Tales of a political pioneer

Astha Rajvanshi talks culture, gender, and politics with Mehreen Faruqi.


Having just returned from camping out at Maules Creek in north-west NSW for the last three days, Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi is back at work in Parliament house.

Faruqi has been busy. She has already done four media interviews this morning, so her warm reception, calm demeanour and well-articulated answers are unsurprising.

Earlier in the day, she had a short lunch with her daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in three days. Faruqi admits balancing home and work life is a “bit tough” as politics is a round-the-clock job, but says her husband always keeps food on the table. “If he’s not cooking, he’ll definitely get take-away,” she laughs.

Faruqi is a woman of many firsts. She’s the first Pakistani-born, Muslim woman and migrant to enter the Upper House of NSW State Parliament.

She speaks about growing up in a country where everyone, “from the Prime Minister to the vendor selling samosas on the street”, is ready to have a conversation about politics. Her own political views were informed by the social inequalities she witnessed throughout her childhood.

“In Pakistan, there is a lot of discrimination against women, against minority groups such as LGBTI communities, as well as against those who may not have the economic capacity or the social contacts,” she says.

Within this context, Faruqi drew inspiration from her two aunts who were strong feminists. “They persevered even though they had dogmatic and fundamental religious laws pursuing them,” she recalls.

These issues still exist in Pakistan, and Faruqi, an environmental engineer, describes the extra burdens faced by women because of the environment. “In developing countries people have to travel long distances to access water, and it mostly falls on women to collect that water,” she explains.

“And, of course, the job of cooking falls to women. In a lot of villages and rural areas, there is no gas or electricity, so there’s a lot of wood burning with a pollution impact on women and children.”

After migrating to Australia in 1992 with her husband and one-year-old son, she settled down in Alexandria to complete her Masters and PhD in environmental engineering at UNSW.

Born into a family of engineers, her decision to join their ranks was driven by her belief in women’s equality. “Even though I would love to say it was a love for civil engineering, it wasn’t – it was more about making a point that women are, and should be able to do whatever men are able to do in a civil society,” she says.

Today, she maintains a strong involvement with the UNSW Women in Engineering Association, and is especially keen to encourage other young women to pursue engineering. “I just feel that that’s something I owe to my profession, apart from my passion. It’s fabulous. It’s all about problem solving and innovation.”

At Maules Creek, Faruqi camped out with activists to protest against coal seam gas mining and its impact on agricultural land and water. There, she and her staff experienced police intimidation and were then issued with a ‘move on’ order.

A few weeks prior, she delved into investigating late night transport services. To this end, she stayed out on a Saturday night in Kings Cross and Town Hall from midnight until 4am to explore the situation.

It’s this kind of hands-on approach that Faruqi takes when tackling the issues for which she is responsible under her twelve portfolios. These include the status of women, environment, transport, sexuality and gender identity, and young people.

When Faruqi was elected to Parliament, The Australian ran the headline ‘Muslim Green set for tough test’. This is just one example of how Faruqi is often pigeon-holed into minority stereotypes.

Happy to be a role model, yet tired of being asked how she reconciles her Islamic faith with politics, Faruqi says her media image comes with positives and negatives. “If it helps to break those stereotypes of Muslim women and migrants then I think that’s a great thing,” she says. “But that’s only one part of who I am, and my whole experience is through my work in engineering and activism.”

But if the media’s portrayal and treatment of Australia’s first female Prime Minister is any indication, women have rarely had a smooth course in politics. Faruqi believes what happened to Julia Gillard was disempowering for women. “I think the media did treat her differently than they would have treated a male leader,” Faruqi says.

But her own career in politics has, remarkably, been uncontroversial.

When Faruqi first decided to enter politics, the Greens’ pre-selection for her seat was only open to women. The eight candidates traveled around NSW to speak to members, and Faruqi describes the process as “friendly, with collegiality”, attributing it to the the party’s affirmative action policies.

In Parliament, she has found a similarly positive environment. “To be really frank, in the seven months I’ve been here, I have not experienced sexism.”

But Faruqi doesn’t claim that her experience indicates an impending end of sexism. She believes that “women’s voices are often shut out” from politics as a result of barriers to participation.

From her academic background, she is inclined to gather evidence and research before making decisions. In this vein, Faruqi brought together a group of experts to talk about the impact of ‘Zoe’s Law’ – a bill she has actively spoken out against, calling it “unnecessary and dangerous”.

When the evidence was ignored, Faruqi struggled with how rarely hard facts are considered in Parliament. “The most disturbing thing is that every single expert – doctor, lawyer, women’s rights advocate – everyone came out and said that this is bad law, this is bad for women’s rights,” she says, clearly frustrated.

Yet at the end of last year, Zoe’s Law was passed in the Lower House. The bill will be up for debate in the Upper House in March, and Faruqi has been ramping up her campaign, alongside ‘Our Bodies, Our Choices,’ an independent, non-partisan group of men and women speaking out against Zoe’s Law.

“At the end of the day, what we really need to do is take abortion out of the Crimes Act,” she says. “While it is there, we will always be trying to defend the attacks on women’s rights.”

On principle, the Greens vote on these issues as a bloc. The two major parties, however, have always given their members conscience votes, which Faruqi thinks is the wrong approach.

“Women’s rights are human rights, and issues of human rights are not principles of conscience,” she says.

Faruqi has had a busy term fighting the Liberal government’s policies seven months into the job.

Driven by the Greens’ values of participatory democracy and equal rights, she reconciles ideals with an unwavering focus on finding broader, practical measures to achieve equality.

“That’s what I got into politics for – the campaigning and the activism, and gathering momentum through the community to then influence politicians.”

Correction: The print version of this profile incorrectly states the campaign ‘Our Bodies, Our Choices’ as Faruqi’s. Honi would like to clarify that this campaign is an independent, non-partisan community campaign.