'a touch of sass'.
THE PIN. You grew up Pakistan and moved to Australia as a young adult in 1992, can you describe your childhood and the move to Australia?
DR MEHREEN FARUQI. There are so many beautiful memories of growing up in Lahore but the ones that stick out most revolve around summer holidays, friends, family, cricket and food. Playing cricket with friends in the neighbourhood during long summer evenings then digging into the most delicious, juicy mangoes to cool down is a favourite. Ramadan and Eid are other times I reminisce a lot about.
Our moving to Australia is quite a typical migrant story. I moved here with my husband, our one year old son and two suitcases in 1992. We were young and adventurous wanting to experience another part of the world, but leaving Pakistan at that particular time was also to get away from an unwelcome shift in societal values and politics from what I had grown up with. Corruption was really setting in at all levels and conservatism in politics had taken hold.
I completed a degree in civil engineering in Pakistan and worked as a structural engineer for a couple of years before moving to Sydney. It was the middle of the recession Australia “had to have” according to the then Prime Minister Paul Keating. It was near impossible to find a job in engineering.
I started my masters in environmental engineering while my husband, also a civil engineer, drove a taxi to make ends meet. Living from fortnightly pay to pay was very different to what both of us had been used to, and I’d be lying if I said it was an easy settling in period. I missed my family terribly, we didn’t have much money, but exploring a new place and culture was nonetheless exciting.
Were there particular aspects of the Australian culture that stood out in stark contrast to Pakistani culture?
M. Although moving to Australia was my first adult venture out of Pakistan I had some familiarity with Western culture through watching American and some Australian television shows and I’ve always been an avid reader.
For me one of the worst times of the day was weekday evenings. In Pakistan, this was a time we usually went out to visit friends and family or to do shopping.
In Sydney, everything shut down at 5 pm. Finally we found a couple of places which reminded us of the hustle and bustle of Lahore. Most nights we would be walking up and down Darlinghurst Rd in Sydney with our son in a pram or at the falafel shop in Bondi beach. The joys of a young and carefree life!
What drew you toward politics and the Australian Greens?
M. Culturally, Pakistanis are generally quite engaged in politics and to me the much talked about political apathy of Australians is quite an alien concept.
Since taking up my role in parliament last year, I’ve been asked many times about my journey from engineer to politician. To be really frank, the evolution from professional engineer and academic to a Greens MP has been very organic. I’ve always navigated my career and made choices based on where I can make a useful change or at least try to influence an organisation towards being ecologically and socially sustainable and aware.
Rightly or wrongly my choices have been based not on the next career ladder rung or the next pay increase but on the people, their vision and whether my values align with theirs. This is where my Australian story becomes entangled with the Greens. I joined the Greens about 10 years ago when I was living and working in Port Macquarie because of their strong support for multiculturalism and against racism, their compassion for refugees and of course for action on climate change. These are issues, amongst many others, that I care about. After a period of settling in a new country I was ready to work with a progressive political grassroots movement and contribute to the future well-being of Australia.
You’ve previously said ‘some people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what multiculturalism is and why we need it’. What aspects of multiculturalism work well in Australia and what could be improved?
M. Some people think of multiculturalism as something to fear, something which seeks to displace the Australian way of life. Multiculturalism and retaining connection to your culture is not a rejection of Australian culture; it is in fact part of Australian culture.
We also need to stop thinking about multiculturalism in purely instrumental terms of what advantages we get out of it, whether that’s the amazing variety of food or cherry-picked cultural aspects or even the economic contribution migrant communities make. Of course, these are all important benefits of a multicultural society but we need to embrace the intrinsic value of multiculturalism and ensure cultural preservation of different migrant communities as an essential part of the fabric of Australia. Immigrants or other cultures should not have to justify themselves only on the basis of what economic value they can contribute to the broader society.
How important is language when working toward cultural harmony and understanding?
M. Language that stereotypes certain races or religions works against creating a harmonious society. The ‘dog whistling’ by some politicians and the media especially when discussing topics such as asylum seekers, religion, crime, welfare and so on aims to divide rather than unite people. This is of course nothing new, but in recent times we have even gone past dog whistling to overt racism and hostility which has created a really divisive ‘us and them’ rhetoric within society. It is in our power to turn this around but the first step is accepting the uncomfortable reality that discrimination and racism does exist in our society.
Do you think it is possible to identify with more than one culture?
M. From my experience, migrants, especially the first generation are definitely caught between two cultures – one from their life and history in the country of origin and the second from their adopted country. As we grow and evolve, especially in such a multicultural place as Sydney, the sense of identity becomes quite complex and for some even confusing. I’ve now lived almost the same amount of time in Australia as I did in Pakistan and I can truly say that I identify with both cultures. Humans have a great capacity to engage with the intricacies of life and I feel absorbing another culture quite different to the one I grew up with has made me a more perceptive, thoughtful and understanding woman.
What are your hopes for your family and younger generations in terms of culture and identity?
M. As my children were growing up, my husband and I made it a priority to visit Pakistan regularly so they could meet friends and family, and more importantly so they could understand their cultural roots. At the end of the day they are Aussie kids, who I hope are proud of their heritage and are contributing to make Australia a fair, equal and just society.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about growing up in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
M. Hindsight can be a great tool for self-reflection and making changes for the future. I guess I am the person today because of all the decisions and influences in my life so far, so no regrets there. Knowing what I now know, though, I would not have fretted so much about life’s sudden shifts in direction which may not have fitted in with my planning. I’ve learnt that being flexible and open to the surprises and opportunities life brings leads you in unexpected yet amazing places.
- This interview has been edited and condensed