Oishee Alam is a Bangladeshi born academic and activist who came to Australia with her family in 1991. She is currently completing her PhD on the racialisation of Islam.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in Bangladesh, and migrated to Australia with my parents when I was four. I’ve lived in south-east Sydney for the past fifteen years, the last two of those with my husband and my cat, Muezza. I studied Law and Social Inquiry (Honours) at UTS, graduating in 2010. During my Honours year I realised that as stressful and anxiety-inducing as writing that thesis was, I wanted to do it again; I loved research, I loved writing, and I knew that I wanted to do a PhD and get into academia. But first I needed a bit of a break from studying , so two days after I submitted my thesis I went to South East Asia, travelled around for three months, and after arriving back in Australia early last year I settled down into the daily grind of working life. I had four jobs last year: I worked as an arts and cultural development officer in Auburn, a university tutor at UTS, a writer in Parramatta, and a community worker at a Bankstown-based organisation for migrant women in precarious employment, where I’m currently still working. I really missed studying during those nine months, so I started my PhD this year and as sad as it sounds I am ridiculously happy to be back at uni.
I’m very outgoing and sociable; I’m always up for meeting new people, and I’m comfortable in almost any social setting. I’ve been told my whole life that I talk too much and too fast, and I think that sums me up quite accurately. I love displays of creativity and artistry in all its forms , but I’m not a particularly artistic person myself. I’ve tried my hand at all different types of visual, creative and performative arts, but I get bored and impatient very easily, and give up if I don’t see the results that I want within a short amount of time. I’d like to think that I have a sound social conscience and moral compass, as well as a critical mind, and I can be very outspoken about issues that I am passionate about. I think that I am generally a positive person, despite the fact that much of my time is tied up in dealing with and discussing fairly weighty and negative issues – I think it’s necessary in order to keep from getting burnt out.
What is your area of research?
The inspiration for my research area was actually my husband and his experiences as a white convert to Islam. Despite having blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, whenever he wears clothing that identifies him as Muslim, the abuse that gets hurled at him is always ethnic/racial in nature – “Effing wog”, “Arab dog”, “Go back to where you came from”, and so on. Through discussions with friends, it became clear that his was by no means a unique experience, and it’s a common narrative for white Muslim converts who must constantly negotiate the labels of ‘white’ and ‘Muslim’ simultaneously in a country where the religious associations of whiteness are most strongly linked to Christianity. I was told stories of people being called race traitors, being told that they were no longer white, that they became Arab once they converted; it was as though people could only understand Islam and Muslims in racialised terms, despite the fact that Islam is a religion that is open to people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. To me, this is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Many people argue that Islamophobia isn’t a form of racism because Islam is a religion, and not a race – and they’re right; Islam is not a race. I’d argue, however, that in Australia Islam is a highly racialised religion, and I’m interested in looking at how the racialisation of Islam occurs on a discursive level in the public sphere and how it then translates to individuals’ everyday interactions with Muslims.
What impact did identifying visibly as Muslim have on your life?
I remember the first day I wore a headscarf, I was going to a protest for David Hicks; this was back in 2006 when he was still illegally imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. I was wearing an orange scarf in solidarity with the inmates at Guantanamo who wear orange jumpsuits. I hadn’t told my parents I was going to start wearing a scarf, and when I came down the stairs they both burst out laughing. My mum told me to go and take the scarf off. I defiantly said no, and they stopped laughing. They weren’t against the hijab — my mum has been wearing it since 2000 — but they were worried that it would make me an even bigger target for police at the numerous protests I went to. They tried to convince me to put off wearing it til later, but I refused. It took them a week or so to get used to it but they came around quickly.
I’m grateful that in Australia the hijab and other forms of religious identifiers are not legislated against. I’ve recently had two Turkish women contact me over the internet — one through my blog, and another who saw a video of me on YouTube giving a speech at the Refugee Day rally in 2011. In conversations with them they’ve told of how it is impossible to find work as a woman who wears hijab in Turkey, or get the kind of education they want. I still can’t understand how governments can justify criminalising certain types of women’s clothing in the name of feminism and women’s rights.
We have our own challenges here, of course. Vilification and abuse is a common experience among those who visibly identify as Muslim, myself included. I’ve never had to worry too much about discrimination in the workplace as I’ve usually worked in welcoming places where my experiences as a migrant woman and as a Muslim are considered assets. But friends of mine working in the corporate sector, for example, have had to deal with discrimination and harassment as a result of wearing a headscarf or not drinking alcohol. I think that I’ve been fairly fortunate in avoiding or minimising some of those challenges. Then I read the comments on the bottom of opinion articles on online newspapers, or listen to talkback radio, and I’m reminded that there are people in this country who genuinely hate me and my religious beliefs and my lifestyle, and would rather I didn’t exist. It’s a sobering realisation every time.
How would you describe your personal style?
My style, like me, is quite fickle. I don’t think I could stick to any one style of dressing, I’d simply get too bored, too quickly, and so instead I jump from boho to grunge to girly to hip hop funk with reckless abandon. I like to mix trends, prints, metals, fabrics, and colours that I’m told should never be seen together. Basically I don’t take fashion too seriously and just try to have fun with my clothes. I often have people saying to me, “I could never wear that” or “Only you could pull that off”, but I don’t think that the clothes I wear are particularly outrageous. I’ve found that it really is all about confidence, and my favourite outfits are the ones that come together when I am absolutely relaxed about what anyone around me thinks.
The truth is that while I do love my quirky pieces of clothing, I am actually quite a practical dresser. First and foremost I dress for comfort, and when you’re always wearing a scarf and full length clothing outdoors, this is of special concern in the warmer months. I have a small collection of beautiful heels and platform wedges that I wear maybe once a year – most of the time you’ll see me in flats. I also have to be very budget conscious, having been a student for most of my life, and so I rarely buy anything unless it’s on sale, and I also do a lot of online shopping. Once these practical concerns are met, though, everything else is fair game!