It was just over 20 years ago that I walked through the front doors to do an arts and law degree. I was 18, a bookish and shy young Muslim woman from a western Sydney public school. I was exhilarated and so excited by the life I wanted at a big city university like UTS. It felt like my love for words was a portal that had transported me with a magic Dorothy click-of-the-heels into a better space – the promise of an education opening doors that had not been available to anyone in my family.
I dreamed of being a journalist, a writer, of making a mark in the world.
Words made sense of the world for me. They helped give shape to a nebulous cloud of half-formed questions and desires. They paved a road to self-determination from the limitations of a working-class adolescence and the wider world that circumscribed it.
Every feeling, from loneliness to anger to curiosity, I could find a salve for in books. I knew that what I couldn’t find a mirror would be in the books of the future, written by my generation, existing in the hyphenated margins of western society.
It is why I felt attracted to a career in journalism and writing. I was fascinated by how contested competing truth claims were, the way information was strictly guarded, words carefully crafted to create ideas and stories that impact the way we think. Words full of power, both weapons and shields, that could illuminate or obscure, create sympathy or antipathy.
When I was growing up much of the rhetoric of the media was directed at people like me. I stress ‘at’ rather than ‘to’. We were the problem – the non-integrating Muslims, migrants, misfits. This racism was sometimes mirrored in what it felt like being a girl in a traditional community – being indirectly addressed and talked over, your life analysed and dissected and directed by others, your own feelings and emotions ignored.
This fusion of the outsider was so many of us, children of migrants in the west. I remember reading Dickens and Austen while eating biryani. My morning fasting meal was Vegemite on toast. I watched Beverley Hills 90201 and Bollywood movies. I listened to qawwali and Bob Dylan. I read Germaine Greer and Kamala Das. How could I reconcile myself without imploding?
I read. I read, and was comforted and discomfited. In my early 20s, I devoured the news, words, and the Internet, finding solace in other hybrids blogging to make sense of the world. We were the in-between generation, Salafis and Sufis and seekers, who derived inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rumi, Amina Wadud and Naomi Woolf, Alama Iqbal and Hafez.
At the time I thought universities were the places to solve problems, to connect with great minds who felt the sting of being lonely, of feeling like an outsider. I read Edward Said and Derrida and Judith Butler. I read people who I felt had the words for the wordless.
I poured myself into courses and work that spoke to me. Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? Is there a God? Why do I experience the world the way I do? What are the social reasons for the struggles I was facing? Being a woman in a world constantly policed in which I was forced to conform, of a religion that circumscribed and stifled me where I wasn’t allowed to ask questions, where in a wider society I was treated with suspicion. A post- September 11 world where my identity was constantly foisted upon me as a challenge and a test. Where in order to show how Australian, how liberal, and progressive I was, I had to erase myself, my culture and identity in order to assimilate into a whiter or supposedly more superior way of being.,
I read not as a luxury but as if my life depended on it. To open up my life from the vice-like grip of other people’s projections of me, of messages that told me who I was and what I should be, from invasive gazes that felt like they sliced into me, leaving me no room to breathe.
The gaze of the Imam who told me a woman’s place was to be obedient, the gaze of the white feminist who told me my people were backward, the papers that blared that Muslims were dangerous and anti-democratic. Reading was the lifeline that opened my horizons. Literature and higher education was the hand that came out of the page and took mine, the hand that understood, and eventually the hand that empowered me to contest the way narratives had defined what I learned was historically ‘the other’, people like me who did not have the platforms and power to speak back.
In the library, I developed a feminist consciousness with Simone de Beauvoir and later transformed that consciousness with the works of feminists of colour, like bell hooks. Reading shaped a way of looking at the world with nuance and endless possibility, a world full of histories and meaning that impacted the present day. Instead of being accidents, I learned our current social realities and relationships had patterns and threads. They were deliberate creations that benefited some at the expense of others. This knowledge was like X-ray glasses, revealing and opening the world to me as a myriad ways of living and seeing and being.
So much of my memoir Desi Girl: on feminism, race, faith, and belonging is about that period of my life, the UTS years when I moved out of home, when I struggled financially, when I became an independent person. And most importantly it’s where I began to have a consciousness and an idea of how I wanted to live my life, what mattered to me, what I wanted to be guided by and a spirituality that spoke to me.
It’s where I found housing and scholarships and part-time jobs. It’s where I connected with teachers like the late great Islamic studies and feminist academic Jamila Hussain, jurisprudence teacher Penny Crofts, head of journalism feminist Wendy Bacon and immigration law scholar Jennifer Burn; people who were formulating paradigms to question the frameworks we lived by.
The university was a precious space for me – an incubation, a reprieve, a place where instead of a traditional thesis I created an online feminist website predicting that digital journalism would transform society.
More importantly, university gave me the opportunity to fail, to make mistakes, to get my heart broken, to join political groups and leave them, and to do a million ill-advised things that are the privileges of youth. UTS was my safe space, a place where I was like experimental Petri dish, cultivating and becoming something new.
I connected to the imaginary, I dreamed of possibilities because the books I read, ones that felt as real as my hand and heart, were also acts of imaginations that becomes tangible things in the world.
Years later, now in my 30s, I still don’t pretend to have the answers. But I know that empowerment begins by becoming comfortable with not having a place, but being in the in-between place where things don’t always fit.
It is these secret worlds that opened up for me that have sustained and shaped me.
Today I am the writer I dreamed of being and that happened by refusing to be silent. Today I write and my words and feelings matter, they are read and considered by others. They are maybe a tiny drop of colour in a river of social narrative that changes the constitution of the whole, just by existing.
I wrote my memoir because I am the first in my family to have the privilege of writing a new story for myself, of literacy, of going to university, of choosing a life for myself. I think about so many women and girls who are denied that opportunity, people in my own extended family. I think about how history loops around and repeats itself.
I think of Palestinian women trying to protect their children, surviving every day under occupation. I think of women in Iran tear-gassed in the street for fighting against police brutality and right to dress how they please. I think of women in the US stripped of their right to bodily autonomy where books are now routinely banned. I think of Afghanistan, a new regime that begins its old assault on women and denies them the power that access to knowledge brings. I think of trans women who face continued discrimination for just existing. I think of First Nations women who daily navigate a society that has systemically taken so much from them. I think about so many women whose lives are circumscribed by those who want to deny them autonomy, voice, and the power that knowledge and education brings.
This is why authoritarian regimes ban books. It is why extremists target female schools. Art and knowledge create questions, sow doubts and wonder, light a path to an unknown place. A girl who reads is a girl with ideas. And a girl with ideas is a powerful girl. In a world where control over women can be either subtly or violently enforced, from conformity to social ideals to rigid laws circumscribing physical control, it is the rebellious mind that has the potential to be the biggest threat.
I think about my mother who grew up a world away from here who wasn’t allowed to go to school, and me who grew up here and how connected we are.
It makes me realise how urgent our fight is, and how deeply connected we all are. The threads that bind us are more intimate than we think.
It made me realise how, despite it al, women rise. We create art, we create music, we create families, we run businesses, we lead companies, we work at factories, we are professors and students, we volunteer at schools, mosques and churches and synagogues. We lend our time, energy, and care to power our communities and the world we live in, often unpaid without the recognition and credit we deserve.
For me rising and finding my voice has always happened through words. Education helped me know another world was possible and writing helped me feel like I existed.
I know the fight is never over but has new manifestations. I don’t experience the challenges my mother did but different ones that still matter. The pay gap, the structural racism in our politics, arts, media, and powerful institutions that still, in 2023, are largely led by men and people of Anglo-Saxon background. The tokenism, micro-aggressions, indignities and lack of respect we can experience as we try to make our ascent in a country that often tells us we don’t belong; that we’re not good enough; of feeling always secondary even in spaces that propose to be for us. The white feminist voices who dominate and don’t make space for us; whose words can often by loaded by unconscious white privilege. The progressive who is there to help only as long as you remain servile or one down and don’t eclipse them.
“The visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greater strength; because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway whether or not we speak.” Audre Lorde
“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our earth is poisoned. We can sit our safe corners mute as bottles; and we will be no less afraid. The decision is to define ourselves and speak for ourselves, instead of being defined and spoken for by others.” Audre Lorde
The mazes and binds I sometimes felt trapped by that reminded me of that great escape route. Words. Naming the nameless feeling, the shameful thing, the tricky relationship. I think about how words can illuminate and reveal, and they can dazzle and obscure, too. They can empower and disempower. I thought about how I wanted to use my words and how they were the escape tunnel in those early days. By telling my story in my own words, I reclaimed myself.
Sarah Malik is a Walkley-award winning Australian investigative journalist, author and television presenter. She currently works as an executive producer and host of the My Ramadan series for SBS Audio. Her work focuses on asylum, surveillance, technology and its intersection with gender and race – most notably examining domestic violence, gender inequality and migration. Her debut collection of memoir stories Desi Girl: On feminism, race, faith and belonging was published in 2022 as was her second book Safar: Muslim women’s stories of travel and transformation.