Hey, have you heard the one about the woman in the veil?

November 18, 2005

Sara Wajid urges lecturers to engage with a new generation of Muslims

A veiled woman was arrested on suspicion of being a threat to national security She claimed she was working undercover.

I asked for peace, and all I got was this lousy gun.

A young martyr arrives in heaven and can't believe his luck in the abundance of available women. He turns around to see a haggard old mate who died the week before, He asks: "What happened to you?" "Just you wait, the novelty soon wears off."

These jokes are taken from Sheikh 'n' Vac , a book by artist Yara El-Sherbini, a recent graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art. She produced the joke book, which plays with stereotypes and provocatively satirises representations of Muslims, before the London bombings occurred on July 7 and the jokes seem even more daring and darkly comic now than when I first read them as editor of the book in spring. It was her light touch on issues of almost unbearable political sensitivity, in particular the politics of British Muslim identity, that struck me when I first met her five years ago. I still marvel at her fearlessness and confidence as a British Muslim; although only seven years younger than me she represents a totally new generation of British Muslims. Her work is informed by a comfort and pride in her faith that I recognise in my younger cousins and the Muslim students I taught at the University of East London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Even now, after working closely with her on the book over the past year, I can only just about map the path from my experience and identity to hers, although we were both raised as middle-class Muslims in England, she in Yorkshire by Egyptian and Caribbean parents, I in Essex by Pakistani ones. Working with her dispelled my lazy presumption that Islam would become more irrelevant to the generations that followed me, as they drifted further from their parents' culture. If I'm surprised by Muslim students, I can't believe that the average white middle-aged male lecturer is in touch with them or equipped to engage with them.

For me, university life was the final step in an education system that had consistently, albeit implicitly, suggested I could be Muslim or British but not both. It was a cultural finishing school where I chose my position on a brittle spectrum: at one end, social mobility, Westernised lifestyle, a feminist, secular - if not atheist - liberal British identity; and, at the other end, a Muslim, not-really-British, identity and social isolation.

A contemporary of mine, journalist Zaiba Malik has written about the internal schism she experienced on arriving at university to study law in the late 1980s after her sheltered Muslim upbringing in Bradford. "Going to university wasn't so much a learning curve as a cliff drop," she wrote in The Guardian recently. "I came across students who were devout churchgoers who injected drugs, some who were borderline alcoholics, cross-dressers and manic depressives. Some I liked, others I detested... despite my associations, I still classed myself as a Muslim. I wasn't quite sure what the Qur'an and other Muslims would say about this. Maybe that life on a secular campus had decelerated the flow of Islam in my veins. No wonder I turned off the radio every time I heard REM's Losing My Religion ."

Can things have changed for Muslim students so fundamentally so quickly? What has happened to the tensions described by Malik? According to The Voice of Muslim Students , a report compiled by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis) after the London bombings, 64 per cent of Muslim students see no conflict between their loyalty to the ummah (global Muslim community) and their loyalty to the UK (News, September 23). Within the UK and Ireland, there are 90,000 Muslim students, and at campuses with significant Muslim student populations, such as Nottingham and Birmingham, the provision of halal food and prayer rooms is common.

Saima Khan, a 33-year-old arts graduate recognises the picture of Muslim student life in the Fosis report. "When I was a student at Middlesex University ten years ago, there was no sense of a Muslim student body whatsoever and no other Muslims on my literature BA. Then I did an MA in an arts subject at Goldsmiths, University of London, last year and the picture was very different. There was a visible, confident Muslim student body that had established a prayer room. There still weren't any other Muslims on my course so it was particularly good to know I could go to the prayer room any time and there would be other Muslim women around to chat to. I noticed a real difference in the attitudes of the 18-year-olds towards lecturers and the dominant university culture. For instance, there was a passing reference to a mosque in my creative writing and the religious iconography seemed to irrationally annoy my tutor, who said: 'I don't think much of the temple bit.' When another student corrected him, he shrugged it off with a 'Yes, whatever.' I felt unable to take issue because I didn't want to be labelled a fundamentalist, whereas one of the young women from the prayer room got into a classroom debate with another student about Islam and women's rights. Although the tutor sided with the other student against her she was totally uninhibited about arguing the point as a Muslim feminist."

While this is deeply encouraging, the Fosis report notes some worrying trends:

  • Forty-seven per cent of Muslim students felt they had experienced Islamophobia and 25 per cent of them say it was on campus
  • Thirty per cent of Muslim students say they feel isolated from other students
  • One in four Muslim students does not feel that their institution accommodates their needs, with the top grievance being the lack of a prayer room
  • Only 76 per cent of Muslim graduates of a working age are in employment compared with 87 per cent of all graduates.

Why? Some pointers can be found in another report, Muslim Graduates in the Labour Market , published last summer, which finds that Muslim students are well represented in higher education overall but overwhelmingly in new universities and on a narrow range of courses.

Furthermore, "Pakistani and Bangladeshi students reported that they were more likely than other groups to feel that they did not get enough encouragement from lecturers" and that "universities did not seem to view the disparity in Muslim graduate outcomes a key issue. Their key indicators are focused on recruitment and the final results for all."

Although British people from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds make up 1.9 per cent of the population, they make up only 0.4 per cent of academia, mainly in low grades.

Ashwani Sharma, principal lecturer in media and cultural studies at UEL, believes what is needed is not so much more investment in equal opportunities training workshops for lecturers, as these tend to focus on overt racism - which is almost unheard of in the painstakingly liberal environment of most campuses. What is needed is a systematic shift in the university experience. "In the curriculum there is a presumption of the liberal progressive secular ethos," he says. "There are anxieties about Islam among academics and one response to Muslim students can be characterised as 'impotent whiteness'. Basically this involves patronising Muslim students by not challenging them out of a misplaced wish to 'respect difference'. The message this approach sends is: 'Have your say and now let's get on with the course.' This is another way of not engaging, which simply reproduces institutional whiteness in the centre.

"In my experience, British academics are basically silent about these tensions. We live in a rapidly changing world and a lot of academics are seemingly incapable of dealing with it. The institutional racism in universities is partly born of a deep-seated liberal ethos that says 'there's nothing wrong here'. The police force is probably more progressive than universities because universities don't think they need to make any changes."

Sara Wajid is project director, South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive. Sheikh 'n' Vac by Yara El-Sherbini is published by Book Works, Pounds 5.99.

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