A Voice Of Defiance: How Writer And Broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied Is Representing Empowered Muslim Women
Interview & words by: Bethany Burgoyne
Photography: Micaela McLucas
Yassmin Abdel Magied is a force to be reckoned with. Born in Sudan and relocating to Australia with her family aged 2, Yassmin has journeyed between professions and countries, steadily developing the way she can use her voice to disrupt many silenced conversations. Currently living in the UK, Yassmin met with Reform The Funk to discuss her latest writing projects and the way her Muslim faith has shaped the person she is today.
To contextualise the work Yassmin is doing, a bit of background information is needed: from a young age, Yassmin has been setting an example to her peers and fellow colleagues; an example that she was not shown, but instead, carved out for herself. By the age of 16, Yassmin had founded Youth Without Borders, an initiative set up to empower youngsters and create positive change within communities. From there, she went on to win Young Australian of the Year in Queensland, she advised Federal Governments, hosted TV shows and documentaries challenging racism and was often seen on talk shows and panel discussions. Additionally, she did this all at the same time as studying and working as a Mechanical Engineer.
As the responsibilities grew, so did her reputation. By actively discussing her identity as a Muslim woman living and working as a minority in Australia, Yassmin provides an intelligent, honest and insightful voice. However, like many who push the barriers of social opinions, criticism starts knocking on the door. By challenging public views surrounding Islam, and after two particular incidents (a disagreement on a talk show and a post via social media), Yassmin found herself in the firing line for fierce media backlash. The opinion that Yassmin had stepped out of line by speaking up may be a reflection of the society she was surrounded by; despite these incidents, it is important to recognise the highly necessary example Yassmin was setting of a strong, ambitious woman.
An onslaught of death threats and incomprehensible judgement from both public and professional realms led to Yassmin’s decision to leave Australia and move to the UK. “The game wasn’t working for me so I had to change the game. Moving to London was the only move I felt I had left.” Discussing these past events with a voice of acceptance, Yassmin explains how, “All of a sudden you have a complete lack of control - things are happening about you, to you, that you have no say in. You don’t see how there’s a way out because it seems like it will never stop.”
The fact that Yassmin did not retreat but instead, found new ways to continue her work, says a lot about her capacity for mature thought. “I think the challenge is we are afraid of the retribution; we think it’s better to bite our tongue instead of putting our foot in it. But how do we move forward, get better ideas and learn from the melee of all our different perspective? When I was younger, I believed in this idea of never putting my ideas across too strongly, wanting to see all sides. Whereas now I'm surer of what I accept, what I think is true. I have enough years behind me now to say this is how I think, whilst being open to discussions.”
Actively rearranging her life and relocating to London allowed for a new frame of mind. “Undeniably, I have grown as a person over the last few years. I wouldn't call it a rebirth per se. But I had the opportunity to step back and decide for myself who I wanted to be. The process of moving to a new city forces you to look at yourself. Only recently have I stopped introducing myself as an engineer. Not being in this role forced me to interrogate my attachment to the idea.”
The act of writing has allowed Yassmin to develop her voice once again, “I think it’s been interesting to have the space to grow and to be who I want to be on my own terms - the voice I write in is the one I think in. As I become surer of who I want to be, my writing reflects that.” Having published her memoir ‘Yassmin’s Story: Who Do You Think I Am?’ in 2015, Yassmin’s role as a writer has steadily developed. Now a familiar face writing for newspapers such as The Guardian, as well as offering her reliable presence on social media platforms (making one reconsider the often overused and abused status of an ‘Influencer’), Yassmin is reaching audiences far and wide.
Writing her first book for Young Adults: ‘You Must Be Layla,’ exposes Yassmin's talent for creating gently powerful, humorous fiction. Reading the story of Layla acts as an insight into many young girls’ pubescent years, touching on the migrant experience as well as thought provoking themes relevant to teenagers as well as adults. Moving into this field of writing wasn’t something Yassmin had intentionally planned. “There's a hierarchy standing within the literacy world about what kind of writer you are - children and YA is seen quite different from adult literature. I'm still figuring out my place and questioning whether, if I wrote for this age group, it would make me a less serious writer. These are all things that perhaps we don't talk about as authors. A reality, unfortunately, in the commercial business. But I thought about what the point of writing is for me, and it is to tell stories, to share perspectives and to have an impact. That doesn't have to be limited to any particular age group.”
Being able to engage people in conversations which are directly personal to her own experience is what makes Yassmin stand out. Her sincerity in wanting to shift and reshape certain public views feeds into conversations surrounding religion and Yassmin’s own practise of Islam. “It’s funny having something that's so important to you, not having a place in society, because religion is such a fundamental part of who I am and how I live my life. It's in everything I do; from the way I go to the toilet to the way I can structure my day to find somewhere to pray, who I think about getting married to and how I think about the great existential questions of life.”
When discussing the way others view religion, Yassmin explains how “People generally look down on those with faith, an inhabitation to see it as something that might help you access a different type and way of thinking. It’s not seen as a benefit. For me, Islam is an incredibly intellectual faith in the way I've understood it yet people aren’t open minded enough to allow for that possibility. That's one of the sad parts of the public conversations that happen; we see religion as this politicised identity. When, in fact, it’s a religious existence, a spiritual existence, a faith-based existence. It’s nice to talk to friends who haven’t known about the religion, learning about it from me and they say, "Oh wow, it’s so different from what I hear in the news". That makes me sad but also happy that I can have an impact on people’s opinion.”
An overriding sense of optimism feeds into Yassmin’s discussion of the past in a way that recognises the role her faith has played “What happens is meant to happen for some reason and I need to believe that I can handle it. The last few years have been instrumental in allowing me to learn that you have to make your faith your own. You spend so much time practising your faith from your parents or your community, but it may not, in fact, be one that’s thought through, interrogated. There's real value in asking what does this mean to me, and then acknowledging having my faith is fine.”
Whilst Yassmin is able to describe London as her home, there is still an awareness that her upbringing and global movement means she has multiple countries that she identifies as being important to her. “I have a home in Oz with my family. I have a home here in Shoreditch. I have a home in some nebulous way in Sudan. But my relationship with the country has changed over the last few years because of the political, unstable situation and I don't know what to do with that feeling. In a way, I have a stronger desire to be connected to the country than my parents. Which is maybe the diaspora experience; when you're searching for something.”
This search for a home can be seen as an extension of Yassmin’s work – creating movements, narratives, communities and projects, all of which cherish the idea of connecting with others, from different backgrounds, age groups and ethnicities. “Home is where my community is and I feel my faith allows me to have a community in lots of different places. And actually, more realistically, the internet allows me to have friends and communities. A tonne of friends I've made in the UK, including one of my best friends, are people I met on Instagram.”
This is another example of how Yassmin has not shied away from the people or places which have brought her grief. “Lots of people have asked why I haven't come offline because of all the stuff I have experienced. It’s the same as asking someone if they won't go back to their house if they've been robbed once before. Yes, it’s been a space that violated me in lots of ways, but at the same time, it’s also allowed me to have a voice that I really wouldn't have had in any other way. I deeply value that.”
When asked what the future has in store, Yassmin enthusiastically runs off a list of the up and coming projects she’s working on including numerous book projects and an extension of her writing skills by developing a TV series (imagine Broad City meets Chewing Gum) in which she hopes to star in with a fellow friend. Such a project would be a fantastic way for those not acquainted with Yassmin Abdel Magied, to understand that her character is in equal parts: sincere, profound wisdom to witty, rebellious humour. Her genuine nature, open hearted laughter, bubbling enthusiasm and deep-rooted honesty is a powerful combination. One which we can only hope will continue to grow and impact on the world around us. “If you had asked me two years ago what I had planned for my future, I was in a very different position, but I am living proof that you can come out the other side, not the same but certainly stronger.”
Since the writing of this interview, Yassmin has been continually involved in reporting and documenting the current situation in Sudan. You can follow Yassmin on Instagram @yassmin_a and Twitter @yassmin_a and support the work she does via her Patreon Account
Interview & words by: Bethany Burgoyne
Photography: Micaela McLucas