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Muslim Women Studying at Oxbridge, an Insight With Mirina Paananen

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 30th August, 2019

Mirina Paananen, 28 from Southampton, completing MSt Islamic Studies and History, Regent’s Park College, Oxford

Where are you from?

Southampton, currently Birmingham. I spent my early childhood in Finland and am ethnically Finnish.


What made you want to go to Oxbridge?

Alhamdulillah I’ve been blessed to attend both Oxford and Cambridge. As a teenager I knew I wanted to aim for academic excellence, and I had the grades and the passion and was encouraged by my family and teachers to apply to Cambridge. Now, as a postgraduate student, my situation is very different. But again I knew that I wanted to further my studies at a world leading institution with academics who are leaders in their fields.


What was your first impression?

I fell in love with Cambridge. Its beautiful architecture, the academic buzz, bikes everywhere. I toured a few colleges before applying and when I walked around St John’s I was just in awe. The Bridge of Sighs really sealed the deal for me. As for Oxford, I’d visited a few times before making my application. When I first started my masters course, six years after having completed my undergraduate degree, it was a bit surreal and very nostalgic as Oxford is very similar to Cambridge in a number of ways, but it has its own unique qualities too. That same academic buzz really energises me.

Did you know anybody at Oxbridge before you went?

I definitely felt the initial homesickness and isolation when I started university. A couple of people from my school also went to Cambridge but they were on different courses at different colleges and I didn’t know them very well. But you soon make friends and grow your network of connections. I made friends in my first year of uni that are still my best friends now. By the time I joined Oxford, I had a number of acquaintances to call up on to meet up or to ask for advice.


What has surprised you the most? Were there any culture shocks?

I think Cambridge surprised me in how much of an impact it was to have on me. I’m still closely connected to the place and the community and it has really defined the trajectory of my life in so many ways. I grew up in a relatively white area so although some people bemoan the lack of diversity when they go to Oxbridge, for me personally it was refreshing to meet so many Muslims studying all sorts of different things (I think the medics are probably over-represented though 😛 ).


Meet the Women Studying at Oxbridge: Lamis Hamdi 

Meet the Women Studying at Oxbridge: Muntaha Nabi

To the Non-White Potential Oxbridge Applicants


What has been your biggest struggle?

At Cambridge I struggled to stay focused on my work with all the excitement of getting involved with the ISoc! At Oxford now as a mature student and as a mum I really have to juggle my commitments and be very organised to get my work done. It’s nice to get back into the academics after having children but it’s definitely not easy and I’m really grateful for the family support without which I wouldn’t be able to do this. Everything is by the grace of Allah.

What have you most enjoyed?

The work, the reading and gaining knowledge. The personal transformation. I’m a bit of a bibliophile – there are just so many amazing libraries in both Oxford and Cambridge. I love going to the library, surrounded by the scent of old books, getting really deep into a topic and just being whisked away to another period of history. It’s really satisfying to feel yourself broadening your understanding and being humbled at how much this process of learning reveals how little you really know.

Favourite place on campus and why?

Cambridge ISoc prayer room. It simply changed my life.

What do you want to do after your degree?

My masters has been very generously funded by the Aziz Foundation, who work to support community empowerment, leadership development and public engagement. Through their support I hope to inshaAllah further my studies, to contribute to the re-emergence of the female voice in Islamic scholarship and to work on specific community projects that will be of benefit not only to the Muslim community but also to the wider society.

Do you think diversity is an issue, and is the university is doing enough to tackle it?

We hear all the time about issues with diversity, and I do see universities rolling out access schemes to change the status quo. But as well as working from the top down there also has to be a bottom up approach – we need to work within the community to encourage young Muslims to really push themselves to achieve academically and to have the confidence to apply.


What advice do you wish someone gave you? What would you to say to other Muslim women thinking to apply?

Your student days really do go by in a flash! I’d say push yourself to achieve the very best that you can, knowing that our time in this world is limited and there is so much potential and a great deal of good that we can be getting involved in. I would tell sisters considering an application to make sincere du’a to Allah that He opens the doors of blessings and goodness in their lives, facilitating that which is best for them in this life and the next. You are much more capable than you give yourself credit for. Having the opportunity to study at a world-class institution is just incredible. We need Muslimahs of high calibre – go and make it happen inshaAllah!



Lamisa Khan

Lamisa Khan

Lamisa is an International Relations graduate. She enjoys eating cake, drinking lemonade and ranting about important things.