On working on an oil rig, Formula One racing, and how having no place to call home drives change

It’s Ramadan and Yassmin was up late last night. After several emails, we make contact the day before she flies out to the oil rig where she works as a well-site drilling engineer. Yassmin may have lost sleep but she’s still revving with the energy of her favourite V8 Corvette. Nothing seems to daunt her. She’s comfortable in a F1 crash helmet, a headscarf, or a hard hat.

So what’s this young Muslim woman doing in places most women and some men would find intimidating?

On the phone Yassmin’s voice is powerful and lilting but meet her in the race pit, on the oil rig, or near the boxing ring and she can banter with the best of them. There is purpose and momentum in the way she speaks, like her words are charging towards the future. As author Ben Okri says in A Way of Being Free, “It is not the size of the voice that is important; it is the power, the truth, and the beauty of the dream.”

Yassmin’s family immigrated from Khartoum, Sudan to Australia when she was almost two. At 16, she started Youth Without Borders, a youth-run nonprofit organisation that empowers young people to take action to help the disadvantaged and change their communities. She was a TEDx speaker in 2014 and has won numerous awards. She is 24 years old.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied on oil rig

In a strange way, I always don’t belong

“In a strange way, I always don’t belong, but I’m very comfortable with that. At the same time I never feel like I shouldn’t be in a place. I inhabit a lot of spaces where, inherently someone like me for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t. I work on oil and gas rigs in Australia as one of the very few Muslim women of colour. I work on motorsport teams and I ran a race team at university when very few women were in that space, let alone running it. I boxed for a long time. I enjoy working out in the weight sections of the gym as opposed to the cardio section.

“I gravitate towards areas where I shouldn’t be and I find a bit of challenge in that but enjoy it. I think I’m attracted to the challenge in that I want to find a way to belong to that thing even though I shouldn’t, to almost prove I don’t necessarily have to fit what people think the entry criteria is to be in a space, to belong to it, because no one would say I don’t belong after they’ve spent some time with me. The guys on the rig wouldn’t say I don’t belong and the boys on the motorsport team saw me as an inherent part of that team.

“So I found a way to belong partly by learning to speak the language. Particularly in Australia, learning the language means being able to have a laugh. I needed to know how to banter and how to prove myself, eventually, by making one or two comments so people think I’m not someone they can just disregard.

“Maybe it’s just because I’m determined to belong and I won’t accept anything else. I try to do that in a way that tries not to put people on the defensive. It’s more about finding that common language, perhaps, finding a way to bridge the gaps even though society tells me that gap shouldn’t necessarily be bridged or can’t be bridged.”

Yassmin Abdel-Magied race car rectangular

I choose who I want to be

Yassmin has mentioned shouldn’t several times. She articulates the unwritten expectation, the Western stereotype that wallpapers her behind the phrase Muslim woman of colour. And she rejects it. In fact, I get the sense that Yassmin enjoys overturning the status quo and surprising people. At university she ran the Formula SAE team, was aiming to be the first female-Muslim Formula One driver, and coached a Muslim girls soccer team Shinpads and Hijabs. This rejection of should came early for Yassmin.

“I remember fighting with my mum and being really annoyed that my little brother was getting to go to a movie in grade nine when I had only been to the movies once with my friends in grade ten. I was so frustrated at this double standard that I said: Mum! How come Yasseen is encouraged to go to all these social events and I had to fight for all of it?

“She said: You see, with Yasseen, he doesn’t ask for very much. Whereas with you, you never stop asking. And I think that’s kind of how I’ve always operated. I’ve always tried to see how far I could push something before those barriers break and before I became uncomfortable.”

“Society told me inherently, I’m a coloured Muslim woman, and the narrative in the West for my type of person is pretty narrow, and often around this belief we are voiceless or oppressed and above all, that we need ‘saving’.  And I thought That’s not who I am. So instead I told myself, I’m going to push as many boundaries as I can and revel in it and do really well at it, just so that you can see that your narrative is completely incorrect. And also, I want to change the narrative that some young Muslim women tell themselves and some families tell their daughters. And say, Look, here’s an example of how you can do that and you don’t lose your identity, because at the same time I do belong to Muslim communities. And it is communities as opposed to community because there isn’t just one homogenous Muslim community. I do belong to the Sudanese community and I do belong because of who I am and because of the way my parents brought me up. They made sure we were still connected to where we came from, that we still spoke the language. So part of me is still connected to that but none of it defines me as a whole. I get to choose who I want to be and how I present myself to the world and show people that just because I belong to all these groups,, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to adhere to the social norm for them.”

“Another great example was when my mum was telling me how my dad is driven by principles and duty and I said, Oh I think I’m driven by duty. And she said, No you’re not! Not one bit! You’re driven by what you want to do.

What do you mean? I do the dishes. And she said, You do the dishes because you want to do the dishes. If there’s some day when you don’t want to do the dishes, regardless of your obligation or not, you’re not going to do the dishes because you are very driven to do ONLY what you want to do, nothing more, nothing less. I just hope what you want to do when it comes to chores is what I want you to do as well! 

“So that sums it up. I was driven to do what I wanted and I would find ways whether my parents facilitated it or not. I think it got to the point where my parents let me as long as I channelled it in a positive way. They provided me with guidance. They would say things like Make sure you’re doing it within the boundaries of what’s considered appropriate. Or my dad would say, Convince me, Convince me why you should be doing this. Convince me why this is OK. So I became very good at arguing my case.”

I didn’t fit the social norms

It was this early training and guidance that helped Yassmin develop not only the ability to convince people she belonged in male-dominated areas but the confidence to follow through.

“I think my dad was very cognisant of the fact that I didn’t quite have that inherent power and privilege to do what I wanted. That inherent power and privilege in society lies with the white male. But what I could do was talk as well as anyone else and so I needed to learn how not just to talk, but articulate my case as well as possible So he trained me from very early on.

“These convince me conversations also made me believe that I should be there because I was convinced, I had convinced somebody else and that I was of value. So of course, it gave me that inherent sense of belonging, credibility and legitimacy, internally and externally.

“When I said at the beginning that I didn’t belong, it doesn’t mean I lacked confidence in who I was. I didn’t belong in a group because I didn’t fit the social norms, but at the same time I had the self assurance that that was where I was meant to be because I had chosen it.  I could make it so.”

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Race cars or oil rigs?

For someone so determined to break boundaries, it may seem odd that she declined a Masters in Advanced Motorsport Engineering at Cranfield University in the UK.

“This was probably one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever had to make a decision about. I had to answer this question honestly: “Why was I pursuing this motorsport piece and what was the value in it?”

“What I’m driven by, as an individual, is being useful to society. I think being involved in motorsport was fantastic but making it my entire career would have made it difficult to contribute as much as I possibly could to the betterment of society.

“I remember thinking to myself: My parents have sacrificed everything everything to bring me to Australia so that I could have a good life and go ahead with all the opportunities I’ve been given. I was Queensland Young Australian of the Year and Youth Without Borders was gaining momentum. If I leave this now what will be my legacy in terms of creating change and will I be able to have a similar impact in the UK? I’d still be a young woman in a male-dominated industry, but it was a decision that I couldn’t necessarily link to that bigger picture.

“My first job in the oil field was – ironically —  initially to fund my Masters. So I was, Yep Ok, I want an adventure and I want to save money so that I can fund my way. I worked in oil and gas and I saved the amount I needed. Then, at that point, I made the decision not to continue with the Masters. It almost became a case of losing my way. I didn’t really know what to do.

“What I realised was that I really enjoyed my work and I also enjoyed being in that environment. It was similar to what drew me to motorsport: a slightly difficult environment where you’re involved with the operations and every day is different and that’s exciting. Then I also thought about what do I want to do broadly and there was a big piece of me interested in energy.

“So now I feel that the skills I’m learning in the energy sector are building my legitimacy and credibility as an engineer. I’ve got the credibility of having worked in industry. It’s a great training ground because how many people in NGOs and government have the opportunity to be involved in a big corporate at a variety of levels? That exposure is incredibly valuable. So not only do I find it fun working on the rig, meeting different people, travelling constantly, but it also fits my intentions.

“What’s my life ultimately about? It’s about change. I can do some of that and I can learn some of those skills working at a big company.”

There’s no point in being a coconut

Yassmin seeks out challenges and glides over social boundaries. She is outspoken and considered, driven and approachable. Her actions display an exquisite freedom from the weight of external judgement and show how much we can accomplish when we reject society’s attempts to corral us into homogeneity.

“It’s important to climb the ladder, so to speak, but I need to have my feet on the ground. To have my head in the sky and my feet on the ground, as they say. We need people connected to the grassroots and that’s where I rely on others. I’m still connected to communities, still hear what communities are saying. As my dad says, There’s no point in me being a coconut, or brown on the outside and white on the inside. It means looking really diverse but saying the exact same thing that everyone else is saying. That’s something I’m really cognisant of and I’m constantly trying to find ways to do things because a lot of my time now is spent outside my community of appearance. I’m not with lots of Muslims and not with lots of Sudanese simply because the spaces I’m in don’t have key people from those different backgrounds. But I’m taking time out to go back and say Ok, talk to me about what’s going on. Remind me why this is so important.”

“When I think about Youth Without Borders, my age actually helped me in the sense that I didn’t know what I was getting into. When people said, Oh you don’t know what you’re doing, it wasn’t a challenge, I just thought, So what, I’ll find out. It’s that naiveté of youth.

If you’ve always been given everything, why would you think about contributing?

Yassmin’s parents championed education and personal responsibility and taught their children to contribute to the community. They took Yassmin and her brother to Sudan every two years to connect with relatives and develop a deeper understanding of the country.

“Because of the kind of conversations we had at the dinner table we were always cognisant that we were well off, not necessarily from a monetary point of view but we were educated and we had opportunities. That made us, not better than anyone else, but it meant that we had a responsibility to everyone else to use those skills for the improvement of the community.”

“My dad is always talking about how kids are being spoiled and saying, Look I don’t care if you don’t think I’m the best dad in the world because you’re not lazy and unemployed. You guys have an appreciation for where you come from. That’s ultimately what they wanted to achieve. But they had to make a conscious decision to raise us that way. If you’ve always been given everything, why would you think about contributing?”


Young Muslims today

“It’s an incredibly powerful concept, the concept of belonging. If we look at why young people, particularly young Muslims, act in strange ways, often you can bring it down to root causes that are very human, that we all share, concepts like belonging. I was involved in a hackathon and we had to create a campaign solution for young people who were potential extremists. One of the young people in my group was a former neo-Nazi. He said, at the root of it all, he had felt isolated and that he didn’t belong, so he had been trying to create and belong to a family and turning against someone from another race was a way to direct his anger.

“I look around and I look at the kind of language we use with our young Muslims in Australia today and there is no question as to how it makes people feel. It’s so exclusionary, it’s no surprise really that people feel isolated and feel like they don’t belong. I’m lucky in that my parents made sure we were brought up with the concept that we always had the capacity to find a solution whatever issue we faced, whether it was about belonging or an academic problem. It was never about blaming The Other or blaming the situation. It was about saying OK, we’re obviously tackling this the wrong way so how can we go about it a different way to get to our objective? My father is an engineer and my mother is an architect so it was always about problem solving. I was lucky that I was brought up with that self assurance from a very young age. Not everyone has that.

“We have to be so careful because small things make a huge, huge, huge difference and it’s such a tenuous concept, that concept of belonging. It’s the words you use. It’s something somebody says to a three-year old that makes them feel that they can’t call this place home so they go back to their country of birth and the country of their parents’ birth and they don’t belong there either. Where do they belong?”

Yassmin Abdel-Magied award rectangular

What is Australian?

“We need to be so careful about how we have this conversation as a nation.  It needs to be a mature and sophisticated conversation and each of us has a responsibility to make that happen around us.”

“Part of it, as well, is perhaps an insecurity we have about our national identity.  We’re a really young country in this modern, Anglo incarnation, we’re multi-cultural, and we don’t have that binding uniting concept of what makes Australia, Australia. Australia has a conversation about being Australian every Australia Day that talks about what ‘being Australian’ means, because we all have individual interpretations of that. But then, we don’t acknowledge our Indigenous history; the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders aren’t even recognized in the constitution. How do we reconcile this?

“We’re still figuring out who we are. We’re all fighting for some semblance of belonging and some people feel more entitled than others. I think people are trying to protect something from a very subconscious, almost tribal, point of view.”

Yassmin paraphrases Australian writer, academic and lawyer Waleed Aly:  “He said it perfectly when he said Australia’s a pretty tolerant society until the minorities step out of place.”

“No matter how long you’ve been here, if you’re in any way visibly or audibly different from what people expect the norm to be, you’ll have to justify your position, you’ll have to justify your existence almost and your right to be here.

“That’s been my reality. I have no other place to call home so that’s just how it is, so you acknowledge that and then you figure out how you can change it.”

In 2015, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, was named Queensland Young Australian of the Year, University of Queensland Young Alumni of the Year, and one of the most influential engineers in Australia. She is the president and chairperson of Youth Without Borders and is a board director of ChildFund Australia. She is an online journalist with the motorsport website RichardsF1.com and is saving for her first V8 Corvette Stingray. Watch her TEDx Talk here.  Her memoir Yassmin’s Story: Who do you think I am? will be released this year.

Waleed Aly is a lecturer at Monash University and co-host of television show The Project. Ben Okri‘s beautiful book A Way of Being Free is one of my favourite books and is available on Amazon or The Book Depository.

This interview was originally recorded in June 2015.