STUDYING abroad is an experience many students find exciting yet scary at the same time. For Muslim students however, journeying into the Western world may appear more intimidating. Siti Mokhsin reflects on her personal experience and discusses what it’s like being a Muslim student in Melbourne.
Alienation wasn’t what I should have been feeling when I first stepped onto Australian soil several years ago and yet it overwhelmed me. In that moment, I should have felt ecstatic about my first experience as an overseas student but with a hijab wrapped around my head and a thick coat to withstand the icy and wintry weather, all I could think of was how this new foreign environment would affect my life as a Muslim.
I had a lot of misgivings when I first arrived in Melbourne, but now believe this gut reaction to be common for anyone coming from a racial or religious group that’s considered the minority in an unfamiliar society. In Singapore, being a Muslim didn’t feel strange at all — we have mosques distributed around the island, plenty of locales serving halal food to eat out at, and most importantly, a large Muslim community living among the populace.
Yet in other parts of the world, widespread misinformed judgements made about Islam has unfortunately led some to vocalise and exhibit prejudice against Muslims. And it’s this worry that perhaps explains why some Muslims may possess a fear of discrimination when travelling abroad.
Many of my friends (Muslims and non-Muslims) have been curious about my study experiences as a Muslim here and I feel obliged to address some of the concerns they have raised, especially for the benefit of prospective Muslim students who wish to further their education in Melbourne.
If there is one thing that’s stopping most Muslim students from furthering their studies in a Western country, it’s Islamophobia. But let’s face it — Islamophobia occurs not just in Australia but across the globe, even in largely Muslim populated countries.
There have been news reports of anti-Islamic acts during my time as an overseas student. These have included protests against the construction of mosques and calls for a “burqa ban”. But despite the persistence of such matters (which are usually instigated by only a few), I am thankful I haven’t had any unpleasant experiences with locals.
I have found Australians to be generally friendly and open-minded. They have a culture of warmly greeting others who cross their paths, which often makes me feel welcomed and at ease. I’ve had several strangers initiating small talks with me whilst we share a table during lunch and have had others help me carry my groceries up onto a tram.
I feel like there will always be people who’ll look out for you, should you encounter any trouble. Take for example the Martin Place siege which took place in Sydney late last year. During the siege, and immediately following it, kind-hearted Australians showed their support towards the Muslim community with the hashtag #illridewithyou and offered their help to Muslims afraid of travelling home in fear of prejudiced abuse. All these signify an underlying solidarity among the Australian people and the Muslim community, and just knowing that support exists in society at large has helped put my Islamophobia worries to rest.
On the hijab
I was also worried about how people would perceive me as a hijabi, especially when I walked into one of my first journalism classes on my first day in university. I remember feeling like as though my stomach was in knots because everyone else was local but me. I was already intimidated just being an international student, but being the only Muslim in class exacerbated that feeling, making it all the more unnerving.
Compared to classrooms in Singapore, Australian classrooms tend to encourage discourse. Sometimes, I do get a little uncomfortable when we have to discuss the issues involving ISIS, jihadists or sharia law but there are also topics in Islam which I choose not to comment on due to my lack of competence to expatiate on the matter or to simply avoid any misunderstandings about Islam.
But most of the time, people are actually more interested to hear my point of view on such matters because they sincerely want to learn more about Islam, especially from a hijabi who openly practices its teachings.
As a journalism student, I have covered a variety of events and conducted interviews with people from diverse backgrounds. Never once have I felt that people were hostile towards me because of my hijab or because I was Muslim. Australians are generally very civil-minded and there are actually more Muslims (i.e. hijabis) here than you might think, so you hardly have to worry about sticking out like a sore thumb.
On performing prayers
I vividly remember my polytechnic days in Singapore where prayer spots were usually set up at the top most level of staircases, where no one would trespass. There was never a proper prayer room for the Muslim students. I thought; if things were as such in Singapore, how will it be in Melbourne where there would clearly be a smaller number of Muslim students?
Contrary to my expectations, I was surprised to find that many universities had proper prayer rooms which are carpeted and equipped with taps for us to take our ablutions. At times, when situations were more time-sensitive (like having class during prayer times), I would just find a secluded spot to pray. I have seen some Muslim brothers praying on an open grass patch behind a tree. Passers-by may glance, but people would generally respect our obligations, as they would have in Singapore.
If you’re out for leisure, a tip that my Muslim friends here shared is to use the nursery found in shopping malls, where it is usually near empty and carpeted. Of course you would have to ensure you are not causing any inconvenience to the public whenever you do find a spot to pray.
There are also mosques (although not necessarily the kinds you’ll find in Muslim countries) around Melbourne and the nearest in the CBD would be Madina in Southbank. Melbourne Airport has a prayer room too for the newly arrived or those making the trip back home.
On religious restrictions
In the past, I’d shift into panic mode whenever I’ve had to face a “hand shake refusal” situation. Not many non-Muslims are well-informed that Muslims aren’t allowed to have skin contact between opposite genders. I’ve been caught in the situation countless of times and have tried various tactics to get away with it. These have included keeping my hands full or pretending not to see the extended hand.
It took me a while to learn, but ultimately, I find the best way to tackle this is by simply explaining yourself and being honest. Just a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands with men,” would do the trick. At the very most, they’ll apologise for not knowing and move on. They might even thank you for informing them about it because it cuts them from embarrassment the next time they encounter another Muslim.
The same goes for when it comes to rejecting anything that is impermissible for us to do in Islam. The best way to refuse non-halal food or reject an invite to a party with drinks is to simply explain why we’re not allowed to. I have learnt it’s always best to be clear about the restrictions as soon as you can because it saves you from any future misunderstandings and you’d never have to keep avoiding them awkwardly.
On halal food
I used to also think that that there was a lack of halal food in Western societies but that turned out to be a common misconception. Fortunately, halal food is not scarce in Melbourne and I don’t mean just kebabs or Middle Eastern food. Muslims actually have quite a range of options available especially in the city; from Singaporean, Indian, Indonesian to even Portugese food. Most university campuses should have halal food options too.
Halal food can also be found in commercial supermarkets too. You can easily run a search on halal brands found on their websites to learn more about them or visit Halal Choices for a list brands catering for halal consumers (be reminded that the halal status of products listed are subject to change, so always double check).
There are also Asian groceries where you can get your supply of halal-certified food from home. Halal butchers can be found in some areas as well. Furthermore, the average meal in Melbourne is at least twice of that in Singapore, so here’s a personal tip: do your own cooking.
Since stepping off that plane two and a half years ago, I’ve learnt that all my initial worries and fears were unnecessary. Being a Muslim student in hijab has not deprived me of the privileges every other student is entitled to because, similar to Singapore, Melbourne is a very multicultural society.
If anything, Melbourne — and by extension, Australia — is a place where diversity is embraced and I hope future Muslim students coming to study in this city will have as pleasant an experience as I have had in the last two and a half years that I have been an international student here.
We may not realise it, but more often than not, the only thing standing in our way is our own misconception of Western countries. It’s normal to be unsure of what lies ahead, but from my experiences, keeping a positive mindset really goes a long way.