UN delegate and national living treasure
What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
Since leaving my role as a senior public servant last year I’ve been spending time reconnecting with grass roots women’s groups especially in remote communities as part of my role as a delegate to the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. It is inspiring talking to so many women’s groups about Australia’s role at the UN, about how the world is tracking in implementing the Beijing Platform of Action, and what lessons and ideas can be learnt especially in dealing with family and domestic violence.
What is the best thing that happened to you today?
Today is a warm beautiful day and I took time out to sit in my garden in silence.
If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
To remove racism, bigotry and release all the asylum seekers from detention into the community.
What is your best quality or attribute?
I’m an ideas person who enjoys challenges and finding creative, sustainable, inclusive ways of bringing about change in partnership with communities.
What do you most value in your friends?
I feel so lucky that throughout my life I’ve been guided by generous and compassionate friends and mentors who have a shared commitment to human rights and gender equality.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australia, what would it be?
To learn as much as possible about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are part of the oldest culture in the world, healing the past benefits all of us.
Can you describe a time when you felt discriminated against as a woman or as someone with an immigrant or refugee background?
There have been so many times that I’ve experienced both direct and subtle forms of discrimination and racism, too many to specifically talk about one occasion and I make a choice about those I challenge and those I ignore. Becoming empowered to deal with discrimination, especially subtle forms of racism has been a lifelong journey of learning. I’m now at a stage in my life where I feel very confident about challenging both personal and systemic forms of discrimination.
For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant/refugee background?
The solidarity with other women who share similar and different experiences of being marginalised because of our colour, ethnicity or language. [In 2012, Maria was given the National Living Legends Aware, awarded to the 100 most influential African Australians].
If you could invite any woman (dead or living) to dinner tonight, who would it be?
My paternal grandmother, who I never met but she was a very strong woman, raising her family who were nomadic camel herders in northern Somaliland.
Name a book or film that changed your life.
This is hard one to answer because Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde have provided me with such strength and helped shape my identity, but one of the most influential writers in my life is Martin Luther King, whose ‘I have a dream speech’ I heard when I was about 11 years old. His wisdom, words, actions, commitment and dream spoke to the heart of my own experiences and identity. It taught me so much about being human, about just and unjust laws and that people united could achieve so much. His words gave me a desire to know and understand the ways that human rights laws could protect us from discrimination in all its forms. Martin Luther King also instilled in me the belief that I could do anything and that the colour of my skin would not prevent me achieving in life.
What are you reading right now?
‘People of the Book’ by Geraldine Brooks.
“We need feminism because…
…we need to change the systems, structures and cultures that hold inequities in place and because it gives women choices. We must also consider the multiple disadvantages migrant and refugee women experience such as racial discrimination and ensure that feminism is inclusive of all women. Audre Lorde put it this way: ‘I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognise that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.’