Dr Susan Carland’s reputation precedes her. She’s an academic and author, one half of the most visible Muslim couple in Australia.
While her media persona is not her, if it were, you’d sum her up as someone smart who doesn’t take any lip.
When she sits down to answer DCA’s questions – personal and potentially intrusive questions – about the intersection of her feminism and Muslim faith, you could say there’s room for frisson.
Despite this, we start by charging towards the elephant in the room: do Islam and feminism interact, or do they conflict?
Far from seeming annoyed, Dr Carland is keen to respond. “For me, they interact in that one of the key injunctions for Muslims, what God requires from us, is to stamp out oppression in any way that we can. Sexism is a form of oppression. So to me it makes total sense that religiously I would be concerned about sexism, just as I would racism or any other form of inequality or oppression.”
And the conflict?
“It’s a tricky one. I don’t really feel a sense of contradiction. But I guess the thing to keep in mind is that feminism is a very broad church. There are many different approaches to feminism. Similarly, with Muslims. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and there are 1.6 billion ways to be Muslim. Everyone’s going to do it differently. And so for me I feel that I’m in a place where the two align pretty neatly.” She adds that the idea of Islam as inherently hostile and oppressive to women is a “lazy trope” and suggests the best way to overcome it is for those interested to switch off the TV headlines and speak to Muslim women, instead.
Those interested could start with Dr Carland herself. Her achievements are many: she’s the author of two books, an in-demand social commentator, a Monash academic, and the holder of a PhD acquired from the university’s School of Political and Social Inquiry.
It’s difficult to imagine her being ‘othered’, stereotyped or having her credentials called into question on the basis of her diversity. It’s her prize … right?
“I remember one lecture,” she confides. “A student came up and basically said ‘What right do you, as a Muslim woman, have to teach us about feminism and gender studies?’ I sort of said ‘Well, I have done a PhD on the topic, I think I may know something!’
“Just … the audacity of this first year university student. To come and say that to me because I’m a Muslim woman. To suggest that I don’t know anything about the topic and shouldn’t be teaching.”
She goes on to talk about the hate mail (“so much now someone else has to deal with it”) and the inability to put personal contact details on her email (“most academics have it”). All consequences of being a very visible, very public Muslim woman who doesn’t conform to type.
What’s funny is that these anecdotes are related in an even-handed – almost chirpy – tone. And it’s impossible not to ask if it all bothers her.
“You have to become matter-of-fact about it to survive it,” she shrugs. “If I did stop to think about it, it might make me really sad or scared or frustrated. And then what do I do?
“It just makes me all the more determined to stay here and go on ABC and be there in my headscarf and be really in your face, because you do not get to run me out of town.”
Speaking of headscarfs, they’re curious things. Simultaneously criticised as a symbol of female oppression, and hailed as the ultimate act of feminism in parts of the world where women’s bodies are currency.
So which is it?
Are progressives in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, where covering is mandated, at odds with progressives in countries such as France, who, at times, must fight to wear it?
“No. They’re actually going in the same direction, which is a woman’s autonomy over how she dresses. It’s the same issue. And for me, the whole point of the hijab is that it’s meant to be an act of worship to God. Many other things can come into it – culture and politics and feminism and all these different things – but at its core, that is the point.
“It’s meant to be an act of worship to God. So if a woman is being made to wear hijab to appease a government or a family member, then it’s not an act of worship.”
We end at intersectionality, a place that often raises more questions than answers. Questions like: if you want to make the world fairer and more inclusive, who do you start with? And when it comes to the individual, where do you start? Is their identity component parts, or a holistic whole?
Dr Carland concedes the politics of identity are “tricky”.
“I don’t think there is one right answer,” she says. “I don’t think there ever can be. If nothing else, we need to be conscious that diversity isn’t just one thing. Things collapse into each other. Like with me: I am not just a Muslim and I’m not just a woman. I am a Muslim woman and those two things multiply to create something unique.
“I think for employers, just be aware of what you’re doing in your hiring or your positioning. So long as we’re aware and we keep trying to improve and speak to people in groups we realise we’re not including and say, ‘we know we don’t have enough of you in our positions of power. How can we make that happen? What do you need?’”
Interview: Andrea Maltman
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