Mechanical engineer turned activist and storyteller wants make the world fairer
Yassmin Abdel Magied is a busy woman.
The Sudanese-Australian writer has quite the CV, having gone from a mechanical engineer to an activist, to a broadcaster, to an author.
In 2007, she was named Young Australian Muslim of the Year. Yassmin also participated in youth work and delivered a TedTalk on being a Muslim woman.
We last chatted to Yassmin after the release of her first work of fiction You Must be Layla, which used a children’s character to explore Islamophobia, sexism and what it’s like to be the only girl interested in a male-dominated industry.
We caught up with Yassmin again to learn more about her varied career and her experience working as an engineer on Australia’s oil rigs as the only Black Muslim woman and one who wears a headscarf.
She’s now left the industry to work in the creative sector.
‘Ultimately, I like building and creating things that make the world a fairer, safer place,’ Yassmin tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Whether that’s in the form of a novel or youth organisation, taking an idea and seeing it develop into reality always gives me joy.’
At the moment Yassmin is working on her third book and the sequel to You Must Be Layla. An expert multitasker, Yassmin is also working on some TV scripts, leading anti-racism coaching. and developing a handbook for fair leadership.
She’s even taken up a sewing course to work on tailoring her own clothes as a way to stop contributing to fast fashion.
Yassmin first got into engineering as her family had a history of doing STEM subjects.
But it was also the influence of a Kristen Stewart film – Catch That Kid – that motivated her to learn more about engineering.
Yassmin explains: ”It’s all thanks to Catch That Kid where a young kid and her friends rob a bank and escape on go-karts. I watched that film and was instantly convinced that what I must do with my life is become a Formula 1 driver.
‘When that dream seemed like it may be a bit too out of reach (it’s a very expensive endeavour), I settled on becoming a Formula 1 engineer.’
Yassmin completed her studies and took a job to save up for a Masters in motorsports. She had intended to work on the oil rigs for a year but ended up doing it for four.
‘Life in the oil patch was never dull, that’s for sure,’ she says.
‘Rig life was often painfully isolating. I’d be out of contact with friends and family for weeks, sometimes months at a time. As expected, it was also incredibly male-dominated.
‘In some ways, it was an honour – as the only woman for miles, men would confide in you in ways that they would never do to others, and I saw the soft, and vulnerable side of many.
‘But on the other hand, you can never really transcend your gender – it makes it hard to progress, difficult to be taken seriously for your professional credentials, and whether I liked it or not, the threat of sexual assault was always something at the back of my mind.
‘Though that exists in every workplace, it takes on a unique edge when you’re the only woman in the desert, or on the platform.
‘On the engineering side of things, it was an incredible adventure. No two days were ever the same. The technology is mind-boggling.
‘The size of the equipment is astronomical. The entire operation is an industrial marvel, and I woke up excited every day to be there. I mean, I went to work on a helicopter.’
During this time, Yassmin kept a blog, journalling her experiences which led her to realising her enjoyment of writing.
While she hadn’t intended on pivoting her career to writing, she realised she was doing it to make sense of the world around her.
She adds: ‘Over time, and as I continued to develop as a writer, it was clear to me that I had a choice: between choosing to have a voice and a platform on my own terms or to continue working as an engineer. To everyone’s surprise, perhaps especially my own, I chose writing.
‘Engineering will always be my first love. It is my foundational intellectual training; it shapes the way I see and understand the world.
‘But for me, writing is more than a career. It’s a way to tell stories, to help shape the world around me, to share experiences, and create meaning… it’s also paid way, way, way less than engineering, so it’s not the only thing I do!
‘My life now is a mix of so many different things, and I guess that freedom – though it comes with a rich dollop of instability – is something I deeply revel in and enjoy.’
Yassmin was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.
She now lives in London, but growing up in the majority-white city of Brisbane was challenging.
‘There weren’t many people who looked like me around. I was hyper visible from a super young age, and with that came all sorts of restrictions on who I could be – from society and in some sense, from myself.
‘I felt a sense of duty to “represent”, to show people that Sudanese, Muslim, hijabi women were smart, driven, compassionate human beings who added value to society.
‘I spent all this time learning how to exemplify the modern minority that I never truly got the chance to question why that was required of me at all.
‘I had yet to experience a life that wasn’t under the constant watchful eye of society just waiting for me to fail, gleeful at the moment they could chew me up and spit me out.’
In London’s bustling diversity, Yassmin gets to enjoy the novelty of being anonymous.
‘Moving here meant I left the panopticon,’ she says.
‘Got the chance to let my hijab down, so to speak. Sure, it’s no nirvana, I’ve spent enough time here to know that now. But gosh, I relish the anonymity that comes from not being the only hijabi-Sudanese person in the area.
‘I’m someone who doesn’t fully fit in most places, but somehow, in London, I am right at home.
‘I love London. With its soggy skies and potholed pavements, treacle-like traffic, and ridiculous rent, I love it.
‘It’s a city where you can do anything, and be anyone, and still, find your people.
‘I found mine: my people, my peace, my purpose. I will always be grateful to this crowded, messy, complex, contradiction of a city, for the lease on life it blessed me with. If you tire of London, you tire of life!’
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