The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance aims to publish occasional thought pieces to stimulate important conversations on human rights, race, inclusion, belonging and diversity by change-makers and commentators working in the field around Australia. This thought piece is contributed by our CEO, Shaheen Hughes. 

Shaheen Hughes is the CEO of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance,  and a passionate advocate of diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Shaheen was born in Bombay and raised in multiple countries and on a ship in the Indian Ocean. She studied English Literature and Art History at the University of Leeds and has a Master of Arts in International Communications. Shaheen also founded Spice Mama, a multi-dimensional culinary storytelling project.

The views expressed in this thought piece are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance. 


When I was very young my favourite story was about a giant, who built a wall around his beautiful garden to stop the local children from playing in it. Inside the high walls of this selfish giant’s garden, spring refused to make an appearance until one day, the children crawled through a hole in it and the flowers and birds returned.  The giant realises how selfish he has been and knocks down the wall so the children can come back and play, and it becomes once again the most beautiful garden that was ever seen.

My mum used to read me this story as we lay tucked into a bunk in a small cabin nestled within the large oil tankers on which we often lived with my Marine Engineer father, crossing the world’s fluid borders as we sailed. On one of these ships, there was a swing, right on top, from which I was convinced I could see the world.

My family has crossed borders for centuries.  My ancestors, Portuguese, Dutch, Indonesian, Arab, sailed on ships that traded spices from India.  We are known as East Indians, the bastard children of our unwanted colonisation, for we would never have been born if borders had not been crossed, for better and for worse.  We are from Bombay, that great global city of trade where the whole world comes together in chaotic extravagance.

Our flagrant disregard for the borders that divide us continued into modern times.  Mum and Dad eloped, Catholic and Muslim, 25 years after India was freed, divided. I am a child of two religions, proof of peaceful co-existence (until my parents divorced). We moved, and moved and moved, on water and through land. We arrived in Australia not long after the demise of the White Australia policy, when the borders were once again opened to people who looked like us.

In my teens, living in London, we saw more borders dissolved – Nelson Mandela walked free and the Berlin wall crumbled. The spirit of glasnost was pervasive. It was easy to shrug off the oppression of colonialism for the generation I grew up in, for surely, we were on a clear trajectory of freedom.

At university I met my husband, an Irish Catholic who had survived a violent sectarian attack one sunny June day in Northern Ireland, the summer he turned nineteen.  We talked late into the night about the dangerous borders that separated our countries and the common history we shared despite our differences, the common ambition of unity.

But times have changed.  This Christmas we have been visiting family in the United Kingdom amidst a winter of discontent, witnessing the re-election of Boris Johnson on the promise of a soundbite that spells one word only: division.  In the north of Ireland, we see how Brexit renders nonsensical the arbitrary boundary that separates this small country.

In my beloved homeland of India, we watch the news of a diverse, tolerant nation being torn apart by the new Citizenship Amendment Bill, which similarly aims to isolate the region’s Muslim population.  You will not belong within our borders, it implies, because you are different to us.

We were so wrong in thinking that borders drawn in blood could ever be erased. They are instead throbbing and inflamed. They are being strengthened everywhere, both physical and moral, as the selfish giants that lead us take advantage of our proclivity to tribalism in uncertain times.

As Shikha Dalmia wrote in her commentary on India’s ‘mass faith cleansing’, “the fact is that no group is really safe under a mentality that gets high from its powers of exclusion. It will always find ways to discriminate based on infinitesimally small differences and disagreements.”

As I write however, I am flying homewards, cruising at an altitude of 36,000 feet. Looking down, I can’t see the borders between the countries over which we pass. On this flight the crew speak 19 different languages.  Up here we are all one, coming and going our separate ways together, tracing infinite patterns across this beautiful world.

I know we will soon land in a country where our physical and moral boundaries are also constricting, where, according to the latest CIVICUS Monitor report, our civil space has literally narrowed, our border reinforcement policies have reached beyond every moral boundary.

If we look at the world as a shared space, we have to take down as many borders as we can and replace them with new boundaries based on morals, values, forged and inspired by kindness and compassion. In Suketu Mehta’s, brilliant book An Immigrant’s Manifesto, he calls not so much for open borders as open hearts. Sure, the transfer of people, ideas and goods across these borders will look different, but this is the true architecture and geography of inclusion.

There are so many signs of hope that together, we can rise against the tyranny of those that divide us.  There are artists, and writers, and lawyers, and doctors, and community workers working to subvert every wall that is put in place.  There are people reaching across race, and religion, to help each other in times of need and times of hate. In a recent incident on the Tube in London, a Muslim woman was filmed defending a young Jewish family from an anti-Semitic attack.  While this went justifiably viral, shouldn’t this be the rule and not the exception?

I want my children to see this world with hope instead of hate, to feel the feeling of freedom that I felt on the wide-open seas of my childhood and we teach them, as we travel, to transcend the borders that divide us according to ‘infinitesimally small differences and disagreements’.  Or else how will they recognise themselves in their own perfect multiplicity?

I read a quote that has stayed with me, attributed to an African intellectual named Manthia Diawara who was quoting a Caribbean French philosopher Edouard Glissant.  He said he would “rather be the person trying to cross the border than the person guarding it, because the former is full of hope, while the other has a closed mind”.

In the wise words of Maya Angelou, “love recognises no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope”.

Take down your walls selfish giants, or we will do it for you.  And may 2020 be the year we all arrive at our destination full of hope.