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Susan Carland: "I don't enjoy being in magazines but I'm trying to create a more cohesive society."

University lecturer and public figure Susan Carland is not one to be caught tongue-tied.

The eloquent speaker has commanded the public space and ear since she won Australian Muslim of the Year in 2004.

The award-winner told Fairfax the act of standing so prominently in the public eye was intrinsically linked to her faith.

“For Muslims it always comes back to intention. The more you’re in the public eye, the more you have to ask yourself, ‘Is my intention because I want to be on the front of a magazine and I want everyone to look at me?’ If so, then, that’s problematic,” she said.

“But if your intention is sincerely, ‘I don’t particularly enjoy being in magazines but I have the intention of trying to create a more cohesive society or a society that has some nuance in this conversation about Islam.'”

Carland, 37, came from a Christian background in suburban Melbourne but converted to Sunni Islam at 19 after initially being drawn to the teachings at 17.

This was further developed when she was able to connect to other women at a female Muslim group at university.

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The academic says the concept of blatant self-promotion is not her personal path though she understands its place within modern society.

“The currency is very much exposed flesh and ‘pay attention to me’ – and that’s fine if people want to do that, that’s their prerogative,” she said.

“I see a lot of wisdom in the Islamic value of modesty in terms of behaviour and dress. These are very much decisions people have to make for themselves and neither can be enforced.”

The 37-year-old told the paper she made the choice to wear the hijab as an “act of worship” that aligns with her feminist values.

“I don’t find wearing hijab restrictive: I teach at university, I go on TV, I go swimming, I used to go roller-blading – a ’90s activity – I go travelling, I’ve gone scuba diving at the Barrier Reef a couple of times,” she said.

“So the only thing I think holds me back is people’s negative stereotypes and assuming what I am, or can or can’t do, or [how I] feel about things. The whole point about hijab is it was meant to facilitate mobility in society.”

Carland is currently completing her book Fighting Hislam – a work that sets out to challenge the idea that Muslim women are trapped by their teachings of their faith.

“There is such ignorance, people are shocked that there are even women doing this,” she said.

“Right from the beginning women, have been using Islam to argue for their rights, saying to men, ‘Hang on, our religion doesn’t say you can do that.’ Especially outside the faith, people see Muslim women as these passive victims who do whatever their husbands say, or whatever their imams say, or their fathers say. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Carland juggles her time in the public and intellectual space with motherhood and her two children Aisha, 12 and Zayd, 9.

The mother-of-two spoke briefly about her similarly public husband Waleed Aly and how they met.

Aly and Carland were said to have met as teenagers after being introduced through mutual friends.

The happily married woman of 14 years said the attraction was more of a slow-burn.

“He just really annoyed me,” she said.

“I think maybe it was that I’d become Muslim so I was dealing with all those changes in my life, telling my family and friends, and I needed everyone to give me some space.”