For a 19 year old Indonesian Muslim girl deciding to study in a city 14 hours flight-time away, the concern was never only about the physical distance from home, but also the cultural distance of being in a non-muslim majority country. London is a melting pot of cultures. Per 2014, 14.4% of London’s population are reportedly Muslim (london.gov.uk). In certain boroughs of the city, inside classrooms, in the library and along the streets, spotting another hijabi is a sight that is not uncommon. But growing up in Jakarta where the adhan, the calling for prayers, are publicly heard from almost every corner of the city and where there is no need to ask if the food is halal because almost every food available is halal, 14.4% is still quite a jump from 84%. So although mosques are not too hard to find in central London and halal food is just a google search away, the two years of being a Muslim woman trying to mingle her way into London university student life taught me the importance of representation more than ever.
The very first lesson came from being visibly muslim. It feels empowering to hear another fellow student pointing out the stereotype about how Muslim women are oppressed, silenced and are taught by islam to not pursue education, when a hijabi was sat down just two seats away from them; in the same lecture hall, studying the same subject, with the same professor, at the same degree level and the same university, as they are. It is wild to think that the only exposure some people have about my identity is through what is portrayed in the western media. Which, for all we know, does not leave a good impression of what Islam is or what Muslims practice. So there I was; living and breathing evidence that actively breaks the stereotypes that are commonly served in the screens of their phones and TV.
Being a Muslim, especially one that is visible, there are often predisposed expectations of what we are like which can override the genuine impression of who we are as a person. Again, this is definitely not something I would experience in a country that has a 84% Muslim population. Everyone is accustomed to the colorful range of traits, characters and personalities that each hijabi or Muslim could have, just like any other human being in this world; everyone is different, distinctive, unique in their own ways. And thus for me, in a country of 14.4%, representation means not being afraid to be the person that I truly am, showing my own color that differs from what the media had painted me and my hijab with.
And the lesson of representation does not only stop at the lesson I learned from being visibly muslim as is evident from my hijab. There is a gap I feel between the connections and friendships that are built between Muslims and non-Muslims in university. This is actually a common experience that Muslim students experience particularly in the UK. Where drinking culture is big and clubbing is seen as a crucial university student experience, alcoholic events become an institutional barrier that prevents Muslim students from integrating to the university outside of their Islamic student society bubble (Andersson et al., 2012). And being involved with different student societies, I learned that there should be a conscious effort to ensure inclusivity between diverse members, which starts from involving these minority groups in the committee, myself included.
Actively ensuring inclusivity for myself and other muslim members of a society means scheduling breaks at the same time as the midday prayer time during panel discussions or forums, making sure that non-alcoholic drinks are provided on game nights, and recommending POC guest speakers in panel discussions. In practice, sometimes inclusivity can even seem trivial.
Calling restaurants that are booked to provide halal options, for example, is really not a difficult task at all. Ensuring second-floor venues have lifts, or starting company social a little early in a location that is a close walk to the bus station, are small things that go a long way for us; for religious minorities and disabled communities and for women. Not having to worry about how to get home safely past midnight after pub socials seems trivial, but it takes away at least one barrier of integrating ourselves with the others. Ensuring inclusivity does not require a skill from a professional, it requires understanding. Yet more often than not, there is a gap in understanding of what does and does not cater for minority groups. Thus this gap can be filled by actively consulting or more so encouraging them to do so by involving them in the decision making process.
It all thus concludes to one point: diversity does not always mean inclusion. Another step needs to be taken to ensure genuine inclusivity among the existing diversity. And having a representative of a minority in the committee, or decision-making body in a larger institution, would mean being able to close this gap of understanding and thus actively ensure inclusivity.
Written by: Rahma Arifa (Rara)
Rara is the Communications Intern at ila. She is a third-year student studying International Social and Public Policy with Politics at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
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