SYDNEY— A Pakistan-born migrant is to become the first Muslim woman to serve in an Australia parliament. Mehreen Faruqi, a prominent figure in environmental engineering, has been chosen by the New South Wales Greens to fill a vacancy in the upper house of the state legislature.
Mehreen Faruqi migrated from Pakistan with her family in 1992. She describes herself on her Twitter page as an "environmental engineer, climate change activist, proud union member and feminist."
She has been chosen to represent the Greens, a center left party, in Australia's first and oldest parliament in New South Wales. The university academic was selected by a postal ballot of party members, from a field of seven in a contest in which only women could run.
Faruqi will take up her position in July, when she will become the first female Muslim in any of Australia’s state, territory or federal parliaments.
She is currently a professor at the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales.
She says, although her faith is important, so are her professional accomplishments.
“I grew up in Pakistan in a Muslim culture and a Muslim family and I think I am very typical of Pakistani-Australian Muslims who, for example you know, abstain from alcohol and practice fasting during Ramadan," she explained. "But I would like to say that is one aspect of who I am. I would really like to be defined by what I did professionally in life, and what I do for society, in general.”
However, Muslim groups worry that she will have difficulty reconciling the teachings of Islam with Greens policies, particularly the party's support for gay marriage.
But Faruqi say she believes faith should have no bearing on Australian politics.
“I see no role that religion plays in government and nor should it. I am not a spokesperson, you know, for religious Islam. There are many other MPs who are Christians and likewise they are not spokespeople for the church. So that is a really important point to make," she stated. "And, like I said earlier, I joined the Greens because of a really strong position on sustainability, social justice, human rights [and] multiculturalism.”
But Keysar Trad, the founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, says the new MP’s political career will bring her into conflict with the fundamental philosophies of her faith.
“She would support things such as gay marriage and that is directly in conflict with the teachings of Islam. I do not know whether she is going to stick to that, how she is going to harmonize between the two," Trad said. "This is not to say that we would want anyone in any way to vilify people who are part of the gay community, but our religious rules are very clear that marriage is between a male and female.”
Australia is home to about 475,000 Muslims, who make up just over two percent of the national population. They are a diverse community and have migrated from more than 70 countries, including Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Lebanon. Only a handful of Muslim men have been elected to Australian parliaments. Ed Husic became the first Muslim elected to federal parliament in Canberra at the 2010 election. Husic, the son of Bosnian migrants, represents the governing Labor party and was sworn into parliament with his hand on his parents’ Koran.
Marion Maddox, a professor of religion and politics at Macquarie University, says very few members of Australia’s minority communities have successfully entered parliament politics.
“Australian parliaments are notoriously un-diverse in every way. It has taken a long time for people from all sorts of ethnic minorities to make it into Australian parliaments, with the exception of Jewish Australians. There have been Jews in Australian parliaments since right from the beginning. The way that Australian parliaments are elected make it very difficult for anyone who does not look absolutely mainstream to get a look in,” said Maddox.
Analysts expect more minorities to make their mark on Australian politics as the nation’s ethnic diversity increases. About a quarter of the population was born overseas. Australia’s population reached 23 million, this week, and much of the growth is driven by immigration.
Faruqi will take her place in the New South Wales State Parliament in July. She will take on the Green’s portfolio responsibilities for the environment, transport and the status of women.