26-year-old Yassmin Abdel-Magied arrives right on time, with make-up on point and wearing a huge grin. "Man, I really need to pack up my house," she says when she greets us, "you know anyone looking for furniture?"
Yassmin is in town for the Melbourne Writers Festival and to pack for her imminent move to London. Since a Facebook post gone awry in 2016, she’s been at the centre of a lot of controversy, and hate mail. But despite being named the “most hated Muslim in Australia”, she’s nothing but warm, generous and good humoured, as we chat to her over coffee.
With so many accolades under her belt, Yassmin would be an inspiring feature guest for any BE. topic. She’s a feminist, engineer, activist, writer and all-round high achiever. She was the 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year, founded Youth Without Borders when she was only 16 years old, and released a memoir by 22. When we told her that our next issue was ‘BOSS’, she immediately lit up; “I’m totally a boss,” she said, “in the B.A.W.S.E sense of the word”. But she hasn’t always felt that way:
“I think that if you’d asked me a few years ago, the word ‘boss’ would have been something that I’d shied away from. Part of it is gendered, part of it is the fear of being arrogant, or self-centred. For a long time, calling myself a boss felt like I was talking myself up. Particularly because I’m religious. We’re taught in our faith to always stay humble.”
To Yassmin, success is so much more than personal achievement. She’s thoughtful, kind and strives more than anything to pay it forward. “Being a boss is doing the best that you can with the most integrity possible,” she says, “And that means stepping aside when it’s more important for other people to be in that space. That’s something that I’m learning to do right now. My voice is not the important thing—it’s what my voice is doing. If I can use my voice to open doors for others, maybe that’s more important.”
Born in Sudan, her family immigrated to Queensland right before her second birthday. She grew up in Australia with a drive to achieve as much as possible. “From that ‘good migrant kid’ mentality, I’ve done it,” she says. She was a great student, achieving top grades all through university. She became a mechanical engineer and is avidly passionate about the industry. “I still introduce myself as an engineer, for better or for worse.”
Her success in engineering began distinctly separate from her life as an activist and advocate. The men she worked with didn’t know anything about her life outside of work until they caught her on TV. Since then, her worlds have collided. “As my voice is not the important thing—it’s what my voice is doing. If I can use my voice to open doors for others, maybe that’s more important. I grew older and more confident,” she said, “I realised that it wasn’t right for me to uphold one set of values in one space and not in another. The bravest thing for me was to bring what I did outside of work into work.”
Accomplishing more by her early twenties than most people do in a lifetime has come with its ups and downs. It’s put her in the spotlight. She’s no longer only facing unconscious bias for being a young woman of colour, but she faces the overt bias too. “I’m going to have all that plus the thought that I’m a controversial Muslim activist. I come into that space with all of that baggage.” Over the past year and a half, she’s received everything from insults to death threats. “It’s trauma. Right now the world has moved on—I haven’t been in the news for a couple of weeks—but for me that trauma is still there.”
Asked how she deals with the stress, she jokes: “Leave the country.” Humour aside, she’s quick to draw real insights from her experience. “Honestly though, I’ve had two overseas trips in the past few months. Physically changing location makes a massive difference. It’s obviously not accessible for everyone, but it really helped me. I also leaned on friends. It wasn’t about trying to fix it, just holding space where I could lean on somebody and they could empathise with me.” Ultimately though, there’s only one thing that matters: resilience. “You don’t know you have it until you need it,” she confided, “If you’d asked me at the beginning if I could handle it, I would have thought I could handle anything. But being in it is like nothing else. Sometimes you don’t know if you can handle it, but you’ve got to keep going.”
I realised that wasn’t right for me to uphold one set of values in one space and not in another.
The bravest thing for me was to bring what I did outside of work into work. Learning how resilient she can be has left her more willing to take up the mantle of being a boss. “If people want to challenge me, I’m going to rise up to that,” she says. “Funnily, the people who have tried to put me down are the reason I’ve decided to step up to the plate. Which is fascinating, and probably not their intention. You wanna mess with me? Oh, I’m gonna bring it.”
Yassmin doesn’t only bring her boss attitude to activist and advocacy spaces. It’s bled into everything she does. “I’m much more willing to stand up for people in the engineering space than I used to be. When you’ve had an entire country shit on you for the better part of a year and somebody’s a little bit mean to you at work, or a bit racist, or a bit sexist, you’re like, ‘Pffft. C’mon mate’. I’m still here. I’m still doing events. I’m still Instagramming really cheeky selfies. Like, they tried to crush me and I survived. I’ve got that in me. What else can I do?” Perhaps it’s this newfound resilience that’s also changed her outlook on success. “If you asked me a while back what success meant for me, it was being a drilling supervisor on an oil rig.” So what’s success now? “Getting into heaven,” she laughs, “Just kidding. That’s not a KPI we can measure in this world.” Instead, success is something much less measurable than you’d expect from a mechanical engineer. “Have I been as useful as I can in this world? Have I been a good friend? A good sister? A good daughter? A good Muslim? Have I opened doors for others? Have I been conscious about my bias? These successes are more difficult to measure, but for me they’re more important.”
Being a boss is about so much more than just doing the work. It’s about situating yourself in a legacy of boss people that have come before, and making space for the bosses that come after. Perhaps it’s that perspective that helps Yassmin stay true to herself and remain grounded despite her extraordinary accomplishments. She’s not doing it for personal success—she’s part of something much bigger.
“We not only stand on the shoulders of giants, we walk in the footsteps of a lot of boss women,” she says, “They may not have called themselves bosses or feminists, but I look at my mum, I look at my aunties, my grandma, and they were totally bosses. It’s about being aware that even though we’re bosses and we’re breaking ground, we’re part of a tradition. That gives me strength. I’m another step in the history of boss women that came before me and will come after me. It helps me knowing that I’ve played a little role in a centuries-long timeline of change for the better.” “We all have boss in us and we can nurture that. Don’t let others extinguish your fire. It’s yours to protect and add kindling to. And it’s yours to be proud of. It’s something we should be very proud of. Even if other people don’t see it, that can be the little thing that keeps you warm, even when times are cold. We’re part of a tradition. That gives me strength. I’m another step in the history of boss women that came before me and will come after me.
Find out more about Yassmin's work at YASSMINAM.COM