SBS Online: Getting to know our neighbours

Defining ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ has been the subject of some debate since the release of the Federal Government’s White Paper in October last year. But how much do we know about the neighbourhood we are calling our own?

Last month I found myself in the hot and humid Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur with five other ‘cultural exchange’ participants and a diplomatic entourage. I was a guest of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our mission was to learn as much as we could about this nation’s rich tapestry in one week.

Malaysia is often seen as an exemplary model for Muslim countries around the world; a country with a Muslim government where halal food is abundant and hijab fashion shops sit comfortably next to Chanel and Hermes.

For me, the opportunity to delve beneath the surface was an experience that offered much to reflect on, particularly for a migrant Muslim who calls multicultural Australia home.

Read on...and check out my first piece as a blogger on the SBS Online website! 

I will hopefully now be a regular contributor on a whole random range of issues so watch this space!

Malaysia's Identity Issues.

Why the sudden interest in Malaysia? As part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Cultural Exchange program, six young Muslims from Australia are partaking in an exchange program in order to deepen cultural understanding. I have the immense honour of being one of the participants of said initiative.

Traveling through Kuala Lumpur over the last couple of days and engaging in deep and meaningful conversations with various Malaysians has been an enlightening experience indeed.

What has emerged from the conversations?

To an outsider, it seems there is an underlying undercurrent of confusion and frustration in the Malaysian population about identity, politics and religion.


It is important to start with the understanding that Malaysia is made up of three main ethnic groups; Malays, Chinese and Indian.

The Malays are the majority, and they are also defined in the nation's constitution as those who are Muslim and speak Bahasa Maleyu.

If you are Malay, you are entitled to many privileges under the 'Bumiputera' policies.

This leads to an interesting dilemma.

1. If a nation is seeking to be truly multicultural, an affirmative action law that racially privileges one over the others makes life difficult for those in the minority (Malays make up just under 60% of the population). What then is a 'Malaysian' exactly?

2. If the criteria to be a Malay includes being a Muslim, how does a nation separate 'Mosque' and 'State'? Does the religion simply become part of an identity of a race rather than a true spiritual practice? How do minorities fit in a society that only 'accepts' one standard version of Islam?

These are the two questions that have been at the root of many of our conversations. It seems clear that the issues are far from resolved, and the results of the recent election raise more questions than they answer.


There is much more to be said and shared, but this is only the beginning of the program, and I am weary of making judgements that may be unfair.

Observationally though, it seems there is an insecurity around the idea of identity, of what it means to be 'Malaysian', both individially for Malaysians and for the nation itself. It is clearly still a country that is journeying through the nation building process.

What is concerning is the politicisation of Islam and the use of the religion for political gain, or on seemingly superficial matters. This is one such example.

What this means for the future of the nation, particularly one where the opposition is a coalition of the PKR, PAS and DAP parties (i.e. Muslim Malays and Chinese Malaysians who are varied) is interesting and unknown.


I will no doubt learn and reflect more as the week goes by. What are your thoughts though, on how Malaysia deals with the issues of identity, as a nation and individually?



Malaysia: Are you ready for this?

Just a quick community announcement! Heading off for the week to Malaysia for the Australia Malaysia Institute's cultural exchange program...

Stay tuned for blogs, photos and insights from the road!

Any questions and suggestions? Particular things in Malaysia I need to do or check out?



Excited? The Sydney Writers' Festival is on!

The Sydney Writers' Festival looks insanely awesome this year!! Are you going to be there?

There are the likes of Barack Obama's Chief Digital Strategist, Anne Summers, Ruby Wax, Slam Poetry... ahhhh! I am so excited!

Are you going to be there? Who are you excited to see??

If you are free and around, maybe you can pop by and check out lil ol' me talking about big ol' issues like Women and Power and a "young lady's survival guide to life on the rigs"...

Should be fun ;)



Global migration: Changing the way we define our identity?

This was originally posted on Future Challenges! Check out the [button link="" newwindow="yes"] Original Link[/button]

When my parents moved to Australia with me as a screaming baby in tow, the situation in Sudan was dire, true, but it was much more an economic and socio-political decision rather than one of safety. This type of migration is increasingly common, particularly to a migration based nation such as Australia. How a nation and its people – as well as migrants themselves – deal with these global flows currents of people will define attitudes and perspectives of our current generation and generations to come.

I describe myself as either a “global citizen” or “mongrel”, both labels of which I am proud. What exactly does that mean though, for me personally, for many others in similar situations and for our society as this becomes perhaps the norm?

Menschentraube on Wiki Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

From a purely economical point of view, there is no doubt that migration, particularly skilled and business based migration, is of great importance and benefit to a society. The introduction of policies such as 457 visas (officially known as the Temporary Business (Long Stay) Visa), which allow Australian companies to sponsor employees from overseas has allowed for the development of sectors where skills are required, for example the oil and gas industry. Australia is no stranger to migration by any means; more than a quarter of the population in 2011 was born overseas, we speak more than 260 languages and identify with more than 270 ancestries. With the ease of travel this century and the relative stability of our economy compared to the global status quo, it is no wonder that more people are looking to cross the oceans to call this land girt by sea ‘home’.

If we are to look at this from a cost-benefit point of view, there is no doubt that what is gained from migration – an increase in labour supply, national income, skills, development, cultural depth, awareness and exposure, heavily outweighs any perceived disadvantages; identity crises, housing and services, the cost of humanitarian arrivals (although this is an international obligation), possible rise in community tensions due to a lack of understanding leading to changes in social cohesion.

It can be said that from that point of view as well, Australia is lucky in the sense that it only stands to gain skills from migration. By and large, we are not suffering from the ‘brain drain’ affecting other nations; our Net Overseas Migration (NOM) is 232 000 (497000 arrivals and 265000 departures, ABS and DIAC projections, 2012). It should be noted that NOM is the net gain or loss of population through immigration to Australia and emigration from Australia.

Although the drivers and immediate economic benefits are known and recognised, the effects on the socio-political landscape are those that are more often talked about, highlighted and debated. Migration can be seen as a purely economical factor perhaps, however we must not forget that we are dealing with actual people, who have hopes, dreams, desires and families. Migrants not only bring economic impacts, but their very presence changes the fabric of communities, and it is this change that can turn the tide of opinion. Economic factors are enough to convince a company perhaps, but “not in my backyard” is also a term used…

A cursory look at headlines over the past year or two clearly indicates that migration and identity are in the forefront of people’s minds. The discourse hasn’t always been friendly:

Tony Abbott plans to block people from Australia, news

Australia is a nation based on multiculturalism, and we have a great untapped resource in our cultural diversity. It is important that we appreciate the value of our migration and cultural diversity, capitalise on its benefits and ensure that we do not neglect the socio-political effects that it has. We must ensure the communication lines are always open between migrants and those who have been settled for generations, and that we provide the space for young people to discover and mould their own identities to find the balance between their heritage and their current environment in a manner that is comfortable and familiar to them. It isn’t something that will happen overnight or be ‘resolved’ but more one that will change over time as influxes and migratory patterns change.

This level of cross cultural pollination has never been seen in history before, so we are at a unique point in human civilisation where we can create and mould identity based on more than just an accident of birth location – we almost have the choice and freedom to form whatever identity we want. What effects will that have on our society as a whole? Who knows yet. It could mean that nationalism no longer has the same power that it used to, or that it becomes based on something other than race, birthplace or religion. It could mean that cultures become based on hybrids of existing national traditions… who knows? All I know is that it is within our control.

Migration is not a crime

Migration is not a crime, by dkalo on Flickr, CC BY SA 2.0



The irony is never lost on the Indigenous population – apart from them, we are all migrants to Australia. So who is anyone to deny the benefits of a concept that brought them there in the first place?

The Lady With The Crash Helmet

On a recent trip back from the States, I realised I had uncovered one of the best conversation starters on an aeroplane or in an airport. Carry a hard hat on top of your hand luggage.

Trust me, it works a treat!  Especially if you are a Muslim chick…

I didn’t quite fit the above stereotype…perhaps fortunately?

I think about 4 people asked me straight out: “So why are you carrying a crash helmet on to this plane?  What do you think is gonna happen?”.

It took all my self control not to crack an awful joke every single time; I am not sure if they would have appreciated my dark sense of humour in this particular situation.

A few others were just curious: “What’s a girl like you doing with steel caps and a hard hat?”

“Oh well, I work on the field…”

Quite a number of interesting conversations followed, and to be honest, one can sometimes forget how interesting the people on the plane can be!

I ended up meeting all sorts of people; some who work in the motorsport industry, some guy who works as a professional tree climbing equipment supplier (and got there in the most random fashion…) and another guy who used to work on oil rigs in the same area, in the 1980’s!

That was kinda a cool one.  He had a few stories, a couple of permanently crooked fingers and a life story which he prefaced with: “All we wore were steel caps and shorts…”

Ah, OH&S has moved on a bit since then.

It was a nice reminder in general though, that instead of walking around airports with headphones in my poor abused eardrums and a “don’t talk to me” look on my face as I struggle through jetlag while carrying too many pieces of hand luggage as per usual…I should take more notice of the people around me on a more regular basis.

You never know who might be sitting next to you…and the stories they might have.


Something occurred to me today.

Faces I sometimes forget, names I often do if I don’t write them down or spell them out.

Stories however… they sustain me.

Stories are the colour to the tapestry of life; the details are the richness of the pigment, the texture, the intricacies to something bigger than ourselves.

Stories are what make people people, and everyone has their own story that is worth listening to. 

Isn’t is a basic human desire to have our story be heard?  Perhaps not by everyone, but at least someone.  Perhaps…you.

Suitcase Memories

“This is such a cold town,” I said to my mother, in between blowing my nose. But it took me a while to learn their reaction wasn’t a sign of disrespect or indifference, not the way I took it anyway. New Yorkers are unshockable, it’s true, but they also know that no one gets private space, and the best they can do is to leave you alone and at least pretend you have privacy, even if the crowded sidewalk affords you none. When I see someone in tears on the sidewalk, my instinct is not to rush over and help them—what would I do, anyway?—it is to offer them the dignity of not staring.”

Here is everything I learnt in New York

For years growing up, all I remember saying I wanted to do was travel.  I had this image in my mind of backpacking through hostels in Europe, traipsing about in the Amazon and long, dusty road trips into the sunset…but knew that would never really happen, because that wasn’t part of the “plan” – I had school, university, a career to get onto…

Sometimes when you get what you have been working towards for a long time, you don’t realise you are there until it is over.  Sometimes you realise half way through…and if you are lucky enough to do that, never forget to stop and enjoy it.

I realised in a conversation a little while ago that my dream of travelling frequently and often had been granted, Alhamdulilah.  The penny hadn’t fully dropped yet, but taking a step back and appreciating the larger picture was what I was missing.  It was happening; perhaps not in the way I had imagined, but in a way that was equally enriching, exciting and intriguing.

What have I learned? Ach, I ask this of others but don’t ask myself this question enough.  What I do know, right now, lying on a bed in a room that alternates between freezing and boiling (because hotels don’t like open windows?!) is that at the end of the day, you rely on yourself and whatever (or whoever) you believe in. 

You have to decide what is important to you and base all your decisions around that – if you have your priorities straight and truly believe in them, then decisions are easy.  Just join the dots.

Loneliness is a frame of mind… but it is always nice to have someone to come home and tell stories to, even if it is a fish or an uninterested sibling.

Pack light (easier said than done) because you will definitely go shopping (or maybe that’s just me?).

You are no where near as important or significant as you think you are. There are billions of people in this world, and travelling, in whatever capacity, opens your eyes to what is out there…if you are willing to let it.

That doesn’t mean that your life, my life or anyone’s life isn’t important in itself per se, but the world doesn’t revolve around us…and that is okay.

YOUR world revolves around you, but your world isn’t everyone else’s world.

What a penny to drop! That is honestly, more like a pound… but once I realised that, I began to appreciate how exciting life really is.

How every person you meet is an insight into a totally different way of thinking, a totally different life perspective, a totally different paradigm…and totally different world.

How is that not exciting?  It simply…*is*.  It means every single person you or I ever have the fortune to meet has their own story… and you have been given the gift of interaction, so why not find out what their story is?

After all, some of the most profound lessons I have learnt are from random interactions with people I only met once… and never seen again.  A chance interaction with another world.


I won’t ever be able to experience everything there is to experience in the world.  However travelling a little myself, and travelling a little through the eyes and minds of others…well, that is a start for now. 

Pandora’s Box…

Isn’t it interesting that the smallest things are what remind you of how far away from home you are? 

The odd choices in the grocery stores, the strange shows on television and the news anchors you don’t know if you should trust?

Need I say anymore?

The slightly different social expectations, like choosing to drive instead of to walk?

Even the time the sun sets.  It is all…new, and, well, different.

That is exciting, and also slightly uncomfortable.

But I am beginning to think only the uncomfortable forces you to grow and see how far you can stretch.

Isn’t ironic that we think of life lessons as hackneyed phrases and disregard only to appreciate their significance when we experience it directly.

It’s like we sometimes think we are the only ones who have ever experienced such difficulties and trials, and forget there is an entire history of humanity that has gone before us, generations of billions of people who also saw themselves at the center of their own worlds…

It is natural I guess, as we see the world through our own eyes, to think of only our experiences, but we should step back every once in a while to examine our own insignificance.  Scary, perhaps.

Also slightly liberating… 

Women in the East, Women in the West: Finding the middle ground.


Have you ever had your fundamental beliefs about your role in society challenged?

I never thought it would be so…confusing.

Having recently returned from a four month stint in Sudan, I have been trying to reconcile what I saw and experienced there with my experience growing up in Australia as an Aussie chick.  I think I am still figuring it all out…

I never really considered myself a true victim of the “identity crisis” issues that were said to plague first and second generation migrants that make Australia their home.  I considered myself ‘Straylian through and through, from the way I talked and thought, to my mates and sports of choice (except for cricket…soccer girl all the way).  I loved the fact that I could walk into a pump shop at a mine site in central Queensland as a hijabi-wearing-Sudanese-born gal and instantly relate to the old mates working maintenance because, well, I grew up here. This was my country, these were my people.

I felt comfortable with the choices I had made: my degree and career (mechanical engineer, pretty butch), my sport (boxing: yup, as feminine as they come) and the belief that my gender played no part in the role I was to play in society.  My mantra was pretty much “well if the boys can do it, I can do it too”.  My father was naturally horrified, but hid it well and mostly accepted that was who I had become.

Boy, was I in for a treat when I got to Sudan.

My first month was…interesting.  Not because of the heat, or the conditions or the lack of system…but because of the cultural expectations that were placed on me that I just wasn’t accustomed to.  I understood and accepted the bare bones of it all (after all, my parents brought me up as a Sudanese woman), but what frustrated me was the clear discrepancy between the roles of men and women and the unwritten rules that I was expected to adhere to.

Sport was a big one – my grandmother couldn’t understand why I wanted to train on the local track, competed with my uncle in pushups or was so interested in exercise.   It wasn’t even the obviously masculine things that were different: Apparently the way I walked, sat, talked, laughed…the issues I wanted to debate (politics isn’t for women!) and the interests that I had were all unfeminine and undesirable in a respectable Sudanese woman. 

I used to joke to my aunt: “Someone should write a rule book on “How to live life as a Sudanese woman” so I don’t keep putting my foot in it and doing the wrong thing”

She would just laugh.  “This is how it is here…”

At first, I found it funny.   I loved being the odd one out, flying in the face of what was acceptable, just being me.  Then it began to frustrate me.  Why was I being judged on things that had nothing to do with my true character? Why weren’t my cousins fighting for their rights as women!

It isn’t as if my cousins were “oppressed”.  Hardly.  My cousins are all studying or working and my aunts all have higher degrees.  Their English is great and they are all well educated and well read.  In fact, one aunt is running one of the biggest businesses in Sudan!  So the opportunity for women to do things is there. Yet… I still couldn’t understand how the women were living with such cultural restrictions.

My cousin shed some light on her perspective one night and said something that I had never considered before.

“It is so cool that you are travelling and doing all this stuff and seeing the world Yassmina, but that is your world.  You have to accept what we have accepted that this is our world and we have to operate in it.  It’s not as bad as you think! We know what we have to do and the role we have to play to be a good woman, a good wife, a good Sudanese and a good Muslim, so we do that.  We don’t want to make our lives harder by looking for things that we don’t really need…”

My aunt echoed a similar sentiment.  “You might look at me and say woah, she has a degree but she is sitting at home taking care of the house, how oppressed is she!  But I love doing this! I love taking care of the house, cooking and being there for my family, and many others do as well.  I work [she has a teaching job], but I work hours that will suit the family because at the end of the day, the family is most important.  You might disagree Yassmina, but the woman is better suited to bringing up a family; you can’t have a home without a mother…and I am happy to fill that role”.

Hold up! I thought.  Yes, there were some societal inequalities that women had issues with and were wanting to have resolved…but by and large they were happy with the role they were playing in life? They **wanted** to be caregivers and homemakers? Wait…does this mean our entire definition of success differs? Huh? Didn’t they want to be liberated?

Yikes.  Now I was confused and I began to wonder…

Maybe there is some validity in the way my family see the role of a woman. Maybe it is too crazy for me to expect a man to have an equal share in the housework. Maybe, as a woman, I have to think about my role as a procreator and a homemaker as just as, if not more important, than my career…

If you know me at all, you would know those thoughts are truly at odds with how I tend to see the world.

There is another aspect to it too, one that I haven’t talked about here, and that is how the women see it as their Islamic duty to be the caregivers and the homemakers.  This was harder for me to deal with, because I don’t have the scholarly Islamic knowledge to confidently refute what they were saying.

So I reached a point where I was at a loss.

Do I forget about everything I saw and learnt in Sudan and continue living life the way I had been in Australia, with gender not being a factor in my decisions because “that’s how I grew up”

Or, do I follow the path described by my cultural background, where all my decisions are largely based on gender and gender roles… because that is “where I am from?”

I had – and sometimes still have – difficulty reconciling what I grew up with and what my background encourages. The thing is, I think the expected role of a Sudanese woman in society is at odds with the expected role as an Australian woman in society.

How does one deal with that?


I guess for me, I think I am beginning to realise that the idea that “women can have it all” is fair enough, but perhaps for me should be amended to “women can have whatever they want”.  If they want the house and kids that’s great, and if they want the career that is within their rights as well.  Having it all at the same time though… that might be a little more difficult.

I don’t have a concrete answer to my mental dilemma just yet. All I do know is that I feel there needs to be a middle ground, and that is the one that I choose to take, inshallah. A path that takes into account that I am a woman, but that doesn’t limit my choices, it informs them.

If there is one thing I took away from the trip, it is this: It is important, as a woman, to recognise that if (and inshallah when) you choose to have a family, the role as a mother is invaluable and cannot be substituted… and that gender does play a factor in the family dynamic, whether we like it or not.


How it will all play out and how much will I take from that lesson? I guess only time will tell…

What about you? How do you see the role of women in society? Have you ever had your views so challenged?


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??