Interview with Susan Carland

Interviewed by Abby Claridge.

Like many feminists, Susan Carland faces criticism for her views. But, unlike many Western feminists, her Muslim faith is often bought up in an effort to delegitimize her views.

For those who do not prescribe to a religious viewpoint, it can be hard to understand how a religion that the media presents as ‘repressive’ could be feminist. If *gasp* a woman can be Muslim AND married AND a mother AND be a feminist, then what exactly is a feminist?

In her book Fighting Hislam, Susan seeks to answer—or at least explain—what it is to be a Muslim feminist. As a writer, Susan is informative and conscious of her subject matter; she shows care and empathy for each of her interviewees. Each chapter is filled with detail and a comprehensive understanding of both her religion and what it means to strive for gender equality. Getting to speak to Susan about her work as a scholar, writer and storyteller, was incredible. She is truly a remarkable woman.

I read a lot of the content in‘Fighting Hislam’was from your research from your doctoral thesis. What motivated you to turn it into a book for publication?

*sighs* Well, probably a couple of things. In the beginning, the last thing I actually wanted to do was publish it as a book because there was a sort-of comforting safety in knowing the only people who would ever read it would be my thesis markers.
Because the whole topic is so flammable, it was nice just to imagine it gathering dust on a University shelf [and] not having to deal with people’s reactions to it. So, for a long time [I] actively did not want to publish it. Why would I want to bring any more drama into my life? Then I realised I don’t really have the right to get angry at how the public conversation is progressing when I feel I have a contribution could be made to it and I refuse to share it.
I don’t get to get annoyed when Politicians say dumb things or Muslim’s say dumb things and know that I’ve done all this work—and have all this information and data and stories and things—that can challenge what people say, if I hide it away.
Now, I don’t think my book is going to change the world. *chuckles* I don’t even think—unfortunately—it’s really going to significantly change the public conversation at all. But, at least it’s out there!
At least now it is part of that discussion and when people wanna snarl at me (as they often will): A. ‘What would you know?’ or B. ‘Yeah but what the proof of that?’ I can actually go, well actually, here it is! Here is the whole book I wrote on it! If you’re genuinely interested in these issues, read this book and then come back to me and talk. And if you don’t, then that’s fine; you don’t have to read the book. But don’t tell me you’re actually curious about the intricacies of the conversation.

 So, how did you find the transition from an academic to an anecdotal style? Cause I know they are quite different.

 I found the whole writing process hard, because I don’t feel I am a natural writer. I loved doing my PHD; I loved the isolation of it. I know some PHD students [struggle and find] working by yourself all the time to be very isolating and lonely.
I LOVED it! It was my favourite thing about getting a PHD, I was by myself all the time! I loved it! [But, when it came] to the writing, I’m not very confident as a writer. It feels very laboured and… it’s just not something I’m actually good at.
So, [first of all] I struggled just with the craft of writing academically. [On top of that], trying to turn it into a trade book was an interesting tussle for me—particularly with my editor because they’re like ‘that’s gotta go, that’s gotta go, that’s gotta go, that’s gotta go!’. As an academic I’m like ‘No, no, no! That’s all the necessary stuff! I NEED to keep that in there!’. [They’re saying things] like ‘Well, all these references have to go!’ I was like ‘No! What do you mean?! They HAVE to be there!’ So there was a lot of back and forth about that, plus working out ‘how to I talk about this—when I feel it is a complicated and multifaceted issue? How do I do that in a more “trade book way”, without dumbing it down?’

Part of my resistance to that was because I feel so much of the conversation around women and sexism… is such an intellectually fluoresced conversation. Part of me really wanted to [focus on the] more academic or intellectual aspect of the work; to remind people, or even more likely to show people, this is not a straight forward thing.

[Adding to that] I actually didn’t want to put a lot of myself in the book. This is another argument I had with my lovely and long-suffering editor. [Originally] she wanted MY face to be the cover of and I really didn’t want my face to be on the cover of the book. I was like ‘well this is actually not my story. This is the story of the women in the book and I don’t think I should put my face [because that will make it] look like my autobiography’. I didn’t want that. [My editor] kept saying… ‘why didn’t you put in that story about you when you did this thing? Why didn’t you insert this here?’ and I [would respond] ‘I don’t want to talk about myself! I don’t want this to be about me!’
[I] know for a reader, you like to know about your author […]I know I do that myself. So often, when I’m reading a book, the first thing I like to do is go and read the acknowledgements because I like to get a sense of the author.


There was actually a fantastic quote in your book which said: ‘this book exists because the voice of insiders have long been ignored’. What advice would you give to writers who worry their voices may not be heard?

[I} think so many voices have been so unfairly excluded for a long long time. I think it is starting to change slowly. We are starting to see more diverse writers be published, which is excellent, but there’s obviously a long way to go. I guess the piece of advice I would give in that situation—if you’re worried your voice won’t be heard—is [not to] see having a book published as the only (or even ultimate) way of your voice being heard. See if you can write [other], shorter things on the areas you know a lot about and get them published in other places!

You know, in online publications or in newspapers or in journals! In those sorts of things! See if you can get your voice out there, because I do know there are—certainly not all—but there are a number of publications that are actively looking for diverse voices on different topics and to give them a platform. [They] are conscious of how uneven the landscape of sound has been.

[I would do this] for a couple of reasons: 1. it’s getting your voice out there and you can start to contribute what you have to say in that field. 2. it gives you a good—it’s a good practice of refining your writing craft with an editor who’s going to come in with their own ideas about what needs to be done. [You can] start getting used to that process of working with an editor. 3. [The] more you can publish these things, [the more it] will build up a profile around you. So, when you do again try to approach publishers to publish your book, you can sort of say ‘look! here’s a list of the other things I’ve done! Here’s a body of work I can show you.’

You mention in your book you had to cultivate a sort-of ‘negotiated interview style’ with your participants; who may have felt misrepresented by writers and sociologists in the past.
So, what advice would you give to interviewers who want to share vital stories but are concerned about putting off their interviewees?

I think it’s a really delicate one. [It} certainly worked for me because I am a Muslim woman, so you know the people I was speaking to knew I was coming in as an insider in that regard. [Instead of] someone who was there to—even inadvertently—try to tear them down or criticise them. This didn’t mean I d[didn’t] have opinions of the things they said, but I came with enough background knowledge to not make those same tired old “behind the veil” kind of dumb analogies we see everywhere. [They know] I was sympathetic to what they were doing, and to […] the difficulty of the environment in which they operated. [I] guess it is important people who have a platform should want to share the voices of others. […] That worked for me, in that situation, because I’m talking to and about Muslim women.

But, there obviously are situations where I might want to share the stories or promote other people where I’m not an insider. [But] even with all the good intentions in the world, I might say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, represent people in the wrong way. [Maybe the issue might be that] it’s still their voice being mediated through mine. We have an impact.
That being said, [I don’t] think […] outsiders should never help amplify the stories of people who are different to them, in case they inadvertently do the wrong thing. Because, I think that will just keep more peoples voices out of the loop.

I guess what I’m saying is, [if] you are wanting to share the stories of people who are very different to you […] or perhaps have been treated pretty unfairly im publications or the media [is to] tread very very very carefully. [You] could always say to them ‘I will show you what I’m going to write before I publish it and I want you to feel okay about it.’ I think that’s [important] that […] they have some control over [their] stories and the way it’s presented; I think that could help.

So, a big piece of advice from you would be building a relationship of trust with the people you’re sharing the stories of?

Oh absolutely! That goes without saying! I [don’t] think you could sort-of go and knock on the door of the local, I don’t know, disabled woman association and say ‘Hello! I really want to write a story about you!’. I mean you probably could and people probably have.

[However] I think […] we all need to keep in mind our interviewees are not stupid. They will, within themselves, be undergoing some kind of negotiation about to what extent they do or don’t want to participate, and what mistakes they feel the portrayal of them will be. They might think ‘well this is going to be an annoying process, you don’t really know me very well, but for the greater good of this story getting out I’m just going to deal with it.’

They will decide how much they will disclose to you as well. So, we need to not see them as totally brainless victims who have no agency—they absolutely have some agency and they will exercise it! But we also need to remember that, especially when it comes to publishing stories, there is a power imbalance in terms of who tells the story. It’s really important people always feel they have ownership over their own story. That’s very, very important. Anyone wants that!

No matter who you are, you never want to feel misrepresented, but especially if you are someone who comes from a group of people who feel they have been consistently misrepresented […] then I think it’s even more important.

 You’ve had a really interesting experience, as a published writer, as you already had a public profile. So, do you feel that this had an effect on the readings of Fighting Hislam?

 [I] knew this going in and I really had to steel myself for it—I knew it would attract a lot of abuse. Just, because I know there are people, people who tell me regularly, how much they don’t like me […] not just the average joe-on-the-street but media people and even I feel like whole media outlets have [expressed their dislike] I knew that would be coming. And I had to prepare myself for that.

So, I certainly think my profile did affect the readings. If I had just been another academic who’d written their thesis into a published book on this topic, but I wasn’t who I was and I wasn’t married to who I was, it probably wouldn’t have received the same amount of media attention. I mean there is one media outlet in particular that has quite a vendetta and they have gone and dug it up and written things for more Muslims to be outraged by. [I feel like they looked at Fighting Hislamas] the next thing they could set alight to keep the rest of the nation warm.

Yeah, definitely, I knew my profile would receive a lot of negativity. I don’t know if it affected the sales—I don’t even know how many books I sold! I have no idea! I should probably find that out.

I don’t even know how they all work but, I mean, maybe having a profile meant sales were good in the other direction as well. But the impact—what I felt the impact was—the knowledge that the “haters” would come out in force.

 And, unfortunately the hateful voices can be the loudest; it can be a little bit overwhelming.

Yes, definitely. Were there any sections of the text you feel that people might have misinterpreted or glazed over?

It’s not a light read. With all my efforts to make it a trade book I know it’s not a jolly book that you get through in a few hours; I don’t think my mum has read it. *chuckles*

So, I know that unless you’re an academic […] even then it feels a bit impenetrable, which is disappointing. But you know I actually hope something.

There’s this really interesting practice in Islamic theology where scholars of religion would consciously make the first few pages of their book really hard to read; you can barely understand what they’re staying. It’s totally impenetrable. They did that on purpose, to keep out people who didn’t have the necessary skills and experience and education, from reading the rest and really misunderstanding and misinterpreting it. And I think there’s an interesting wisdom in that. You can make an argument against it. but I think there is a wisdom in it.

So, [Fighting Hislam] is written in such a way that it does weed out people who will misinterpret it, but I know when people want to misinterpret something they will. You can say the sky is blue, they want you to know you said it was pink. So, I mean, I hope, if they’ve read the whole thing, they read it fairly. They might come away with disagreements of what I say, but I hope they at least went away thinking, ‘Hmm, I think there’s maybe more to the topic than I thought’.

 Well, if there was a sequel to Fighting Hislam, what would it be about?

 *chuckles* Oh what a horrifying thought! I don’t know what it would be. I mean, I know there’s research, and stuff, I want to do at uni that I’d love to get funded, but whether that’d happen… I don’t know.

Like I said, and I’m sure this is the wrong thing to say to you and I apologise, but because I don’t think I’m a good writer and I struggle with it so much, the thought of writing another book it quite horrifying. But, I’m also an academic and I live in an environment which is publish or perish, so I know I MUST write again. So, I don’t know.

I really haven’t given it a lot of thought and I think that’s quite intentional. I think I’m consciously not thinking about what else I would do.

 Well, I know you don’t consider yourself a writer but you are part of the group now. I promise I have only a few more questions about your writing. Some writers find that they write their best in sporadic periods of inspiration while others schedule in regular writing times. What was your process and would you recommend it?

Well […] I’ve got two children. So, while I’m the kind of person who would love to go work in a cave or some sort of delightful tavern by a lake and devote myself to writing solidly for three straight months or however long, that was never […] going to happen.
So, I had to force myself to be able to write within the constraints of my life. I suppose we all have to do that. While there were certainly times that it was frustrating, like I’d feel like I was just getting into my flow and […] just get on track—and then, I’d have to pick my son up from school. And that was… just what it was.
So, my ‘how I wrote it’ and my ‘how I would have liked to write it’ are probably quite different. But, I think if you really want to be a writer but have to work as an—I don’t know—accountant during the day, you will have to let go of the idea you can go into that little cabin for six months and write your ultimate magnus opus. You need go ‘these are the hours that I have and, if I actually want to write this thing, I need to just do it in that time’. I need to just let go of what the ideal is, and say ‘this is the reality, and if this book is going to be written, I’m going to write every night from ten till midnight.’ Or ‘I’m going to get up every day at four and write until 7.’ Or whatever it is, and just work around it. Of course it’s going to be frustrating, and it might not go the way you want or whatever […] but, that’s life.

 You’ve worked with so many different story telling mediums before, I saw a couple of your episodes from your series with the National Museum with Victoria—*laughs*— so, what’s your favourite medium to work with and why?

 Hmmm, that’s a good question. My favourite medium to tell stories you mean?


Umm probably the one I enjoy the most is an in-conversation session. Like, you know when you go to a writer’s festival or a public lecture. The one I enjoy the most is when I’m either asking the questions or someone is asking me the questions […] on stage.
I think they’re the most interesting [situations]; they’re the ones I enjoy the most. […] I mean in many ways, especially in writing a book, you can certainly develop your ideas a lot more thoroughly and extend them.

I find, as an academic, I like getting right down to the details and digging and digging and digging. That’s something you can do in writing a book you can’t do onstage.
But, the mediums I find [most] interesting are the ones that are ore conversational styles. Where different people […] ask questions I haven’t been asked before. And I think ‘ah thats really interesting. What do I think about that?’ That’s probably my favourite way to nut through it.

And do you find, in those live speeches, you like seeing your audience. Does that add to your speech?

It can but what I’ve actually found is I’m notoriously bad at reading the room. Sometimes, after I’ve given a speech or had a conversation, I’ll come home, and my husband will be like ‘how was it?’ and I’ll be like ‘oh it was terrible! Everyone was just so bored.’ And this could be at one of my lectures at uni […] I’ll look back and think, ‘Oh god the students hated it. They hate me. [They] were all falling asleep.’

[Then] I’ll get an email from my conference organiser like ‘oh what a great session—it was our favourite of the day!’ and I’ll be like ‘really?! That’s not how I felt it went at all! I honestly thought it was a nightmare.’

So, it’s actually probably better if I can’t see people’s faces. […] I’m not good at reading the audience very well. I do like seeing the face of the person I’m talking to because I feel like I can sort of read them. Perhaps I’m only good in small doses.

Speaking of small doses, I did want to quickly talk about your involvement in the ‘200 Women’ movement which 1. is so exciting and 2. your profile is one place from away from Margaret Atwood – which is obscenely exciting! The editor must really love you because I’m betting everyone would have been bribing them for that page. How do you feel movements like 200 women help to increase intersectional feminism?

I think they definitely help and I think what’s been really interesting is: feminism is definitely having a moment. We are.

Academics wouldn’t even say we’re in the third wave anymore; we’re in the fourth wave, which is interesting. And there’s so many more conversations about feminism and intersectionality, which is so great to hear because you know one of the biggest criticisms of the first and second waves was that they were really just white middle class women being heard. [They] really excluded so many other women and it wasn’t a movement for all women. So, it’s really good to see a movement for everyone—all women.

I think 200 women gives an impression about the way people are becoming more aware and [of how] they’re trying to change it. Certainly, we have a long way to go. I think there are still so many voices that still don’t get included fairly. I [also] think there is some really good writing by women who’ve talked about the unfair burden white women can put on women of colour and the extent in which we’re willing to look at their stories—[stories] that make us uncomfortable. [Stories that] are really important to hear and often we’re not taken seriously enough and owning that. But every little increment and step, I hope is a step in the right direction.

I listened to your 2016 talk at the wheeler centre about how Les Misérables changed your life. Are there any other texts that have inspired you in the same way?

That’s a good question. It’s so difficult to narrow it down. I feel like there’s a million different topics I’ve read about. I love reading, it’s one of my favourite things to do. It’s like, when I’m reading, I’m swimming. It’s so immersive and relaxing and quiet. And, I think my problem is that I often find the book I’m reading at the moment is the most profound book I’ve ever read. [Then] I read the next book and I’m like ‘wow! what a life changing book!’ My bookshelf is huge, it’s floor to ceiling; it’s absolutely stuffed. I have to keep donating books because we can’t fit them all in. I don’t even know if I could give you my top ten.

Do you feel like you’ve grown as a reader or do you think you’ve stuck around the same genres as when you were younger?

I’ve always read pretty widely because I love it. I love reading. [Because] I’m an academic, I have to read a lot of different academic books on a lot of different topics. I also love fiction […] I will fully immerse myself in that as well. I love non-fiction as much as I love fiction.
I think, what it comes down to, is I love ideas. I love new ways of thinking and, as a someone who sees themselves as such a hack of a writer, I’m really just so impressed with the way they articulate things. Reading something and going ‘I know in a million years I never would have come up with that sentence’ and there’s forty sentences in one chapter like that. It just impresses me so much, it’s a real delight and I probably ready just about anything.

Well, we’re up to our final question. What is next for Susan Carland?

 Well, my sink is full of dishes so that’s probably on the agenda. You know, I’ve always been someone who doesn’t really plan my career. I’ve never been like ‘okay this is the 5 year goal, this is the 10 year goal’. I like to see what opportunities come my way and taking them when they do. For example, I’ve go this TV show coming out in November […] It’s with SBS and it’s a quiz show […] called ‘child genius’.

[It’s this] remarkable show about, obviously, super-smart kids from age 7 to 12 and I’m the host. Being the quiz host was never part of the ‘5 year plan’ but the opportunity came my way and I was like ‘this is awesome! I would love to do this!’

So, I have no idea what’s on the horizon, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next three months. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. Hopefully I manage to keep my job at the university and keep chugging away there. [Even so] the area I’m in in university, I never knew that was coming, [it] was never my intention to have the role I have. It’s an amazing opportunity and I can’t believe I have it, but it was never on my radar. I just kind of like to keep things open and see what turns up!





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