Dicey Topics: Susan Carland talks religion, bodies and sex

Dicey Topics: Susan Carland talks religion, bodies and sex

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we're told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they're given.

This week he talks to Susan Carland. The 39-year-old writer, broadcaster and academic, who converted to Islam at age 19, is the author of Fighting Hislam and host of SBS's Child Genius.


You've rolled a four. We're starting with religion.

[Laughs/groans] That's the one topic I said to Waleed [husband Waleed Aly, co-host of The Project], "I really hope we don't talk about religion, because everyone is so sick to death of me banging on about that."

"People never really ask me about Islam as a religion. They ask me about it as a political movement."

"People never really ask me about Islam as a religion. They ask me about it as a political movement."Credit:Simon Schluter

Does "everyone" include yourself?

Pretty much every interview I've ever done always comes down to religion. I might be interviewed about, say, the gender pay gap, but it always comes down to, "Tell us about why you wear a hijab" and "Tell us about how you became Muslim." You could go and look at an interview I did 20 years ago and it's exactly the same questions.

What are the more interesting conversations we should be having around Islam?

Surely we haven't exhausted all angles. People are uneasy or quite unhappy with religion for a lot of reasons, many of which I completely understand. But there's a real paucity of conversation about the moral, ethical and spiritual depth that religion offers. People never really ask me about Islam as a religion. They ask me about it as a political movement.

Tell me about the texture of Islam in your life.

I use it as the guide to constantly check in with myself, to make sure I am acting in the most ethical way I can and with the most integrity. Islam always says, "You can be better than this." Some of the spiritual disciplines we have – like Ramadan – strip away all the crutches I use, like coffee. When you're fasting, you really get to see who you really are. And I'm not a very pleasant person. My family will tell you this!

You're from Melbourne. Tell me about the other religion you must have: AFL.

[Laughs] My husband and kids [Carland and Aly have two children, Aisha and Zayd] are obsessed with football. For a while, I really tried to get into following Richmond, but I couldn't handle the stress. I got really invested, then they'd lose, I'd get upset and there was nothing I could do. Now I support AFL, as opposed to a team.

What would you call that? AFL agnosticism?

People who believe there's truth in every religion are called perennialists. Maybe I'm an AFL perennialist.


I've read that you drink three cups of coffee when you wake up.

Oh, at least.

What does that do to you in the morning?

The concern is how little it does for me. I could drink a cup of coffee in bed at night and go straight to sleep, so I've obviously destroyed my endocrine system. I've already had six coffees today; I'd happily have another one. I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't know nearly enough strange men. This is one thing. Give me this.

You go to the gym after having three morning coffees. Have you always been athletic?

From age seven until I was 20, I did ballet. It was my first true love. I don't have the same sense of euphoria at the gym as I did when I did ballet, but I'm one of those people who runs around frantically then sleeps really well at night. I'm either at zero or at 100. So exercise burns off some of that excess frenetic pace.

I get helmet hair after I cycle. Do you get hijab hair?

Absolutely. [Laughs] It's not attractive. We don't have to deal with bad-hair days [in public], but we do have bad-hijab days where, no matter what, your hijab sits weirdly. But, you know how it feels like to take your socks off at the end of a day? That's like taking off your hijab. You don't feel oppressed by your socks, but it feels good when you take them off.


So I've heard your sexual awakening involved the actor and director Yahoo Serious.

[Laughs uproariously] Yes, he was the first man I had a crush on. I saw his 1988 film Young Einstein and was, like, "Who is that amazing specimen of masculinity?"

Yahoo Serious in Young Einstein looked like he'd been electrocuted. What was the appeal?

I don't know, but I'm thinking I have a type. I liked him, Shaggy from Scooby Doo and Bill Oddie from The Goodies. Hairy, dishevelled men. I don't know what that says about Waleed.

What was your best source of sex education? Parents? Magazines? First-hand experience?

My mum was raised in a time where those things weren't spoken about. I think she thought that was unhealthy, so she spoke very openly about that stuff. Which of course, as a teenager, I found mortifying. But now as an adult and a mother, I really admire and respect her: it was absolutely the right way to be.

You didn't grow up Muslim. What differences in attitudes towards sex between Muslim Australians and non-Muslim Australians have you found?

The Muslim community in Australia is so culturally diverse, and all these cultural backgrounds have a very different approach to sex and the body. From a purely theological point of view, sex is meant to be seen as something positive – not purely for procreation – and enjoyable. One justification in Islam for a woman to get a divorce from her husband is if he doesn't satisfy her sexually. But you hear stories of women only finding out on their wedding night what's meant to happen. Then you've also got Muslim sex therapists … you get the full spectrum.

What are the three criteria or prerequisites to good sex?

Enthusiasm. Both people really being into each other. And being unselfish.


To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age or Brisbane Times.

Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.

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