When Fatima Payman takes her seat in the Senate in July, she will be the first woman to wear a hijab in Australia’s parliament.
The 27-year-old Muslim Australian, confirmed as Labor’s newest senator from Western Australia on Monday, says she will wear it with pride.
“I want to normalize hijab-wearing,” Payman tells Guardian Australia.
“I hope to inspire many other young Australians that just because you believe in God or look different shouldn’t prevent you from being involved in such an important institution.
“You can’t be what you can’t see, and if that [parliament] is not reflective of the general Australian public, how can you have complete faith that they can hear your voice and be your voice in power?”
Payman is still pinching herself at being elected, describing her path to becoming an Australian senator as “completely unreal”.
She was just five years old when she fled Afghanistan with her family, seeking refuge from the Taliban, who had targeted the family because her grandfather was a member of the Afghan parliament.
From Pakistan, her father, Abdul Wakil Payman, left by boat to come to Australia, “seeking a better life for his children”.
Three years later, Payman, her mother, and her siblings joined him in Perth, where he worked three jobs – as a kitchen hand, a security guard, and a taxi driver. Her mother ran a business providing driving lessons.
Payman said her father “would always talk about politics” after dinner, hoping that one day she might return to Afghanistan to be elected to his homeland’s parliament.
“He never conceptualized the idea that one day his daughter could be running in the Senate in Australia,” she says.
After her father died of leukemia in 2018, Payman became politically active, joining the United Workers Union as an organizer.
“When I joined the union, I found that there were resources out there for workers to fight for better wages, pay, and conditions that my dad didn’t have the privilege of or the understanding of,” she says.
“Thinking of how hard he struggled for us and how much he sacrificed for us, I can’t let his sacrifices go in vain, and I do want to advocate for workers like him who are just trying to make ends meet and make a better life for their families.”
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Payman makes light of the fact that she will join the Senate at the same time as One Nation senator Pauline Hanson is reelected, who once wore a burqa in the Senate as part of a political stunt calling for a ban on the Muslim dress.
“I would like to say I wish Pauline didn’t do it because she has stolen my thunder; I could have been the first one,” Payman says. “But that is OK; maybe I’ll teach her how I wear my hijab.”
While Payman is not bothered by the focus on the history-making moment of her Muslim headscarf, she says that her identity will always be “Australian first”, saying she remains amazed at how quickly she adopted her new country after arriving an eight-year-old.
“Yes, I am the first hijab-wearing woman in parliament, but it was my Labor values that carried me here,” she says.
“Before I am Afghan, a migrant, or a Muslim, I am an Australian Labor senator; I want to emphasize that. Everyone deserves a fair go in life despite where they came from and what they believe in, their sexual orientation, age, or ability.”
She says she “has faith” that the new Labor government will do more to improve the treatment of migrants and refugees in Australia and also for those in offshore detention. She also wants to bring focus on cost-of-living concerns, childcare, climate change, and other issues affecting young families.
“I am excited to get involved, learn as much as I can, and start to make a difference because that is exactly why I put my hand up in the first place,” she says.
When the Australian Electoral Commission finally pushed the button on Monday, Payman says it was a “very emotional moment”.
“My mum was bawling,” she says. “She said, ‘you have fulfilled your dad’s dream, and I wish he were here to witness that; he would be so happy and proud of you’.
“There was a relief but also an enormous sense of responsibility. Many people look up to us as a government with hope for an inclusive and diverse government. There is a lot of work to be done.
“I honestly would do anything to know or see my dad’s reaction. I know he would be so proud of me. He would feel that this has been an unreal journey.”