Cover of book: Talking About a Revolution

Yassmin Abdel-Magied
Talking About a Revolution

“Being buried alive by social media hatred will force you to either construct impenetrable walls around your soul or quit completely.” So says Yassmin Abdel-Magied in her book Talking About a Revolution, a collection of essays old and new that document “the private and public self” and “systems and society”.

There is little need to detail the lead-up to the brutal treatment Abdel-Magied received in Australia a few years ago following a string of controversies – vitriolic attacks and collective punishment by social and mainstream media that saw her leave the country and settle in London. The specific beats of that story are familiar enough. Speaking more broadly, this is the story of a clever young woman brimming with talent and potential who discovers the cost of outgrowing the model minority structures designed to keep her in place.

Intelligent, gregarious and multifaceted, it is unsurprising that Abdel-Magied was thrust into the spotlight. She was famously the only female engineer on an oil rig – and in a headscarf, which a peer once referred to as a “tea cosy”. She was feverishly writing for Australian media and sought out by government agencies, and was a regular on the ABC’s Q+A, even hosting a television program for the national broadcaster.

Her line about being buried alive isn’t an overreaction to her experiences. She lost it all. What is more curious is its location in the book: in a piece titled “In defence of hobbies”, in which Abdel-Magied documents a return to knitting, a hobby that is more than mere whimsy. “I knitted to save myself,” she explains, describing the comfort and safety she found in the frenetic movements of needle through yarn as she awaited confirmation of a British visa and negotiated dark Covid-19 lockdowns.

Notably, in this essay Abdel-Magied acknowledges that her social media presence means people may view her as a bit of “capital” but that not everything we do well should become a side hustle. She refuses to sell her wares: “My defence of hobbies is a desire for self-worth outside the neoliberal framework,” she says. “Indeed, it is a small, quiet, personal revolution.”

Fair enough: we should be able to guard our joys. And moreover, this essay deftly challenges the idea of Abdel-Magied as a minority figure made for public consumption, devoid of an inner world or personal struggles. Perhaps it could have been titled “The Right to Normality”.

It’s a moving piece and entirely relatable: a burst of reflections that may seem insignificant in light of the other areas her book covers – bigotry, racism, climate change and religion – but that truthfully speak to the importance of having a personal life. It also talks about the need for privacy in a world that is increasingly open for inspection, and in which public figures feel constantly exposed. It hints at the importance of a varied, storied life that hinges not on public acclaim and approval but on a robust, knowing inner world where you have a say in how you experience daily life.

Elsewhere, Abdel-Magied traverses more familiar terrain: her negotiations between personal beliefs and what society demands of her, her career trajectory from engineer to artist, and her passions – she is a fiercely devoted petrolhead who knows the love affair must eventually be severed if we are to protect the Earth. Abdel-Magied even shares her dalliances with cryptocurrency, drawn to its anarchy as someone from a generation “burnt by a neoliberal, capitalist system”. This awareness is the heartbeat of the collection: how do we collectively untie the knots in our ideologies and industries? What she is proposing is not simply action and disruption: in order to transform how we live, we must also address how we think.

Throughout, Abdel-Magied also writes openly about her sincere connection to Islam, which she refers to as her “faith system” – a deliberate and meaningful choice of expression over the standard “belief system”: “... my faith is not solely a socially constructed entity but a relationship between myself and my God”. She further documents a renegotiation of the word “feminist”, years after going viral when she declared that Islam was the most feminist religion on Q+A in a stoush with politician Jacqui Lambie. Language – how we use it and what we really mean – is a recurring theme in this book.

This is a gathering of ideas and experiences from a matured Abdel-Magied, who speaks more freely and purposefully now as she interrogates how to operate in a world of absolutes, where social media in particular forces us into dispiriting, circular “culture wars”. It’s a confident, curious voice that will no doubt grow in significance, particularly for younger generations who are marginalised not simply on the basis of attributes they are born with, but by the choices they must make in an inequitable world.

Abdel-Magied has emerged from controversy with a sense of optimism and a more assured stance that she, like everyone, is still growing and learning. She is interested in unpacking the meaning of things, sifting through her experiences as a woman of Sudanese descent who realises the only certainty is that there isn’t any.

If you believe that some people are destined to be a defiant voice of a generation, Yassmin Abdel-Magied fulfils the criteria. She may be talking about a revolution, but her continued personal evolution might be just as interesting. 

Vintage, 288pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Talking About a Revolution, Yassmin Abdel-Magied".

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Amal Awad is an author and critic.

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