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Uni Trues & Blues: What Is University Like for Muslim Women?

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 25th April, 2023

University. It’s the academic buildings of stature and prestige, the immense scale of the libraries, the sprawling campuses that must have cost millions to build and millions more to maintain. It’s known to be a rite of passage for most ambitious Muslim women in the UK who have commendable career aspirations. When you get a place at university, it typically means you will be destined for great things, insha’Allah. The only way is up.

Prior to becoming a freelance writer, I worked at a range of universities before graduating with a degree in English and Journalism. In the departments I’ve worked in – marketing, curriculum design, student support – I interacted with and provided guidance to many students, several of them being Muslim women. In these roles, I learned that many of their experiences at university mirrored my own but there were also many differences in their educational journey.

With the expectations that come with university such as the casual partaking in partying, alcohol consumption, moving away from home, amongst many others, how does these pressures influence Muslim girls and women enrolling for the first time? What does higher education look like for them? I spoke to some Muslim women about their experiences, and here’s what they had to say:

Studying at the University of Birmingham, Zainab K. describes her university experience as akin to a fish out of water. “When you arrive, it feels like a whole other world. You think you understand what university is going to be like but you truly don’t until your first day.” 

Although just a few months into her first-year of study, she acknowledges the struggles that come in the first few weeks.

“I’m from Birmingham myself so visiting campus and living at home makes it easier for me compared to other students but it’s still tough to adjust. You have to shake off the routine of secondary school where the teacher takes a register and you have to be in everyday. In university, you’re in charge of your own schedule which is great but you’re also in charge of your study habits. If you fall behind, you can’t blame anyone else but yourself. Don’t get lazy – I have to remind myself of that everyday.”

Another student, a third-year English undergrad Saifia Hussain agrees with the sentiment of university being a huge milestone in a young person’s life as she shares her own experience. “I’m in my final year now and even though the workload has gotten harder and crazier, being at university has become so much easier. I feel like I’ve got a firm grip on my day-to-day routine.”

How do they balance worship and studies?

In more detail, Saifia illustrates how being a Muslim woman on campus differs from your experiences against your non-Muslim peers. “In my first year, the idea of excusing myself earlier from a lecture to pray Dhuhr was daunting and I felt like I wasn’t allowed to so I didn’t. Now I’m proud to say it’s second nature. Don’t be afraid to ask what kind of accommodations your university has for their Muslim student populace – where the prayer rooms, bathrooms for Wudhu and the spiritual places are. You just have to find them!” 

Zainab reflects on how university life differs for her as a Muslim woman. “University can get chaotic as the academic year progresses so it gets harder to balance that and still make time for worship essentials like Salah, going to the mosque, reading Quran and spending quality time with family. My advice? When you make your university schedule, implement time for Islam alongside so both things do not get sacrificed. You don’t need to choose between your religion and education.”

Originally from London and now living on the campus of Coventry University, Hibo Ahmed discloses her university experience as a second-year Chemistry undergraduate. “Not going to lie, university is gruelling and a massive change of pace. As a Muslim, I’ve come across a few instances where I’ve had to set up some boundaries.” 

When prompted, Hibo delves deeper into what she means. “It’s just a fact. Many students smoke or drink or go out. When I’m making new friends, sometimes I have to excuse myself if they want to meet up at the pub later. Technically it’s not ‘haram’ to go to a pub but it’s a place where I don’t feel comfortable being. If you decide before you get to university what you’re okay and not okay with doing, it makes it a lot easier to stick to your beliefs.”

What kind of activities can Muslim women take part in while in university? 

Hibo has garnered a few ideas: “It can be easy to fixate on what you can’t do as a Muslim girl but there’s so much we can do. Explore what the campus has to offer. Go visit the coffee shops and restaurants you haven’t even heard of. Rent out a bike and discover what the different areas that surround your uni look like. I recommend always keeping an eye on the university events calendar online to be aware of  upcoming festivities. 

I just joined a knitting circle randomly one week when I was feeling like a loner on campus and when I turned up, there were more Muslims there than I expected! Complete strangers. We laughed when we introduced ourselves because I think we were all just as relieved as each other.”

For some, university presents an opportunity to leave their comfort zone

Two Law students from University of Warwick Hafsa and Rena put forward their two cents on their experiences. “University is a new life chapter and I embraced that the minute I got my conditional offer. I started wearing the hijab full-time to commemorate my new life as a uni student and be closer to Allah,” shares Rena. 

Hafsa alludes to university as a place for Muslim women to embrace new challenges and be open to new life opportunities. “Many Muslims do not take loans so a lot of us are paying out of pocket and all that financial responsibility can put a lot of pressure on us. What I do to not succumb to that pressure is, I try my best to make it worthwhile. Aside from getting your degree, university has many great opportunities to volunteer, take part in campus activities and get a job to boost your CV. All these things are possible but you have to seek them out.”

With the difficulties mentioned, what kind of advice can Muslim women benefit from if they are about to begin university or are already studying?

“Join, join, join societies! When I was in sixth form, I was one of three Muslim girls in my year so when I got to university, I made it a priority to make Muslim friends. I joined the Muslim society and Somali Society my first week after moving on campus to meet new people directly,” states Hibo who has taken advantage of her chemistry course’s extracurriculars. 

Zainab nods to this piece of advice and adds her own take: “Definitely make as many Muslim friends as you can because chances are they are feeling out of place just as much as you are. I will add this though – please don’t be afraid to also make new friends with people who are different to you. Having a trustworthy group of non-Muslim friends or friends with distinct religious beliefs is an amazing way to build your worldview and learn to appreciate other people’s practices. Be open-minded. You won’t regret it. That’s what university is all about.”

Hodan Mohamed

Hodan Mohamed

Hodan Mohamed is a 25-year-old Somali freelance writer based in the West Midlands. She is currently working on an original play and a draft of a YA novel.