The question concerning Mehreen

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1952

What does the entry of Dr Mehreen Faruqi into the NSW Legislative Council signify in contemporary Australian society? If it is not a significant event, it still signifies something in multicultural Australia. If, in the scheme of things, Dr Faruqi’s entry into institutionalised politics is a “welcome development”, this development says much about what is welcome and to what degree the “welcome” is welcome in Australian politics. If Dr Faruqi, being a Muslim from Pakistan, is not the darling of the Indian community in Australia this too says significant stuff about Australian politics today.

In her inaugural speech in parliament, Dr Faruqi said, “I am one of the 5.5 million Australians who were born overseas. I am proud of my heritage, but I am also deeply connected to the nation I now call home. My inclusion in this Parliament reflects the promise that brought my family and millions of families like ours to this country: an inclusive, democratic, pluralist society which seeks to provide opportunity for all who live here; a society in which our achievements may only be limited by the scale of our determination, and the scope of our imagination.”

Inspirational words that echo the sentiments of many well settled migrants from south Asia, and other parts of the global south.Dr Faruqi’s speech went on to talk about other concerns and issues, “It is a tragic moment in our history though that a land as diverse and prosperous as ours, which owes so much to its migrant heritage, may be tarnished by fearmongering and dog whistling over refugees and migrants.” So in Dr Faruqi we have a politician who is for diversity, equality, inclusion, tolerance etc.

In an article written recently, Dr Faruqi says, “Growing up in Pakistan, I always imagined prosperous countries like Australia having achieved gender equality in all spheres of life. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Sydney 21 years ago and started my postgraduate studies in engineering, only to discover there was only one female academic amongst fifty odd male teachers in the school of civil engineering at my university.”

Dr Faruqi’s Pakistani, Muslim background, and her passion to challenge stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, as well as her commitment to diversity have earned her the goodwill of many Australians. Her criticism of patriarchal ideas and practices in south Asia has also added to her appeal as a “modern progressive” voice.

Whatdoes the presence of this politician, with a progressive democratic agenda, from a south Asian background,signify in Australian politics?Firstly, let us ask a related but equally important question: Who does Dr Faruqi represent? What is the vision of democracy and justice that her supporters uphold?As an Australian politician Dr Faruqi represents members of the Australian community. For Dr Faruqi immigrants are a crucial part of that community. But to what extent and in what way does the Australian political system enable representation of the interests of immigrant communities? No doubt many immigrants feel that Dr Faruqi represents a victory for diversity in social life. Many immigrants, as members of the Australian community, would also easily identify with Dr Faruqi’s political agenda. But if Dr Faruqi’s entry into parliament is a victory for diversity, what specific kind of diversity does it represent? The label diversity should not blind us to the irreconcilable differences that make up what is officially termed multiculturalism.

Although Dr Faruqi’s politics is about democracy and sustainability and diversity we have to ask if and how sustainability, democracy and diversity cancome together. Is the diversity we live with, in everyday life,representable in Australia’s political institutions? Or does the political system resort to tokenism by opening its doors to individuals from migrant backgrounds, even as immigrant communities feel excluded?If the Australian political system has just one woman from a Muslim background, should we see that as a step ahead or an aberration? Perhaps it would be more fruitful to ask how and why the Australian political system opened its doors to one individual? Would Dr Faruqi have been in parliament if she wanted to represent an Australian Islamic community? or cab drivers from south Asia exposed to some of the worst forms of exploitation in Australia. Is it the case that these groups are not communities with a specifically Australian stamp to their social life? Or is it because the Australian political system wants these communities – as Australian Islamic communities, or underpaid workers – to be unrepresentable?

Giving individuals from different backgrounds a chance in the system seems to create the impression that Australia’s interests, as defined by the white political establishment, are the interests of all the various communities that, as Dr Faruqui’s speech says, make an immense contribution to this nation. Perhaps it is this inability and unwillingness to work with the diversity and the conflicting interests behind the façade of multiculturalism that makes Australia’s political system createagendas – labor, liberal, green etc – that communities have to work with in order to be part of the political system.

As an Australian politician, Dr Faruqi is not a representative of any immigrant community, nor can immigrant communities expect sectional representation of their interests. Yet to the extent that these concerns are not representable in an immigrant nation, one wonders how Dr Faruqi’s solidarity with immigrants can translate to effective action that enables communities. Politicians from an immigrant background may want to advocate immigrant concerns. However, the Australian political system relegates these matters to the margins by terming them ethnic or religious issues.

It is for this reason that several ethnic communities are clamouring for their own representatives. It is also for this same reason (apart from nationalistic animosities) that Indians are not especially enthusiastic about Dr Faruqi. It is easy to dismiss the demands of several ethnic communities as narrow and self-serving. It is also true that at best this could only lead to symbolic victories. However, it is also the case that these demands for their own representatives are a sign of the frustration that immigrant communities face with the cynical gestures that Australian politics makes towards them.

Do the interests of the various immigrant communities coincide with the interests of what is commonly seen as the Australian community? In today’s complex multicultural society can we assume that communities have common interests? If the Australian political process resorts to hand-outs, appeasement and tokenism in its dealings with the ethnic communities couldn’t we legitimately ask if the political compulsion behind parliamentary processes is to wish away and deny deep-seated differences in society?

In answer to our question about Dr Faruqi’s ability to represent diversity, we can only raise more questions. Dr Faruqi’s presence in politics is unlikely to promote any meaningful discussion about contemporary migration, which is a social fact of overwhelming importance in contemporary Australia. Nor will it promote any redressal of the long-standing grievances of Australia’s underclass from the global south. This despite the fact that Dr Faruqi is a passionate advocate of cultural dialogue and coexistence; of equal rights, participatory democracy, tolerance and justice. Despite all of this, her voice and presence in the parliament is likely to be appropriated by sections of society that do not want any effective representation for migrants from the global south.

It would be unrealistic and unnecessary to expect a politician to represent a community because of his/her ties to that community. However, to the extent that politicians represent interests that don’t necessarily speak to the immediate concerns of marginal sections of society it would be naïve to think that Australian politics is embracing its Other.

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