Dr Susan Carland is a Melbourne-based academic, media spokesperson and convert to Islam. She is a lecturer at Monash University, where she also completed her PhD investigating the way Muslim women fight sexism within the Muslim community. She is a regular commentator in the Australian media and has featured on programs such as Q and A, The Drum and ABC TV’s News Breakfast. She was a presenter and co-founder of Muslim comedy and sketch show Salam Cafe, with her husband Waleed Aly. In 2012 she was named one of the ‘20 most influential Australian female voices’ by The Age, and has also been listed as one of the ‘500 Most Influential Muslims in the World’, and as a ‘Muslim Leader of Tomorrow’ by the UN Alliance of Civilizations.
How did you come to Islam and what are some of the challenges you see for Australian Muslims?
I became a Muslim when I was 19. I started to look into different religions and slowly through that journey I came across Islam and to my surprise it started to make a lot of sense to me. It got to the point where I realised I can’t deny this, this is who I am. In the end it was very much an individual decision. It was something between me and God. I was convinced intellectually for a while before I was convinced spiritually or emotionally; that came later. And when those two things lined up I knew that I wanted to become a Muslim. I put the hijab on pretty much on converting, and from then on I’ve worn it.
The university is a very open accommodating environment so I don’t face discrimination here at the University like I do in the outside Australian community. In my experience things are pretty calm for Muslims in Australia until something happens politically and in the news and then there’s this spike of reactions, generally against Muslim women first, because they are quite visible and the perception is that they are weak. Then after the spike things will go back to normal again, so it sort of follows this heartbeat graph.
I think the standard misconception is that Muslim women are this silent oppressed group of people who don’t have a voice and very willingly submit to the men in their life, whether it be husbands and fathers or imams. I like to think this perception is changing but given how often I still hear comments like, “Wow you really challenge the stereotype about Muslim women”, I sort of cringe and think it still exists. I know it’s meant as a compliment but it feels like a backhanded compliment, like “I felt so negatively about you as a group of people and good for you for not being like that”.
The Australian Muslim community is extremely multicultural and there’s a lot of good in that but there’s challenges as well because everyone has come with their cultural understanding of how the religion is to be interpreted. Islam has always adapted itself to fit the culture to which it comes but it means that some people when first faced with different practices of Islam can be quite confronted and even horrified by what they see. I think for us as an internal community being able to recognise that our tradition accepts these differences, while still trying to be a single cohesive community, will be the challenge. And also creating our own unique Australian Islam, creating our own organic Islam that really belongs to this cultural context, I think that will be the biggest issue internally for the community.
In 2009 you were named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the world. What impact did that have?
It was a real surprise and to this day I can’t explain it but I think it was because I was on a TV show called Salaam Café, and maybe because I was getting a lot of media. Also in 2009 the United Nations put together a list called Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow and I was on that as well. That was fantastic because I was invited to this conference in Qatar and I met all these Muslims from all over the world who were young and doing these amazing things. But I don’t see myself as influential or as a role model and that’s not false modesty. I think I’m in the media a bit but presence in the media doesn’t equate to influence. I don’t see myself as a representative for the Muslim community at all. I speak in the media but only ever as ‘This is the opinion of one Muslim woman’. For so long we’ve had generally men speaking and saying this is what Islam is and this is what the Muslim community thinks and it’s just not realistic. I’m simply representing myself and I think it shows the wider Australian community there is diversity. We don’t all think the same things, in fact, often we will vehemently disagree with each other. It can be tricky though because I’ve still got to go back and face the Muslim community after each media interview I do. They might not like what I had to say, or the wider community might not like what I had to say, but I guess that just goes with the territory.
What do you understand as the purpose of modest dress within Islam?
Modest dress is important for men and women in Islam. There isn’t a distinction that women should be modest and men can dress flagrantly. Islam as a religion values modesty in people in general. I’ve heard it described in different ways by people that modest dress by men and women desexualizes the public sphere. I can understand the merit in that, that dressing modestly is a dignifying thing for people to do in the community.
But how modest dress has been understood is very culturally specific. You can see that when you travel through the Muslim world and other communities that value modesty. It’s interpreted very differently in different places. What’s modest in one context may not be appropriate in another one, but definitely modesty is seen as a real positive in the religion not just in dress but in behaviour as well. Modesty is an important aspect of the faith but to reduce it to just the way we dress would be an unfortunate reduction.
Dress is such an ultimately superficial thing. If you don’t wear the hijab it doesn’t mean you’re not a Muslim; it doesn’t take you outside Islam. That’s never how our religion worked. From the beginning when Islam first came it was always something that was internally transformative. The prophet Mohamed spent years when he first received prophethood just preaching the oneness of god, nothing else, not fasting and Ramadan, nothing about alcohol, nothing about the hijab. Just this one concept, because when that is internalised, truly grasped on a deep spiritual level, the other things will follow.
Is wearing the hijab a political statement or reaction to Western values?
In Iran in the 1970s it was very much a revolutionary statement when the Shah tried to ban it. Women came out and put their headscarves on as a protest statement. Wearing the hijab is first an act of worship to God, but basically every Muslim woman you meet will tell you they have other reasons for wearing it after that. For some it is political, for some it is a feminist statement. “I cover like this because I want to be taken more for my mind than my body. I’m sick of seeing every woman’s body commoditised on billboards around the city or in a magazine and this is me reclaiming my body.”
For others it’s a very spiritual thing; it’s the tangible reminder of their closeness to God. For others it’s cultural. They say in my culture that’s what we do. I had a friend from Malaysia who said I never really thought about why I wore hijab because in Malaysia Muslim women cover their hair. That’s what they do, but when I came here and everyone said why do you wear it, then I said well why do I wear it? So there are all these secondary reasons why women do it but it’s not for me to say why. We all make a statement with the way we dress but the hijab is first and foremost an act of worship.
I find it really disappointing when I hear Muslims and non-Muslims say why are you allowing western society to influence the way you dress or the way you tie your hijab or the fact that you wear that top with pants or jeans? Islam has always been influenced and influences the cultures in which it exists. So the way a Malay women wears the hijab is so distinct from the way a women in Turkey does or the way a women in Nigeria does. There’s a lot of room for interpretation so I’m not surprised by the western influence on dress. I think it’s a really good. To me it’s a real sign of the way Islam is becoming embedded within western culture.
Interview with Susan Carland [17:26]