What’s it like to be a Muslim student in the UK?

Aya Delfi is the Head Sister of UEA’s Islamic Society (Isoc). We sat down for a chat with her about what it’s like to be a Muslim student in the UK. Firstly, Delfi discussed the government’s Prevent strategy, after she chaired the recent Students Not Suspects panel.
“To me it seems not very well thought through – not very well written or planned. There are no definitions whatsoever, no clear-cut processes that you should follow. I don’t think anyone has thought deeply about it or how well it would work.

“In terms of how it has affected us on campus, the SU have been fantastic. At the start of the year they had a meeting with me and the Ethnic Minorities officer, and told me all about it. They said: ‘If anything happens, if the university approach you or ask you any difficult questions come to us, we’ll help you’. That was fantastic, before then I had heard of it but I didn’t realise that it was implemented”.

In relation to more effective ways of dealing with terrorism, Delfi suggsted: “I think the best way is education of what Islam is, what it teaches and what extremism may look like. There needs to be clearer definition. There should be a step back from scapegoating muslims as a group, which is what it feels like when you read the Prevent legislation.

Approaching the issue from within the Islamic community is also quite important. I believe the Islamic community need to become more involved with educating the public on what Islam is. More outreach programmes – and not just in big city’s were their already is a large muslim community, but in areas where it may be rare to meet a muslim. Where there isn’t any first hand contact, there is always a level of speculation where people don’t really know what Islam is about. All they see are things in media and all they hear are ridiculous headlines.

“Having open communication really integrating into the non-Muslim community, and building ties with other groups that make up society is fundamental in overcoming islamophobia and fear. There needs to be a more political approach, though unfortunately often politics is a dirty business.”

Moving on to the topic of Islamophobia, Delfi spoke openly about her experiences. “Unfortunately I have experienced Islamophobia in Norwich, but never from students. When I first moved here I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb because I felt like I was the only girl with a headscarf on. Over the three years I’ve been here we’ve had a lot more Muslims move into the area, so that has gone away.

“I have been shouted at and yelled at by people in cars. A few days ago a friend and I went out jogging and this car slowed down and started beeping at us. She was wearing a headscarf and I was wearing a hat. I’m a Muslim girl and I like to jog, it’s amazing!

“With that I think it’s people who are ignorant, who haven’t met any Muslims. And there is an aspect of misogyny, especially with cat calling because you’re a Muslim girl”.

Delfi went on to tell a harrowing story of a girl in Norwich who was attacked while wearing a niqab, the full veil. The attackers “pulled off her scarf and punched her”.

Another huge issue for Muslims at UEA has been securing a permanent prayer space. “We originally had prayer spaces at the CD Annexe, where we were happy, but they wanted the space back for teaching. Two years on they aren’t doing anything with the space”.

Taking creative direct action, Delfi described how Muslims held “a protest prayer outside the registry office”. She said that the students’ union had been very helpful, citing Jo Swo in particular. Supposedly Swo was told that the current prayer spaces were secure for two years, but Delfi is not convinced. “I don’t trust [the university], to be frank. I spoke to the ex-president [of Isoc] who was very involved with the initial campaigning. He said ‘unless it is written down, they’ll just turn around and claim they never said that and tell us our lease has finished’”.

Delfi then spoke of the university bringing in “swiping at the prayer rooms” which she believes could “be linked to Prevent”, as the university has been “unclear about what they are doing with that data.”

On the subject of muslim representation, Delfi said “I think there definitely needs to be greater representation of muslims in student politics. A lot of students come from muslim countries… They’ll come to us for support because their muslim identity is more prominent than their cultural identity.” At a national level she spoke of the “glass ceiling” that muslims need to break to get greater representation, saying that those in politics are “often viewed as a muslim first and foremost and a politician second”.

On a more positive note, Isoc’s Discover Islam week takes place from 7th to 11th March.

“This is a week dedicated to talks, activities and events to teach our student body about Islam, dispel stereotypes, build friendships, build ties and even to learn about your own faith. It is very spiritually enriching for the muslims on campus themselves because by exploring what you believe in, it strengthens it”.


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James Chesson

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May 2022
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