Student stories: The reality of being a Muslim student in Australia

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.


Photo: Siti Mokhsin

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.

On Islamophobia


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


Photo: Flazingo Photos via Flickr

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


Photo: Alpha via Flickr

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.


Photo: Siti Mokhsin

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.

20 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. This is a good and enlightening read. All the best and may you graduate with flying colours. :)

  2. This is a good and enlightening read. All the best and may you graduate with flying colours, Insya Allah! :)

    • Amin! Thank you for your prayers. I’m glad you think so. Hope it would enlighten other Muslim students who are wishing to study here!

  3. Good article.. Stay on after u grad if u have e opportunity ☺️

    • Thank you! Oh yes I would love to but I have to say I do miss Singapore :)

  4. Alhamdulillah I didn’t experience anything bad during my 2 1/2 years studying in adelaide. In fact the people there are very welcoming and nice. I being the only muslim wearing the hijab in my course felt the same like you did. As an art student seeing nudity is a norm and i notice that everytime nudity is abt to come up the lecturr would warn ‘us’ about it although i did felt like it was targeted at me. All and all the lecturers and students were nice. They didn’t fuss about me being a muslim. In fact one of prof liked my shawl saying that i wear them beautifully. Altho i think that there are students that doesn’t like muslim some of them tend to ignore me. And i don’t mind that. Alhamdulillah UNISA provided fasilities such as a surau for muslims to pray. And i remember one time one of my classmate who was a local reminded me to break my fast during ramadhan because i forgot abt the time. So i guess everyone had their different experience good and bad. Alhamdulillah the people in Adelaide were great and I hope to go there again.

    • Hi Anis! Alhamdulillah I’m glad to hear you’ve had some great experiences too! Thank you for sharing it here for the benefit of others.

      I really do think the teachers are warm and considerate towards their students :) I do get a that vibe from some of the students here too, but I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Afterall, I believe our actions can always change how others perceive us! Thanks again for your two cents!

    • Dear Anis,

      Assalammualaikum, I read that you are studying in Adelaide and Im trying to get tips from you on how to go about finding muslim families who can rent a room when my son studies there. Any tips on how to go about finding muslim community? He intends to study at Uni of South Australia.

  5. Very nicely written article. However, it seems that the conclusion is : things turned out OK.

    That’s great of course. But if would also be nice if the author could perhaps share the more underlying issues. Things like surau, halal food etc are just facilities which of course the Uni would provide to cater for international students which help them make money :)

    How about things like: How does being a Muslim and openly practicing Islam affect:
    1. The job opportunities or internship opportunities available to you
    2. Do they accept you genuinely as a friend or merely as a groupmate to get this assignment done with. In other words, being friendly is different from being truly accepting
    3. Any meaningful conversations you’ve had with others which gives you a glimpse of what they really think about Muslims

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great article. But there are readers especially those who are already studying in Australia who might want to hear your valuable insight and perspective on things which can not be found on paper.

    • Hi Akmal. Thank you for your feedback! I think those are good topics to look into, which we could consider covering in future. Just a background story: the issues I have discussed in this article were mostly based on concerns I have been asked personally through a little Q&A I’ve had with my friends and followers on twitter. So I picked out the FAQs from there. Thanks again for your suggestion I’m sure it’s worthy to discuss things from that perspective! :)

  6. How long are u studying in the university ? Its a good thing that melbourne is a multicultural country like singapore :) you’ve got a great opportunity 😉 all the best xx

  7. Hi Siti, thank you for the enlighting writing. I enjoyed it so much, and if it’s possible may I reproduce the writing in Malay? If you don’t mind, can I contact you personally either via e-mail or FB? Zillion thanks!

    • Hi Nurulwahida,

      I’m Hieu, the Editor at Meld Magazine. Glad to see you enjoyed the piece and thanks for taking interest in it. I’m happy for you reproduce and translate this piece into Malay as long as Meld Magazine is given proper acknowledgement as the original source and that you’ve linked back to the original post.

      If you have further questions, please get in touch with me:


  8. Hi Siti, very interesting read on a place I used to live. I currently live in Japan and have been now for nearly nine years and experience many similar problems to what you went through. The sad reality of my life and yours by choosing to live in a country that is not your own you will feel alienated because you are in the minority not the majority.. But like you said it’s not everyone who will make you feel like this and there is always good people out there looking out for you.. I call them Friends..

  9. Good article to read..I am glad that you hv shared this with us..hope u graduate soon n all d best to you..

  10. Hi,
    My name is Sushi Das, opinion editor at The Age newspaper. I am trying to contact Siti Mokhsin, who I believe is the author of Student Voices: the reality of being a Muslim student in Australia, published on meldmagazine. Would you be interested in writing a piece for The Age? You can contact me on
    Hope I might hear from you soon.

  11. I have a brother who are studying in Australia before. It’s in University of Queensland, Brisbane by the way. Australia has been one of my dream country to further my postgraduate. I knew that Australia is a very peaceful and comfortable country. Such a nice review and summary you wrote about Melbourne City. Hope to see you to graduate with super duper flying colors !
    p/s: I am currently final year student in one of local university in Malaysia, will be graduated next year! hahaha

    Melbourne city is also one of the place that I would like to visit. Since I am the biggest fan in Tennis, so, it is obvious that one of my dream is to go to Melbourne and to watch the Australian Grand Slam LIVE!
    Well, I knew that I am completely out of the topic…Sorry for the unnecessary discussion above! pardon!

    btw, I am just curious about your nationality and the major you are taking in Melbourne.

    Hope to get your reply !
    Have a nice day !

    • Hi Naqibah! Thank you for interest. I’m sure you’ll love it here! I am a Singaporean and I’m majoring in journalism :)

  12. Thank you Siti for sharing your opinions of living in Melbourne as a Muslim student. It’s always heartening to hear of positive experiences that others have had in living here, especially when there are plenty of negative coverage about Islam in the media. It’s good to give everyone that point of view that being a Muslim and wearing a hijab doesn’t prevent you from feeling like you’re part of the Aussie community. All the best with your studies!

  13. I notice that the thread has the usual distict lean to the left…Make no mistake…78% of Australians do Not want Islum tainting the culture any more and are actively seeking to refuse any more “Refugees” and indeed, start deporting the trouble makers and those that seek to further
    The Islamification of this wonderful country…
    Ask yourself Why?…(if you are that stupid)….
    It is the Thunderous silence from the moslum community re the Terrorism that has happened in this country…
    It is the way Overplayed “Victim” card…It is the Halal scam…It is the Hatred taught in the mosques every friday…It is the gang rapes on Australian women and children perpetuated by those such as Bilal Scaff…It is the denial that Mohammad married a 6 year old and then inflicted a regimen of sustained rape on her from the time that she turned 9 (an especial silence from the mozlum women over that one…Dont forget that Silence Equals Endorsement)…It is the Cronulla incident; Moslum men assaulting lifesavers after they intervened when these “men” were dicating that women should cover up and sexually harrassing them…make no mistake…the average Australian knows the truth and not the media whitewash. ..
    And it is YOUR OWN FAILURE to discuss The Elephant In The Room as shown on this thread…
    YOU are more concerned about how you are treated and not the reasons why…
    And even More sadly…Not how to rectify the situation!…
    So go ahead and and deflect the Core Premise…
    Just another reason that those 78% No Longer Wish You To Be Here…
    And before those that are uncomfortable with the truth
    and seek to try and shift the focus on other religions and cultures re their history and practices..
    I am an Atheist…
    We are discussing Islam…Nothing Else ok

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Many international students live in or around the city because of the proximity to their colleges and universities, and that was where we decided to focus our efforts first. Many of us live, work and study locally too. Our editorial team is made of both local and international students, and it has worked to our advantage in providing local content in every sense of the word.

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