Award-winning writer Randa Abdel-Fattah is one of Australia’s most compelling cultural critics. Her book Coming of Age in the War on Terror, interrogates the impact of living in a post 9/11 world on young people’s political consciousness and their trust towards adults and the societies they live in.
What does feminism mean to you?
For me, a critical feminism is a ‘project identity’ which is concerned about race, war, economic inequality, domestic abuse, criminal justice reform, immigration policy. My feminism is grounded in post-colonial, intersectional feminist activism and scholarship. I am also very conscious that the word feminism is loaded — received and often presented as a western phenomenon and ideology. To claim it as a Muslim Arab woman has its own challenges. But there is power in the word feminism, and I know my history and that the struggle for justice and equality does not belong to white women or secular women or ‘the West’. My critical feminism is inspired and guided by Muslim women who have engaged in exegesis since the time of our Prophet, to women out there today in the streets of Lebanon, to women at Israeli checkpoints in occupied Palestine, to Uyghur women up against the Chinese state, to women studying in Madrassas in the Muslim world, to women fighting for their clients in the court rooms of Indonesia or Malaysia, to women who took to the streets in Sudan during the uprising, to women fighting against sexual violence in Pakistan and India and so on.
Your book, Coming of Age in the War on Terror looks at the impact on the generation that has grown up post 9/11, and with widespread Islamophobia, surveillance and suspicion. Can you reflect on what was it like for you growing up Palestinian-Egyptian in Australia? How is your experience different from what the generation born after 9/11 currently experience?
I attended an Islamic school in Melbourne in the nineties and remember well how the Gulf War spilt into our school: graffiti on the walls and school bus: ‘terrorists’, ‘Saddam’; a bloodied pig’s head thrown in the office window; an arson attack. At that time, Arabs were nameless, faceless. We munched on popcorn in the cinemas as we watched Disney movies which reinforced dehumanising stereotypes about our culture and heritage.
What the post 9/11 generation is experiencing is, in my opinion, worse. It operates on the same racial logics that have existed since this land was stolen from its Indigenous owners, but expresses itself in new ways, adapting to the time. There’s no doubt that racism and Islamophobia have escalated since 9/11, from political debates to media headlines to policy frameworks. In some ways the spectacle of race and Islamophobia is more brazen now and less able to be denied. In other ways, it has become more insidious and sophisticated in the way it maintains a hold on our institutions and the corridors of power.
But what has certainly changed, which the post 9/11 generation can take comfort in, is that due to the sheer tenacity and efforts of Indigenous people, people of colour, marginalised communities, there is far more capacity for us to hold power to account, to mobilise and show strength, and resist in solidarity with each other, to demand space.
You wrote your debut novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? in 2005 and have written many young adult novels since then. How do you make tough issues like racism and Islamophobia accessible to young readers?
I’m often asked this question and lately, particularly after my current work with young people and the Coming of Age book, I’ve been reflecting on this word ‘access’. Because for some of my readers, race/racism are indeed tough issues which are difficult to ‘access’ because they’ve never personally experienced racism. If I imagine those readers then I am conscious that I can encounter white fragility, resistance, defensiveness.
For some of my other readers, however, they encounter race and racism in their everyday lives and wouldn’t want it sugar-coated or downplayed so ‘accessibility’ isn’t an issue. They would want their experiences and feelings validated and acknowledged.
The one thing both readers would have in common is a highly effective bullshit radar: one whiff of being preached to and they’re not going to care about reading on! I think the way I try to balance this is to go back to my instincts as a writer which come from a love of story-telling, of paying attention to the intimacies of human life and letting the bigger drama and issues unfold through the everyday.
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors, books, podcasts, social media, are you reading, listening to and/or following right now?
There are so many Muslim women I admire who work at the grassroots, without public social media profiles, speaking back to power directly, working in communities, challenging patriarchy through their posts in closed groups on Facebook for example. There are also Muslim women working in academia whose writing and research doesn’t reach the mainstream but is contributing to de-colonial efforts within the academy and producing knowledge that challenges race/gender hegemonies.
It would be a worthwhile project to create a resource that highlights the kind of work that doesn’t rate a mention on social media but is having a huge impact on students and knowledge production. There are other women I also admire and learn from who work in a wide range of mediums and genres —writing books and plays, community development work, advocacy, media.
It’s easier if I name some (I emphasise some as I can’t cover them all!) of them for people to google: Shakira Hussein, Sara Saleh, Samah Sabawi, Amani Haydar, Ruby Hamad, Diana Sayed, Hana Assafiri, Rawan Arraf, Sarah Malik, Lydia Shelley, Banok Rind, Eugenia Flynn, Zulfiye Tufa, Paula Abood, Sherene Idriss, Tasneem Chopra, Mona Elbaba, Lamisse Hamouda, Rawah Arja, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Amal Awad, Kawsar Ali.
Also pretty much every Muslim woman who performs at Bankstown Poetry Slam.