I spent nine months last year living in Australia, working towards a Master’s degree at the University of Sydney. I returned to Singapore last month armed not only with a significant addition to my résumé, but, surprisingly, with a stronger imaan.
I arrived in Sydney in February filled with excitement, but also some trepidation. I have family and friends in Perth and Melbourne, but in Sydney I knew no one. I didn’t know if Sydney had a significant Muslim population, and my preliminary research on halal food in the city yielded rather dismal results.
In the months leading up to my arrival in Sydney, I had resolved to relinquish my worldly concerns about self-consciousness and vanity, and permanently don the hijab. I brought with me a few hijabs, which I had requested from friends who generously wanted to give me parting gifts. With encouragement and support from my parents, I began wearing the hijab that first week in Sydney.
The hijab for me was like a talisman against the insidious temptations of Western culture. For instance, smack dab in the centre of my university are two bars around which much of the school population’s social activities revolved. My classmates almost instinctively headed towards the nearest bar after class, where they formed bonds with each other that I never shared, because I never joined them.
Luckily for me, I never felt truly alienated on campus because there were many other Muslimahs around, with whom I exchanged sororal smiles and salaams as we passed each other. There is even a dedicated musollah on campus where I met and had wonderful conversations with other sisters between classes. Air-conditioned, furnished and spacious, the musollah is located near toilets equipped with wudhu’-taking facilities. That is more than I can say for the university I attended in Singapore, where we prayed in stairwells and had to wash our feet in the sink!
All my worries about being Muslim in Sydney turned out to be unfounded. There is a kebab stall run by Muslims in nearly every food court, including the university cafeteria. I lived within walking distance of three halal restaurants, and a ten-minute bus ride away from a halal butcher owned by a lovely Pakistani couple. The robust and active Muslim Society on campus often organised enlightening talks on topics ranging from Feminism and the Hijab, to terrorism.
I even participated in a rally in support of Gaza in the immediate aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident in June that saw thousands of Muslim Sydneysiders peacefully protesting outside the Sydney Town Hall. The best part? Ramadhan in August, when days were short; we fasted less than 12 hours each day.
I was also fortunate to experience only the warmth and friendliness of the Australians, and saw no basis to the infamous stereotype that racism is rampant in the country.
I feel like my experience in Sydney enriched me not just academically but also religiously, a wonderfully unexpected outcome.
Shahirah is an aspiring journalist who is interested in social issues, women’s rights, the Middle East conflict, and Islam in the Western world. She is also interested in languages and would like to take up Arabic soon.