Yassmin Abdel-Magied: breaking stereotypes about Muslim women

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 21 June 2016

25 year old Australian woman Yassmin Abdel-Magied is breaking stereotypes every which way.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Yassmin Abdel-Magied Photo: supplied

She is a mechanial engineer who works on an oil rig and a self-confessed petrolhead, she designed a race car and trained as a boxer for five years. Yassmin is also a Muslim on a mission to promote diversity.

At 16 Yassmin founded Youth Without Borders - an organisation that aims to empower young people to work together for positive change within their communities. Last year she published a memoir and was named Queensland Young Australian of the Year.

Interview highlights

Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I like to think of my life as a bit of a movie sometimes. So when the really tough times happen, I’m like ‘Righto, every movie, every story, needs to have some really difficult moments because nobody wants to hear that your life went perfectly if you’re going to tell a good story’.

I don’t necessarily go out wanting to do things because they break stereotypes. I do what I want and they just happen to break the stereotypes that people have.

For my parents as long as I followed the rules of faith – which were generally the rules of any faith, be a good person – everything else was negotiable.

I’m not going to pretend there weren’t moments were I thought ‘Nobody else here is doing this. Should I continue?’ We take in all the signals around us and all the expectations from our parents, our schools, television and other media about what we should and shouldn’t be doing and what is right and not right. Particularly around gender – this is what young boys do and this is what young girls do, and this is the behaviour that’s accepted and rewarded and this is the behaviour that you will be punished or ostracised for.

If you can imagine every day of your life that you remember – as a young person in particular – an image of who you are is being built, when all of a sudden you are demonised. You are demonised for a faith that gives you direction and purpose. For me what happened during 9/11 was I went from being a kid who wore funny clothing to the face of all that is evil.

What do you expect people to do if you say to them ‘You don’t belong here’? They will look for somewhere to belong to. They will look for somewhere to pin their identity. And there are people out there who are saying ‘Come join us, you’ll be welcome here’. And that is dangerous. It’s dangerous because you’re feeding into the very thing that you’re trying to fight.

This is probably one of my favourite stories: I had met this bloke on the rig, he was reading a motorcycle magazine and we started chatting about Ducatis. I chatted to him for a couple of weeks. I dind’t really talk about Islam that much, but a friend of mine messaged me on Facebook a few months later and said ‘Do you know so-and-so?’ I was like ‘Yes, how do you know him?’ She was like ‘His sister came up to me today and was talking about how this guy met some Muslim chick on a rig and went from being some racist redneck to someone who defends Muslim people all the time – and I don’t know what she did to him'. My friend was like ‘That sounds like Yassmin’.

Human connection can really erode so many of the stereotypes and so many of the lenses in which we see the world.

You might think ‘That’s too big. How am I going to change what people think?’ But ultimately at the individual level we all have the capacity to influence those around us.