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Susan Carland is a feminist
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Susan Carland is a feminist
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"I don’t want to just send out more ugliness into the world. Or just ignore it. I wanted to do something positive."
Conversations
25 August 2016

Susan Carland is a feminist

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Hilary Walker

Berry Liberman on Susan Carland

Dr Susan Carland is awesome. Her PhD was brilliantly titled Fighting Hislam, an investigation into Australian and North American women challenging sexism in their own communities. As a sociologist, media personality, speaker and university lecturer, Susan invites a public dialogue about Islam in Australia which invokes tolerance and curiosity on one hand, and deep, unbridled hatred on the other.

She is raising a Muslim family in a post-9/11 world, where the hijab and other personal expressions of Islam are deemed politically troubling—provoking fear and rage on the streets and on social media. After experiencing a deluge of hatred online, Susan wanted to re-write the contract with the relentless “trolls” by declaring that for every hate tweet she would donate $1 to UNICEF. What began as a personal response became a national headline: within less than a month she’d raised $3500. As the hate keeps coming, total strangers are contributing funds to her campaign in a reaction against anonymous ignorance and its devastating impact on our delicate social fabric.

As a young Jewish mother sitting across from a young Muslim mother in 2016 in Australia, I’m filled with a deep sense of gratitude and joy. We, of course, had much more in common than we had in conflict. This is our reformation— our moment to declare the kind of world we want our children to grow up in. Despite being agnostic, I don’t want a world where there are no Muslims, no Christians and no Jews—or any other variation of cultural or religious practice. We’d never learn anything about anyone else’s heart, anyone else’s longing or hopes. Religion, after all, holds the space for meaning in so many people’s lives. So while I’m not religious—nor do I understand the need to wear specific dress, head coverings, robes, crosses and scarves—I do love sitting opposite a person different from myself, and having my eyes opened to the possibilities for growth and learning.

A reluctant leader, Susan now has to navigate a public conversation from a place of deeply personal faith. Funny, intelligent and kind, she reminded me that when we get proximate to things we don’t understand, and maybe even fear, we find opportunities for connection—that it is up to all of us to hold the possibility of a world where we can be different and thoughtful, strangers and sisters, members of our unique tribes and citizens of the world. Life, after all, is not a paradigm of opposites, but a complex navigation of our hopes, dreams and prejudices.

This story originally ran in issue #47 of Dumbo Feather

This conversation is proudly supported by Melbourne Theatre Company.

What does this mean?
About that street art...

Susan is standing in front of a mural by artist Clark Duvall Dawson. The work has now been painted over, part of the life cycle of street art.

In properly crediting street art, Clark’s advice is simple: Be aware of what you are photographing. Someone spent time and effort on the work on the backdrop. All it takes is to ask the owner who painted it.

This conversation is proudly supported by Melbourne Theatre Company.

What does this mean?

BERRY LIBERMAN: So I’m going to give a few facts about you Susan and then you can tell me if I’m wrong.

SUSAN CARLAND: Okay.

Seventh generation Australian.

Yes.

Family arrived on the First Fleet.

Fact. We think. We think.

Well, fact maybe.

[Laughs].

Muslim Australian of the Year 2004.

Yes! Fact.

Completed your PhD on Muslim feminists.

Sort of. Fact-ish. It was about the way Muslim women fight sexism. There was a lot about feminism in there. But some of the women didn’t identify as feminists. Some did say, “I’m a feminist.” Some didn’t.

So give me the smarty-pants title of your PhD.

“Fighting Hislam.”

Ah! That’s so ace!

[Laughs].

You teach university sociology students.

Actually, new job. I’m now in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash.

What do you teach there?

“Introduction to Contemporary Australia.”

This story originally ran in issue #47 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #47 of Dumbo Feather

Awesomeness. You’re a mother of two children.

Fact.

Married to a handsome man.

Fact!

Me too.

[Laughs].

Different man!

Ah, yeah! [Laughs].

When we were speaking before you were saying, “If someone asks me a question about why I became a Muslim or why I wear a headscarf I might lose it!” So I thought the first question I would ask would be… [laughs]… If you could talk me through the hijab and feminism and how they intersect.

Okay. So, for a lot of—not all—Muslim women, wearing the hijab is actually a feminist act. Because they would say that we live in a world that constantly commodifies the female body. It’s used to sell everything from cars to lawnmowers to toothpaste. It’s constantly sexualised and commodified in that way. And so for them wearing the headscarf and covering their bodies is about rejecting that commodification of the female form and saying, “I decide who gets to see how I look, and there are things that are more important about who I am as a person than the size of my breasts or what my legs look like or anything like that.” And it’s very much a statement: “Take me more for my mind than my appearance,” I suppose is what they’d say about that. And in that way I suppose it is feminist.

What do you say about that?

I can see the merit in it. For me, and for nearly every Muslim woman who chooses to wear the headscarf, I would say that ultimately it’s an act of worship. Before political statements or feminist statements or cultural statements or anything like that, it should be an act of faith. And this is a religious act. Other things come on top of it just by virtue of the world that we live in.

But at the core of it, for me anyway, it’s a religious thing. And I can certainly see the feminist benefits and the anti-consumerist benefits, and all those things that come with it. But at the end of the day the foundation for me has to be spiritual.

So I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, which, when we were kids, wasn’t a political position. It was just tradition and faith and family. And then as I grew older, I was a pretty solid atheist. That’s how I declared myself. But I’ve slightly and distinctly altered my branding. I would say I’m agnostic now. Which for me is less dogmatic, and I like less dogma. I think there’s room for mystery and magic in what we don’t know and the minute you think you know, you don’t know. So first of all, I wanted to know why there needs to be a gendered understanding of God?

Well, I think first and foremost God in Islam is not a male or a female. It’s not a “He” God, it’s a genderless God. The religion of Islam is meant to operate in the world in which we live. And the reality is that a majority of people do identify as male or female in society, and that’s not necessarily seen as a bad thing or a competitive thing or superior/inferior. All the fundamental aspects of being a Muslim for men and women are the same. We have the same obligations of prayer, charity, fasting, all that stuff. It’s the same. The differences are only a few physical manifestations. So women are supposed to cover their hair. Some scholars would say they don’t have to. Most say they do. And men are supposed to have a beard. But for men and women there is this premium placed on modesty. And I recognise that we live in a society now where modesty isn’t seen as anything particularly worth aspiring to.

We live in a society that’s very much about being “out there” and self-promotional and sexy. So modesty doesn’t have a lot of currency. But it is still something that’s seen as really important in Islam for men and women.
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Not just in terms of physical dress but in terms of behaviour. It’s seen as something that is honourable and good. And so modesty of dress for men and women is something positive. And I guess it comes from that.

And so why was your PhD focusing on feminism, about feminist responses from within Islam?

I think because I saw it happening everywhere  around me. And I knew for a fact that it had been happening for hundreds of years in Muslim history. But very few people outside of the Muslim community seemed to know about it. And in fact when I mentioned it to people they couldn’t believe that there were Muslim women doing this. And if they were, they assumed that they all had a fatwa on their head and their husbands would want to kill them. There was this real disbelief about the existence of it.

Because we have so many stories, stories like Malala— female Muslim child shot for wanting to be educated. Granted, that happened in a repressive regime.

Yeah, absolutely. And so that’s the thing. My PhD wasn’t trying to say that every Muslim community around the world was this feminist utopia. It was saying, “Of course sexism exists.” No one can deny that. And I don’t do the sisterhood any favours by pretending this isn’t happening. What my PhD was about was saying, “Yes, Muslim women recognise that there is sexism occurring in our communities—like in every community around the world—but they’re actually fighting back against it.” They’re not these passive victims who just acquiesce to it or are active enablers of it. These are women who have been pushing back against this and have always been pushing back against it, but nobody knew about it. No one outside of the Muslim community knew about it. And in fact when I went to do my literature review for my PhD there was hardly anything written about it. I thought, This needs to change. This needs to be documented. Because, like you said, everyone knows about the sexism. No one knows about the pushback.

I’m a fan of yours for a lot of reasons. For your brilliance and your ability to articulate yourself when under fire. And I wanted to say, as a young Jewish mother, I still have chosen to send my kids to a Jewish day school. It’s a liberal progressive day school, but nonetheless we have security guards now who have to pack guns. And that’s a recent thing. A terrifying recent thing. It’s not the Australia that I grew up in. So when I think about religious hatred and the reason we need those guns and those guards I don’t think I’d have the elegance that you have when staring at or even responding to that rageful violence. And you’ve been doing it in the most incredible way. I’ve got a note here about your campaign. For every hate tweet that you receive, you donate a dollar to UNICEF.

Yeah.

So you’re a legend. How do you come at what you’ve been experiencing, which is a result of 9/11, it’s the world post-9/11 that is what’s happening on Twitter for you. How do you come at it from this very resilient place?

I guess I felt I didn’t have a choice. What are my options? My options are to become bitter or sarcastic, nasty in response. But really, my response isn’t defined by them and their actions. My response is defined by me and who I am and my character. And so I thought, Who am I? What do I believe? I know what my knee-jerk response wants, and that’s to write a really stinging rebuke and point out all their typos and that sort of thing.

[Laughs] such an academic!

That’s the knee-jerk! But I want to be better than that. I want to be. Even though it’s not my natural nature. My natural nature is to be lazy and selfish and greedy and sarcastic. I mean, that’s actually my natural nature, but I wanted to be better than that. And I thought, How can I be better than that?

I don’t want to just send out more ugliness into the world. Or just ignore it. I wanted to do something positive.

And that’s why I did it.

What makes you want to step up as opposed to run and hide?

It’s funny, I actually don’t have a desire to step up. It’s actually not the motivation. I wasn’t trying to start a campaign or a movement or anything like that. That was never the intention.

“Whoops.”

Yeah! it was just this unrelenting wave of hate that gets into me on Twitter. I remember when I started it, UNICEF said, “Oh, we’ll monitor your tweets for 24 hours to see,” and in 24 hours I got 1800 hate tweets! So it was a lot.

What’s the hate about?

It’s all ‘cause I’m Muslim. All of it. I don’t get it about anything else. And so when I decided to do it, I wasn’t like, “Okay so I’m going to start this movement and I’ll have a change.org petition and I’ll send that press release.” It was none of that. It was just, “This is what I’m going to do.” And I put a tweet on my account because I thought the trolls should know the contract they’re entering into with me. That was it. That was the sum total of my thoughts. But a journalist saw it on my Twitter account and she wrote an article about it. She didn’t even interview me; she just wrote the whole article based on my Twitter feed. Other people picked it up and it just went from there.

And your husband doesn’t like Twitter. For the very fact that you would be exposed to trolls. So how do you guys discuss that? Why have you chosen to be on the platform and him not?

I can certainly see a lot of negatives to social media. Like I think a lot of people can. And a lot of things trouble me about it, and the way it encourages this performance. But I see benefit in it as well. I like the people who I can connect with. It’s the quickest way for me to be across news stories. Things that I never would have caught otherwise, all because of who I choose to follow. And so for me I still feel the positive outweighs the negative. And that’s why I do it.

 And who inspires you? On your Twitter feed? I’m just thinking, I want to scroll your Twitter feed now.

[Laughs]. Funny, in terms of actual names, no one springs to mind. It’s often just the everyday people doing good things, the doctor who volunteers his time to serve refugees because they can’t afford Medicare. They’re the kind of people who make me think, Just keep going. You just keep going and be who you are and try to do good. No big names in there. It’s the everyday person just doing their thing. And maybe even just the people I know in my life. Not even people on social media, but you know just those humble servants everyone sees and they’re not the ones anyone would even really notice. But they’re the ones vacuuming out the community centre, mentoring young people. No one knows about them. That’s the fulfilling life.

There’s this great article by Rebecca Solnit where she talks about society as the iceberg, and we see the top of the iceberg above the water, which is the nasty, selfish, vicious, murderous, self-serving part of society. But it’s the nine-tenths that’s under the water that we don’t see and we don’t talk about. And it’s the kindness among us, the network that keeps society together. But it’s not seen. It’s not as visible.

That’s it. And you have to choose to consciously focus on that. Because it’s so easy otherwise to see all the disaster and the ugly and the horror.

I have to force myself to see that everyday interaction of goodness that exists in the world.

So I want to get back to one of the apparent facts on your factsheet. You grew up a Catholic. Is that right?

Baptist.

Not a fact. New fact. You grew up a Baptist. And then, as a very young woman in your teens, you moved to become part of an Evangelical church.

Yeah that was part of it, yep. I was born in the Uniting church, then changed to Baptist—that’s the evangelical church—on my own.

Before researching religion and finding Islam. So I think that’s a fascinating journey. You were young!

Yeah, I was 17 when I started looking into Islam, 19 when I converted, and I was in my early teens when I started going to a different church to my family.

So you were obviously a seeker.

Yeah. Definitely.

So what were you seeking? And what did you find?

I knew I believed in God but I didn’t know, where is God? Is God everywhere, nowhere? In every religion? One religion? Some religions?

What do you mean you knew you believed in God?

It was just something I felt I knew. It was something I felt I knew about the universe. I just genuinely believed that there was a God. But I still had a lot of questions.

Is there like a thing or a moment where you felt something bigger is out there? Or was it just a vibe?

Sadly no, I wish there were some great story. Like I was drowning in the beach and I said, “God save me.”

Yes! That would be so Mel Brooks.

That’s what happened to Cat Stevens actually. That’s how Cat Stevens became Muslim. He was drowning in the beach and he said, “God if you save me I will work for you.” And he was saved.

I’m sorry but that is so Jewish.

[Laughs].

So that didn’t happen. So it was just a feeling?

Nothing like that. No, it was just a quiet belief, a belief inside me that I couldn’t shake. I wanted to not believe in God but I couldn’t. Couldn’t do it. I had a lot of questions about life, the universe and everything, and so I started looking.

And what did you find?

To my surprise Islam made a lot of sense to me. I remember when I started looking, I wasn’t interested in Islam at all. Didn’t want to know about it. Didn’t want to read about it. But I’d keep accidentally coming across things. I’d be flicking through the newspaper and there would be an article about Islam. Or I’d be channel surfing, there’d be a documentary about Islam. So I kept coming across it and thinking, Hmmm, this is interesting. It started to attract my interest. I decided I didn’t want to know what modern day Muslims were saying, I wanted to know what the traditional classical Muslim scholars had to say. So I started reading them when I was meant to be studying for my VCE exams.

I was reading through these really very ancient, very old texts of old opinions to learn, well, what’s the nectar of this religion? What’s really being said here?

It took two years. It took about two years before I thought, I do believe this.

And your mum wasn’t happy.

No, not happy at all. I think all Mum knew about Islam was Not Without My Daughter which is this really sad, awful, not remotely positive story. And I think she honestly thought when I was going to become a Muslim that I would marry a man who would take me off to his country and she’d never see me again and I’d be oppressed and all of that sort of thing. And yeah, she really struggled with it. She was also very much a second wave feminist and so when I said, “I want to wear the head scarf” she really didn’t like that—“Why would you want to do that after all we fought against!” It took a long time for us to come to a place where we could understand each other. I think it’s only now that I’m a mother that I can see where she was coming from. At the time I was like, “God Mum, why can’t you just let me live my life?”

[Laughs.]

Now that I have a daughter and a son, I know if they said they wanted to get involved with something that looked suspicious to me on the surface…

Like becoming a goth or a punk!

Join a cult or something, yeah! I would be worried too! So I can see now where she was coming from. But now everything’s fantastic, really good with Mum.

Because they’ve understood through you?

Yeah, and I think their worst fears weren’t realised. I didn’t become who they feared I would. I think that helps. They’ve come to know a lot more about Islam than they did. They like Waleed; they can see that we’re pretty normal people, sort of!

So when you were exploring the classical scholarly thinking… Like, I’m coming from a place of struggle. ‘Cause I love men. Don’t struggle with that. I married a beautiful man and I’m raising two. But for me as a feminist I struggle with the patriarchal narrative in religion. I’m always looking for the powerful, spiritual, savant-mother-leader.

Not much to ask.

Is there one?

Yeah, there are a few! And that’s what’s been lovely for me. Islam is finding these great stories of women, these amazing female leaders. And they’re all really different, which I love. There wasn’t just the privileging of the quiet housewife mother, like in classical literature, say. Then, there are also these badass female leaders who we don’t even know if they were married. We don’t know if they had children. And they talked about being these amazing leaders. Or these Sufi saints who went and lived alone and whenever men proposed they’re like, “Oh, just get away from me!” Not interested. And they had all these male and female students who looked at them adoringly, and the Sufis were like, “Leave me alone.” So there are all these different ways of being this great Muslim woman. And I like that. I like that it wasn’t just the narrow you-have-to-fit-into-this-box-to-be-great type of thing.

Did you have to hunt hard for those?

They’re certainly not spoken about the way I think they should be. And that’s the reality of mostly men being in control of religious interpretation. That’s just the reality of, like you said, the patriarchy. What was great is that I interviewed all these women for my PhD, women who had done all this work before me. This woman who decided, “I’m going to do the first female interpretation of the Koran, feminist interpretation of the Koran. And this is why all of these men are wrong and they don’t even realise it.” They’re just fearlessly out there doing this stuff, or they’re doing this activist work. And all except one said they used the religion as their motivation to fight sexism. And when they saw patriarchy or sexism, and often horrendous misogyny around them, one of the things that upset them the most wasn’t just that this was happening, but that it was such a betrayal to their religious tradition. They felt religiously indignant about that as well. And so just hearing their stories was really reassuring. Really encouraging.

While I’m listening to you I’m reminded of a conversation I once had across the Friday night family Shabbat table. I was challenging a few things about Orthodox Judaism and some constructs. And someone related to me, a practising Orthodox, said to me, “You know, if you don’t like it, you can leave.” And I have to say it was a bit of a watershed moment for me. ‘Cause I was like, “You are right! I think I might bail on this one.” But it’s inspiring to think of a reinterpretation.

Well, that’s the thing. The faceless Muslim man saying how it is to me and I say,

“You don’t actually get to decide what the religion is. You are no more holy than me and that might be your interpretation but that doesn’t mean you’re right. You don’t have the mind of God just because you have a penis.”

All these other women are just as worthy as him to go, “Well what actually does our religion teach?” And you know what? He might be wrong. So I could leave. But so could he. He doesn’t own this.

I’m already saying that to my daughter: “You need to decide for yourself now what Islam means for you. And there will always be other Muslims who tell you you have to do this or you can’t do that. And they might be right! But you need to know what does it mean for you to be a Muslim and what does that look like, and who is God to you? You have to work that out for yourself.” Because in the end, there’s an audience of one. That’s what I believe. In the end, you only have an audience of one when it comes to faith.

What you say about your daughter is so interesting to me. It’s this question I’ve been thinking a lot about, of how to parent open minds when you’ve already taken a position yourself on something.

Yeah! You want them to be open- minded. And I guess we have to parent open-handed. We can’t clench our fist on anything—on any ideas of who we want them to be. We might have ideas in our head about who we want them to be or where they should go, but it has to be that open hand of trusting them and where they’re going and what they’re going to choose. I think especially for me, because I am a convert and I did radically change what I believed when I was a teenager, it’s important. What a hypocrite not to want that for my own children as well—for them to come to their own decisions about who they are and why they are here.

Can I call you when I need parenting advice?

I don’t think you’ll want to do that!

“Parenting open-handed!” So ace. I had this great article I wanted to show you. It came out in the Washington Post this year, and the title is my favourite. “Merkel meets Amal Clooney and her husband to discuss refugees.”

Ah! That’s nice! That’s very nice. Her husband, yeah!

You also are one half of a very high profile and influential duo. And so it made me think about something we talk about a lot at Dumbo Feather, which is conscious coupling. So what’s it like to work with your husband?

I don’t know, I don’t think of us as influential. I mean, that’s just such a weird…

Okay, so you are one half of a really boring, not influential couple.

Yeah! Like, it’s just, everyday stuff we’re dealing with. I ring him up and say, “Don’t forget the milk.”

So I’m going to rephrase the question. I know you think your husband is a fox. And you’ve both got powerful things to say. So how do you inspire one another?

At its crux we really support each other. Like, we are genuinely in each other’s corner and I think that helps. Especially, and this is far more for Waleed than me, but especially when you’re in an industry where people are really openly critical of you. We really support each other. We want each other to succeed and we want each other to do great things. So, for example, Waleed’s about to go to England for two weeks on this trip with the UK government and I’m like, “Of course you should go!” I don’t want to be that partner who’s like, “Well now I’m stuck at home with the kids for two weeks.”

Yeah, but like, part of you is saying that.

Well, no, because I believe that he would do the same for me. And that I don’t want to be that partner that crushes the dream. You want to be the one saying, “Go and do it, it’s great!” Because I see that in other relationships and it just destroys the marriage from the inside out. So I think one reason Waleed and I work is that while we love each other very much, we genuinely really like each other. We really like each other. We like being together. It’s our favourite thing to go out for brunch and talk about anything or sit on the couch and have a cup of tea. We like each other’s company. I’m happy when I hear his key in the door. It’s not like, “Oh that guy again,” you know?

And we’ve been married for 14 years. So it’s been a while. But I think it just comes down to the fact that we really like each other. And he has a really high profile job at the moment, but that won’t last forever. And that certainly wasn’t who he was when I got married. We were both students. And I think we both see fame and celebrity as just so laughable and meaningless. It’s just so meaningless. I think the only thing that we find hard about it is the hate that gets directed towards us.

And so what have you learned from being faced with that hatred?

I guess that there are hateful people out there. But I actually think there’s always been hateful people out there. I don’t feel that social media has made it worse. I think we’re just more aware of them. Whereas in the past these hateful, angry people would have written angry letters to the newspaper that may or may not have got published, now they can send you a tweet straight away from their anonymous egg account and send 50 tweets, and they can reach you automatically. But I actually think these people have always been around. It’s just…[sighs]. I don’t know. It is what it is. I don’t know what you do about it.

So if you had a big microphone and the world was listening, what would you say?

What would I say? This sounds so cheesy and I know it’s cheesy. Forgive me.

We’re the home of cheese.

Forgive me, maximum cheese is coming.

Yeah, good.

I guess I have to have these sorts of positive platitudes in my life to keep going. But I read it recently and I thought it was just so spot on. It said:

“In the end love always wins. And if love hasn’t won, it’s not the end.”

And I thought, That’s it! You just keep going with that. Just keep going with that. And if things aren’t great and loving now, it’s just not finished! Just keep going. And that’s good. That’s really good.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Hilary Walker

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