Written and illustrated by Shazmeen Khalid
If I had a pound for every time I’ve swerved a handshake, declined a pub gathering, asked where the nearest prayer room is and had to back out of a night out – I’d be pretty chuffed with the extra cash by now.
Navigating university social life when your culture is drastically different to the status quo of booze and parties can seem like the most daunting part of starting university, but it’s actually not that hard. Take it from someone who’s been there.
Having gone to probably the most culturally diverse university in the UK, Birmingham, made things a lot easier for me as a South-Asian Muslim. I found immediately that it was easy to identify like minded cultures and be comfortable socialising, which was a huge change from spending my school and 6th form years feeling socially isolated in a predominantly white, middle class and culturally deprived rural town.
The cultural diversity was so different in Birmingham that it was initially overwhelming to go from one extreme to another, however, I quickly found comfort in being able to share a mutual cultural identity for the first time.
One of the biggest perks of first year is enjoying the social life – but it often comes littered with alcohol, parties and the opposite sex. (Taubah)
I can recall a lot of moments where people would offer to have celebratory drinks at the pub later or ask if I’m coming to PRYZM or Snobs for a rave – or whatever it is that people do in nightclubs. It seems awkward and laughable when these moments happen but the best way to go about it is to be comfortable in articulating your boundaries and being firm in saying “actually, I don’t do that.”
Hardly anyone that I’ve come across has been offended by me saying that I don’t want to be in an environment with alcohol, or that as a Muslim there are certain spaces that I would like to consciously avoid. Sure, you’ll get the odd you DON’T drink, or a series of follow up questions about your faith but in the long run – there’s far and few between.
Even now working in higher education, I still get a few awkward moments, the main being a man keeping his hand extended when mine are clearly not willing to reciprocate the handshake. That happens a lot.
During the lead up to graduation, me and my fellow Muslim friends were anxious about the ceremony, because the handshake seemed like a customary part of the tradition. We spent weeks fretting, worried it would be weird or if there was a way to make it obvious that we weren’t shaking hands.
I emailed my head of school explaining this (really quite irrational) worry about looking daft on stage, she kindly explained that shaking hands is not mandatory because many cultures don’t, so to indicate this we were to enter the stage with our arms tucked behind our backs, or whatever was customary in our respective cultures.
I never thought I would get that sort of kind understanding of cultural anxieties and it concluded the sentiments that formed a lot of my university experience: a pleasant surprise.
There were a few unpleasant moments, like having to explain to a lecturer that he cannot freely use racial slurs, even in the context of a novel, and that it made myself and my classmates extremely uncomfortable. Although, incidents like this are quite common across many universities and it’s a case of knowing who your head of school is, how to go about reporting things and establishing a territory for calling out problematic behaviour.
My advice to any anxious Muslim newbies is to say what you feel. If you’re worried about something, say it. If you’re offended or upset by something, make it known. If you’re seeking an opportunity, ask. There is no harm in speaking for yourself and for your needs. In fact, it’s often the best way to establish the presence of your identity so that eventually, people might naturally gravitate to inviting you to more Muslim-friendly places.
Please don’t be fooled by the outward portrayal of university culture. Especially if you’re in a multicultural university, there are unifying experiences that allow you to enjoy your social and educational life
Parties, going out late, and alcohol related activities are not the only way of having a great social life. Plan a meal with your friends after you finish assignments, go to exhibitions together. The biggest thing that can stop you enjoying the experience is often your own fears.
Locate the prayer room, join societies that make you feel a part of the wider university culture and engage with your peers – even if they don’t always entirely understand you.
Shazmeen is an English graduate who now runs her own blog. Her topics often include Islamaphobia, multiculturalism and representation. Her work has been published in the Birmingham City University anthologies and in her spare time she writes poetry.
You can find her blog here.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous