'I like the idea of challenging stereotypes'

January 28, 2005

If you were asked to picture a devout Muslim woman, you might, like this author, fail to imagine Bristol University's Fauzia Ahmad.

There is no burka, no hijab. There is no hint of the submissiveness or deference that some might expect of a traditional Muslim woman. But then, says Ms Ahmad, why should there be?

"A lot of intelligent people still see dress for Muslim women as an issue.

But it is more of an issue for them. For most Muslim women, I think it's more a matter of personal choice," she said.

"I do not feel I need to wear the hijab to be an observant Muslim."

The robust response is underpinned by Ms Ahmad's research into Muslim women and their higher education experiences.

Ms Ahmad's work will inform much of the debate at this weekend's "Islam in Higher Education" conference at Birmingham University. She is a member of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists UK (AMSSUK), which helped organise the event.

The conference will examine a range of issues that are high on the agenda in today's political climate, including Islamophobia and Western approaches to the study of Islam.

Although Ms Ahmad says she is no rebel, she does enjoy puncturing preconceptions, not least those held by academics.

"Some academics who don't know me well assume that because I do not look like an observant Muslim woman, I have turned my back on what they see as an inherently oppressive religion and culture and that this is the reason I have achieved academically. Nothing could be further from the truth," she said.

"But I quite like being able to challenge a few stereotypes by, for example, asking for a halal menu or going off for prayers."

Such preconceptions are more prevalent than might be expected in a liberal establishment such as a university, she said.

"There is evidence to support claims of institutionalised racism. People of ethnic backgrounds tend to be on lower starting salaries and do not progress as well.

"I have noted sometimes that conference speakers talk about 'these people'

without realising that 'these people' are also colleagues like me."

More serious issues within academia centre on questioning the objectivity of researchers from minority backgrounds who research their communities.

"Sometimes Asian and Muslim women are asked to come on board projects because we have that 'native link', because we can get access to certain communities."

Ms Ahmad was born in South London to an Indian mother and a Pakistani father. She was encouraged academically by her parents, who wanted her to be a doctor. But the exams did not work out.

She studied biology at University College London but soon realised that she was more interested in sociology and anthropology than in biological science.

University life also tested her faith. "A lot of student life revolves around the union and the bar. It made socialising difficult. I learnt quickly that I didn't feel comfortable in the student union at night," she said.

"But it did make me think about which path to choose: university culture or Islam."

Having completed her degree, she did a masters in social anthropology. Her dissertation was on identity issues relating to Muslim women in higher education.

From there, she got a post as a research assistant at what was then the West London Institute of Higher Education. After three years, she gained a lectureship in the same department, which was by then part of Brunel University.

Having spent seven years at Brunel, Ms Ahmad became a research fellow at Bristol, studying Asian women. She has published and written on a number of areas relating to this topic.

It was apparent early in her career that there were big gaps in the ethnographies on Muslim and Asian communities in Britain. Many focused on areas such as arranged marriage and kinship networks that bore little or no relation to Ms Ahmad's experiences.

Ms Ahmad agrees that there are conservative and extremist elements among Muslims, but she distinguishes between the Islamic religion, as set out in the Koran and holy scriptures, and the various cultures and traditions of Islamic societies.

"I think we should open a dialogue with extremists, but saying that in some parts of the media can be seen as condoning and showing sympathy," she said.

"Muslims are just as confused as anyone about how extremist interpretations of Islam have manifested in the way they have."

But many in the non-Muslim West, either deliberately or through ignorance, see things differently, as she found while covering media relations for the Forum against Islamophobia and Racism around the time of the 9/11 attacks on the US.

She said: "I fielded a lot of offensive questions from journalists. The presupposition was that if you were working in an Islamic organisation, you must have knowledge of terrorist organisations. In such circumstances, I try not to lose my temper."

"Islam in Higher Education", January 29-30, is organised jointly by the AMSSUK, Birmingham University's Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies, which is based at Leeds University and run in conjunction with the University of Wales Lampeter.

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM
University College London

MY FIRST JOB WAS
as a lab technician in the anatomy department of a Guy's, King's and St Thomas' Medical School

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS
keeping up with the reading and with life

WHAT I HATE MOST
is my poor time-keeping and dishonesty

IN TEN YEARS
I would like to be in a permanent research or lecturing post somewhere

MY FAVOURITE JOKE
International reaction to Bush's Axis of Evil declaration was swift. Cuba, Sudan and Serbia said they had formed the Axis of Somewhat Evil, forcing Somalia to join with Uganda and Myanmar in the Axis of Occasionally Evil, while Bulgaria, Indonesia and Russia established the Axis of Not So Much Evil Really As Just Generally Disagreeable. (Extract from email circular)

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