Brisbane Times: How Racist Are We?

I wrote this piece for the Brisbane Times... check the full article (and comments!!) out here. ***

In 2005, when news of the Cronulla riots spread, my family was inundated by calls from friends and family overseas asking if we were okay.

"We're fine!" we would say. "Queensland's different".

That's how I'd always seen it. Growing up in Brisbane in the 90s and 00s, I remember associating racially motivated violence with Sydney and Melbourne.

Although there were incidents in Queensland, it was never as common or visible. Even after 9/11, although our mosque was burnt down and there were incidents of racism, the community didn't experience the widespread and intense incidents of racial hatred as exhibited at the Cronulla riots or more recently, the attacks against Indian international students.


So why is Queensland different? Do the numbers support my anecdotal evidence? Are we more cohesive, or is it a case of luck and "it just hasn't happened yet"?

According to census data, New South Wales and Victoria have an over-representation of LOTE (Language Other Than English Spoken at Home) population, with Sydney and Melbourne's LOTE population at 37.8% and 33.7%, compared to Brisbane's 17.9% (ABS, 2011).

It is quite clear then, that the ethnic population density in Queensland is significantly less than those in the southern states, perhaps a reason for less racial violence.

Furthermore, the southern capital cities have more densely populated areas with particular groups of migrants that have been settled for longer, whereas Brisbane and Queensland's migrant populations are younger and less dense.  In 1996, Queensland had 29.7 % fewer LOTE speakers compared to NSW (ABS, 1996).

On the other hand, the Scanlon Foundation's "Mapping Social Cohesion" (2012) report states that Queenslanders are particularly likely to hold negative views on cultural diversity.

Numbers may not always tell the whole story.  As a lifetime Brisbanite, I don't think we have a widespread issue with racial violence as we are a little different to our southern neighbours.

Firstly, the settlement of racially diverse populations hasn't been in the dense concentrations of lengthy settlement as seen down south.  This has allowed ethnically diverse populations to better embed themselves into the fabric of the mainstream community.

With that familiarity comes understanding and the reduction of the likelihood of racial violence.

Secondly, as a society, we are now much more aware the needs of migrants and LOTE populations having learned from Sydney and Melbourne. As populations now settle in Queensland, the many support mechanisms available from government and organisations help alleviate many of the issues based around settlement that may provoke violence.

When my family moved to Australia almost 20 years ago, the level of support was essentially non-existent.  Now, there are extensive networks to help, and the positive impact this has cannot be understated.

However, it cannot be denied that there are negative - dare I say racist - views around the state. We've been lucky so far. I feel safe, accepted and don't find my race a major inhibitor in my ability to participate.

We shouldn't be complacent however, and as we become more racially diverse we must work together to ensure that our community isn't marred by the manifestation of negative views and the racially motivated violence that can truly damage the fabric of our society.

Read more here!


Thanks to the Brisbane Times for giving me the opportunity to contribute...

So what are your thoughts? I only had 500 words, there is plenty more to the discussion!

Be Prepared: Unlikely Inspiration

“You must know that in any moment a decision you make can change the course of your life forever: the very next person stand behind in line or sit next to on an airplane, the very next phone call you make or receive, the very next movie you see or book you read or page you turn could be the one single thing that causes the floodgates to open, and all of the things that you’ve been waiting for to fall into place.”  - Anthony Robbins

Some of the biggest changes in my life have occurred after the most unlikely inspiration. 

My love of cars and motorsport?  From watching a movie when I was 13.

My current job? From chatting to a lady at a jobs stall when I was in first year uni and thinking 'I would love to do that one day'.

Deciding to start an organisation? From attending a conference I applied to late, and a conversation I had with my mum late that night...

Keep an open mind. 

You never know when the inspiration will strike, or when your life will change...


So Why?

A comment after I had written this piece did raise a point that I had forgotten to address, and a question that many non-Muslims are probably wondering: Why is there such a response in the first place?

For many living in authoritarian countries, the publication of a piece such as “The Innocence of Muslims” is seen more as a reflection of what the entire government and community believes in that country rather than the words, actions and beliefs of a single individual. Furthermore, it is easier for extreme and radical leaders to twist the actions of an individual and say that it represents “The West”, and usually that also means “America”.

For example, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah (the leader of Hezb Allah) publically stated:

“The ones who should be held accountable and boycotted are those who support and protect the producers, namely the U.S. administration,” Source

Whatever you think of the man and his policies, this is a clear illustration of the leadership using the actions of an individual as representative of the “enemy”.  This is how you will get people like Haji Samar Gul:

…an 80-year-old protester at the Kabul demonstration who said: "We shouted death to America, death to supporters of America, death to slaves of America."

If you’re source of guidance comes from your local leader and he says to you “check out this insulting video, it was made in America, this is what they think of us and how they treat our religion”…well, you can imagine you’d be feeling pretty put out and pretty keen to start shouting.

It still doesn’t excuse violence though, especially not in Australia. This is just symptomatic of a whole other kettle of fish to do with extremism, the leadership within the communities internationally, and the education levels of those on the street. A little more thought required on this issue…

(Thanks for bringing up this point Emile!)

Do we have a role to play?

It is not an unfamiliar story; born in a developing country and having the fortune of being brought up in a country with opportunities. It is not an unfamiliar story at all, but somehow I find myself in unfamiliar territory.

Perhaps this is an issue that is best suited for quite discussion around a coffee table with trusted confidantes, perhaps it isn't a lament suitable for the public arena.  If it is an issue that is affecting *me* so profoundly though, who is to say there aren't others with a similar dilemma that I can learn from?

I am an Australian, through and through and proud of that fact.  I travel with the Aussie passport, I have an Aussie accent, when I am asked where I am from (in my brown skinned & hijabed attire), I say that I am an Australian.

The fact that I was born in Sudan was always just a part of my background story, something that added flavour to my introduction.  Yes, it meant I ate different foods at home and I had a slightly "exotic" home culture and cultural expectations, but it was never really something that affected how I saw myself interacting with the world.  I was Australian with mixed Sudanese heritage, I would say.

Spending some time in Sudan though, has brought up questions that I never thought I would ask myself.  

The country is in an extremely difficult position, for a number of reasons (that requires its own analysis, perhaps when I am at a different address).  As someone who has always been passionate about social change, human rights and the like, it is no longer something I can ignore, no longer something that is just a part of where I come from.  I used to visit quite frequently with my parents as a child and the trips would be all *visits, nostalgia, happiness, excitement, family*. As you get older though, you begin to see the cracks...especially when the cracks are widening.

So it became a question of wanting to do something.

Something, anything.

From the socio-economic perspective, I could see where work could be done.  Working with the grassroots community, helping with education, food, orphans, teaching....achievable in discrete amounts, bit by bit...

Then cames the realisation that this may not be enough.  No amount of aid or number of mobile libraries is going to fill a gap that the government should be filling. So I cast the net wider...

...and realise that there is, maybe, a hope for change.  All the neighbouring countries rose up right? Why can't Sudan be the same?  That is the question I hear asked... by the young, the bloodthirsty, the hungry and desperate.

The more seasoned critics reason with experience:

We've been here before and worse, they say...

What is the alternative? they ask...

Better the devil you know then the devil you don't, they counter...

This one is satisfied. He's "shab3an" (ate until he was full). If anyone new comes, they will come hungry and do it all again....

So one sees all this and thinks well maybe, maybe there is a way I can play a part in this. The critics are right, there needs to be an alternative? Does an alternative exist? Do those who are rising up and protesting have a plan? Perhaps I can offer some semblance of support or control or aid...

I ask these questions because of desperation to help, somehow.

I think maybe I can play a part, somehow -- 

Then comes the questions -- the questions on the back burner, the questions that people ask:

Well who are you to get involved?

Do you even really consider yourself Sudanese?

Who do you think you are?

Why should we listen to you?

Do you know what we have been living through?

Are you just bringing in their ideas??

Can you even speak the language properly?

...and I begin to doubt.

But in such a situation, there is no room for doubt.

All that is left is the question:

Does the fact that I grew up in another country, and consider myself an Australian, exclude me from fighting the fight in the country of my birth? What right do I have, does it make me less legitimate a voice in this battle? If I choose to join this fight as part of the Sudanese sha3b (people), does that mean I forsake my "Australian identity"? 

...or is it a case of deciding for myself what my identity is and what "fights I choose to fight?"

I think that perhaps may be my answer, but that in itself, isn't an easy thing to do...

The older I get, the less sure I am of where things stand in the world and the more I realise it is all shades of grey.  

What do you think?

الوضع الراهن في السودان - The Status Quo in Sudan (written in Arabic)

السودان بلد جميل، لكن عليه ضغط غير طبيعي. بعد انفصال الجنوب في شهر يوليو ٢.١١، اصبحت البلد في وضع وظروف صعبة جداً. ارتفاع الدولار في السوق، و توقف ضخ النفط أدى الى ارتفاع الأسعارعامة. الغلاء اصبح ليس طبيعي، مثل كيلو الأرز في اسبوع بخمسة جنيهات و بعد أسبوعين بثمانية. لكن المشكلة الخطر إن مرتب موظفين البلد ثابت، و مفترض يعيشوا بنفس الميزانية او ميزانية اقل لأن الدولار مرتفع.

ما الحل؟ الله اعلم. معظم المجتمع عائش يوم بيوم، لكسب لقمة العيش فقط.  الشجاعة لعمل ثورة او انقلاب ما موجود، والناس الموجودون في الطبق العالية يعيشون بالراحة، لا يتأثرون بالغلاء في البلد.  المعارضون الذين يريدون إسقاط النظام تم القبض عليهم من جانب الحكومة

.لكن رمضان قادم، و مستوى المعيشة ستسوء... الله اعلم

My first attempt at commentary on the situation in Arabic!

I would appreciate any comments or feedback :D.

Translation out soon :D.

Cultural Sh-Sh-Shock. Part II

As I mentioned yesterday, traveling brings out the differences in our social fabric, and sometimes these differences are a little more difficult to get used to.  Even though I was brought up in a Sudanese household, there are a few things that are extraordinarily different when you actually live in Sudan, as I quickly found out, and some of those differences are illustrated below... (Note: I love Sudan, I really do. I was born there and am a proud Sudanese. Some of the below have a slight ironic tone, please take it all in good humour).

1. Communal or family based living

This is a theme that underscores many of the societal differences that I have found in Sudan.  Even though I think my parents did try to engender this concept in their kids while living in Australia, it didn't quite hit home like it does now. In Australia for example, everyone looks out for themselves.  Everyone largely lives their own life, as the individual unit is seen as the most important.  The complete opposite is true here in Sudan and many other "Eastern" nations; the family unit is what matters, or at least the "community" and the concept of doing things for individual success, pleasure or improvement is largely foreign.

This manifests itself in a number of ways, such as:

2. Everybody knows (or needs to know) everything

I am used to being a relatively independent person and making independent decisions.  However, in a community and family unit based society such as Sudan, this isn't how things are done.

If I want to go anywhere or do anything, everyone in the house seems to need to know.  

In my case, it needs firstly to be cleared with the grandma of course. We then check if the place is safe, known and reputable.  An aunt, a cousin or two and another member of the family (maybe even my parents in Aus) also need to be told before I leave, just in case.  If I am late by a minute or two... the phones start ringing.

They tell me this is for my own safety, and I am sure it is, as I don't know the lay of the land.  However for someone used to just "doing things", the level of familial bureaucracy can be slightly ...odd.

It is all part of protecting my reputation of course... because:

3, Your reputation is your life!

There are two parts to this: As I was duly informed by my grandmother when I arrived, my reputation is my most important asset, and if I ever want a good husband (oh lol) and accordingly a good life, I would do everything in my power to be "bit naas", or "a respectable girl".  

This includes:

1. Only going or being seen at "appropriate" places (this includes university, my family's house... and restaurants, with family of course)

2. Not being out at night (sunset curfew, unless I am at a sanctioned event with family)

3. Being able to serve (i.e. Bring tea/drinks/appropriate food out, clean quickly and quietly etc)

4. Being "agreeable"...and so on and so forth.

You get the point.  This emphasis on my "reputation" is quite important you see, as it dictates what people "think about me" and my "marriage prospects"...

Again, for someone who is used to "just doing things because I want to", having to think about what others think of me and what my actions say not only about me, but my entire family is quite a lot to take in while planning an outing.  

The issue is also, not only doing the right thing, but always appearing to do the right thing. So if there are actions that are right but might be misconstrued (e.g. returning home at night, even with family) this is to be avoided at all costs, lest the neighbours talk!

4. No Concept of Privacy

So I have definitely had to get used to a new sense of "sharing", in two different senses.

Firstly, at the University I attend, my property seems to be everyone else's property as well! 

For example, if I leave my bag unattended (or I look away briefly), and I will return to find someone going through my bag to "borrow" a pen or rubber or drink my iced water (which you can't buy at uni....). A classmate once borrowed my phone to listen to a song, and continued to, unapologetically and without permission, browse through all my messages and photos! I was rather shocked, until I realised this is seen as normal!

I stopped her when she started critising my photos ("why are you taking photos of the street?"   "...") and she genuinely looked offended at my taking offense.  It truly seems that there is no such thing as "mine only"...

The second aspect is the concept of personal space.  Being used to (in Aus) having my desk and study space where I zone out and work, not having similar "alone time" here has been quite interesting, as people are around you all the time.  In fact, taking yourself away from the conversation or a get together is seen as odd, because people are very social and community based.  I think of myself as an extrovert, but I do need my space to think...

Maybe all that Australian space makes me spoilt :P

5. (This is a big one) The difference in expectations and opportunities for men and women.

I could write an entire post about this topic and how it has made me feel while living in Sudan.

Suffice to say, as a women who is a mechanical engineer, I am not stranger to people telling me "that's not what women do".

But truly, the limitations placed on women simply because they are women!!! in this society boils my blood.

"It is not safe for women!" They tell me.

"Respectable girls don't do that!"

"You will never get married if you don't learn how to cook!"

"What kind of girl are you if you don't roll your hair!"

"Sport isn't for women!"

"Be more sophisticated!"


Never have I felt more powerless or incapable purely because of my gender.

(To be continued...)

(NB: All this makes me sometimes wonder at my claimed ethnicity. I didn't realise I was such a "first worlder!")

Have you guys had any experience with culture shock, especially from a culture you thought you knew really well??


The Awesomeness of the Aussie High Commission ;)

Alhamdulilah, I have arrived safely back in Sudan after a short-but-informative trip to Malaysia for the Asia Pacific Roundtable, the Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program (supported by the Aus-Malaysia Institute, ISIS Malaysia, St James Ethics Centre, Asialink, Australia-Thailand Institute (ATI) and the Australia-Indonesia Institute (AII)) and a lunch event with young Malaysian leaders and the Australian High Commission. Woah, a mouthful! Now that the official part is over...

It was a fantastic week, and as some of the previous posts can attest to, I learnt a great deal: much I am still processing.  The Emerging Leaders part of the program gave us (about 20 young people from Australia and ASEAN) an opportunity to present on and discuss issues of import to the region, including illicit migration, regional security and the effect of middle powers.  St James Ethics Center's Dr Simon Longstaff also presented an extremely moving and interesting piece on "the biggest strategic mistake leaders make..." .  I won't give it away but suffice it to say that it has a lot to do with leaders just "looking away" and how often do they do that? Thing Houla -- quite often indeed.

On the last day of my stay, I was fortunate enough Alhamdulilah to be a Guest of Honour at a lunch hosted by the Australian High Commission and an Aussie Muslim Diplomat (which I think it totally awesome).  It was an awesome opportunity to meet the staff of the High Commission and spend some time with young Malaysian leaders.  I shared a little of my life story (haha! the poor audience) and tried to listen to the stories of the people around me.

It was a great opportunity to shift some of the thinking about Australian in Malaysia.  It seems that there is a particular impression (or stereotype let's say), of what Australia as a nation is and represents, and the fact that a Hijabi-wearing-brown-skinned-young-female is up representing Australia...well that challenges a few of those assumptions.

It was also an opportunity to hear about some of the issues that face young people in Malaysia - and interesting, being young and full of ideas is one of them.  Growing up in the Sudanese culture, I think I can relate: the idea that age = wisdom, respecting and listening to your elders and "waiting until it is your turn" is strongly entrenched.  I don't think that within the Sudanese community I am even seen as an "adult" yet! (Not until I get married and have kids anyway) so for young people striving to be involved, this is quite an issue and one that is deeply entrenched in cultural expectations.

Hopefully something that will shift though, as the generational change occurs.

All in all, a fantastic affair and I hope to stay in touch with the fabulous people I met.  Inshallah something comes out of it all!  Kudos to the Aussie High Commission and all the ISIS etc people involved for a truly interesting and thought provoking week.

(Oh and the food was a-maaaaazing. Just sayin').

*Fun Fact* 

Did you know a High Commission is the equivalent of an Embassy, just in a Commonwealth country? I didn't until only recently! You learn something new every day...


North Korea: The Soprano State?

Day Two of the Asia Pacific Roundtable

I am currently attending my first official Track II diplomacy level conference, and so far it has been an intense and slightly Model UN reminiscent experience.

The last session of the night however, was an amazing presentation by a certain Professor Andrei Lankov.

The guy has a wikipedia page. That, in my book, clearly indicates he is an academic of worth (hehe).

In all seriousness however, it was probably one of the best presentations I have ever attended, let alone on the issue of North Korea.

In his adrenalin fueled, Russian accented speech, Professor Lankov gave us an insight into where North Korea is at, and why he believed that inevitably the nation would collapse.

He started off by emphatically stating:

You may think that the North Korean leaders are irrational and unpredictable.  You couldn't be more wrong.

The North Korean administration he stated, are the world's best Machiavellians.  They are rational, pragmatic and cold minded.

They are in the business of SURVIVAL.

What do we mean by that, you ask?

Well, the North Koreans for decades now, have run a tightly controlled state in which they perpetuate the fantasy that their neighbour, South Korea, is poor, malnourished and beneath them. They are proud of being the North Koreans.

If the North Koreans understand however, that the Kim Jong era has in fact failed economically, that their previously impoverished South Korean cousins are now flourishing and prospering, the Northern state will fall apart.  As such, the administration is in the business of stability.

The Four North Korean Rules of Stability are summarised as such:

1. Do not reform.

If the NK's begin reform, there is the almost inevitable possibility that information from the outside will filter through and the dictatorship will begin to lose control. As such, avoiding reform means avoiding avenues that will lead to loss of control.

2. Kill all dissenters.

So that no one with a single opposing view remains. Until the mid 90's, if an individual dissented, they and their family would be jailed for their disobedience.  The zero tolerance approach is a crucial component of controlling the populace.

3. Keep the nukes.

Talks about disarmament, Lankon cautioned, will never come to fruition because the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons.  Why? Nukes are the dictatorship's currency: they are an effective deterrent and their most effective diplomatic tool.

The Northern Koreans know that as long as they have nuclear capability they will not be invaded: if Libya hadn't given up it's nuclear weapons a decade ago for example, NATO wouldn't have aided the rebels/freedom fighters against Gaddafi. The US, country will attack a country with such a high risk.

Furthermore, the North Koreans use their nuclear program to secure an exorbitant (read millions of tonnes) of free aid and food by promising to freeze their nuclear program, due to the world's desire for disarmament.  Essentially, they are eating their nukes.

4. Control changes from below.

One of the ways that change may happen is from below -- similar to Tunisia.  As long as these changes are kept under control, the risk of change is minimized.


It would seem that the collapse of the North Korean state is inevitable, but that time frame in which that will occur is unknown. If they newer generation of leaders (who are all educated overseas, proud of their country, enamoured by the cases of China and Vietnam) decide to undertake reforms in the next decade or so, Lankov believes they probably won't survive the transition. If they are cautious, emulate the policies of their fathers and forefathers, it is likely they are "just waiting..."

It is amazing to think a nation like North Korea still exists today.  A nation where health care and education are comparatively high due to the socialist method of care, but where owning a tuneable radio can lead to a five year prison sentence... a nation which, if they fail, will produce millions of refugees, the opportunity of kilos of plutonium for sale and procure an extremely costly rebuilding project...all on Australia's (relative) doorstep.

Food for thought.