At just 24 years of age, Brisbane’s Yassmin Abdel-Magied — a mechanical engineer, social advocate and petrolhead — has had her life story published by Random House. If that sounds a little premature to you, that’s because you haven’t read it yet.
In those 24 years, Yassmin has achieved more than most of us will in a lifetime.
After moving to Brisbane from the Sudan with her parents when she was two, Yassmin founded Youth Without Borders, a national youth-run community project coordination organisation, when she was just 16.
She went on to earn a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Queensland (where the proud rev-head ran the UQ Racing team), and now finds herself as the only woman working on a remote Australian oil and gas rig — and certainly the only Sudanese-Egyptian-Australian background Muslim woman.
Oh, and she also moonlights as a motorsports writer, travelling to exotic locations like Monaco, Barcelona and Malaysia to cover the Formula 1 circuit.
For her efforts, she was named the Young Australian Muslim of the Year in 2007, the Young Queenslander of the Year in 2010, the Australian Financial Review‘s Young Leader of the Year in 2012, one of Westpac’s inaugural 100 Women of Influence, an InStyle cultural leader, and a Marie Claire Woman of the Future.
Those are all awfully impressive accomplishments — but they’re not really why Yassmin decided to write a book.
“People don’t know any stories about young migrants and young women, let alone young Muslim women of colour,” she explains.
“Writing a book was never something that was in my life plan, but I started having more and more conversations about the voices that were missing in the public space, and I realised that there really were no voices of young people, or of young Muslim people of colour. That’s a huge gap in the market. It renders us invisible. I guess I wanted to do something about that.
“I grew up never, ever seeing anyone that looked like me or had a life I could relate to in any public space. No sportspeople, no people on TV, no actors or actresses, there was literally nobody in the public space whose life I could relate to. It creates this overwhelming sense of being a constant outsider.
“So what I really hope is that by telling my story, all I’m doing is opening the door for lots of other people to start sharing their experiences.
“My story isn’t necessarily remarkable; it’s more just that people haven’t heard it. People don’t know these stories exist.”
Growing up on the south side of Brisbane, Yassmin didn’t realise that she was ‘different’ until she started attending a Christian high school.
“I was the first girl to ever wear the hijab at that high school,” she remembers.
“It was a couple of years after 9/11, and things were a bit crazy everywhere. Going to high school was the first time I realised that my experiences were quite different to other people’s… imagine yourself at 12 years old, having to justify the way you see the world. Not just to the other kids in your class, but to teachers, to parents, to everybody else in your society, because you’re the only Muslim person they’ve come across.
“From a very early age, I was put in a position of being a spokesperson. It’s a funny thing, because we don’t really expect that of many other groups. We don’t expect people to constantly justify themselves. But for so many Muslims growing up in places like Australia, there was a very obvious pre-9/11 life and post-9/11 life.
“Before 9/11, we were just brown kids who wore weird clothing. After 9/11, we became the face of all that was evil, and we somehow had to make sense of that. I guess I was lucky, I was young enough to just take it in my stride, and that then became something that I accepted as part of my experience growing up in Australia.
“I think the frustration that a lot of Muslims share, that a lot of minorities share — and you could argue it’s similar for women in a male-dominated industry — is that the actions of one or two people are taken to be representative of an entire group, regardless of how representative they really are.
“That’s particularly true for Muslims. What’s frustrating for me is that we are expected to justify the opinions and actions of people that we’re not related to. What makes me sad is that then becomes the default. We don’t get a chance to tell an alternative story.
“But I try to look at in a different way; I try to work at the human connection level. I try to show people an alternative; I allow people to ask questions and explain to people what Muslims actually believe.”
That ability to make a connection with people served Yassmin particularly well when she started working on remote oil and gas rigs, where many of her co-workers had never met a young Muslim woman before.
“I think they didn’t know what to make of me, and that gave me a bit of an opening, or a bit of an opportunity,” she says.
“They don’t really talk to you at first, because they need to figure you out. I remember a bloke saying to me, ‘Well, Yassmin, if a woman comes out here, I don’t know if she’s going to get offended at the slightest thing, or if she’s totally cool’. They need to suss you out first; they can’t treat you the same way they treat the men. There aren’t enough women out there for them to understand the best way to treat a female colleague.
“So, as a woman, it’s like a blessing and a curse, in the sense that you’re the one who sets the tone. You can go out there and you can say to the guys, ‘Swear as much as you want’, or you can say, ‘I don’t want to hear any inappropriate jokes, I just want to be completely professional’, and they have to respect that. But that also means that you have to be the one who goes out of your way to make connections. You have to be the one who makes an effort.
“Every now and again you get one bloke who thinks you’re the greatest thing ever and takes you under his wing and looks after you, but by and large, the guys are just trying to suss you out and trying not to offend you. Eventually, they’ll be up for having a bit of a banter.
“It’s amazing, particularly in Australia – the one thing that enables people to integrate well into a group is their ability to banter. And I think that’s been the one thing that’s enabled me, no matter what rigs I’ve found myself on, or how rough the guys are, my ability to take the piss and to have a laugh is what wins people over.”
Yassmin’s had quite a life so far — and while that trophy cabinet full of youth awards could feel like a lot of pressure on her to make the most of her adult life, she’s taking whatever comes next in her stride.
“I guess I look at each of those things as an opportunity and a platform,” she explains.
“I guess, and I suppose this is a religious thing for me, I look at everything as a gift that needs to be used. The fact that my parents moved to Australia just before I turned two, the fact that I have all these opportunities that I just would not have had if I was living in the Sudan — that just makes me want to grab every single possible opportunity that comes along and make the absolute most of it.”
Yassmin’s Story is available now through Random House. Royalties will be contributed to Youth Without Borders.