But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim

Rufia Valiff paints an intimate portrait of her identity struggle and the importance of UniSA’s International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding.

The first time I told someone I was Muslim, my close friend of 2 years didn’t speak to me for the rest of the semester. The second time I told someone I was Muslim, they asked, “Then why aren’t you hairy?” The third time I told someone I was Muslim, they asked, “Why don’t you wear the headscarf?” After these experiences during high school, I didn’t tell anyone else about who I was for 5 years.

To the average person who identifies as a Muslim, these questions are equivalent to the infamous scene from Mean Girls, in which a teenage girl asks another, “If you’re from Africa, then why are you white?” While we retell these stories in our circles and laugh at people’s naivety, our hearts pang at the ignorance we are surrounded by, vocalised by the people we are closest to – at school, in the workplace and in social environments.

Being a young person in Western society poses enough issues with intergenerational differences between parents and children, psychological development, identity crises, as well as body issues. Then dump on top of that, a migrant background and a beautiful religion so misunderstood, that it is constantly being framed as the enemy of the Western world.

The values of a young Muslim growing up in Australia are subject to change; they are an amalgam of cultural, religious and secular community values, as we struggle to balance our home life and outside life. It is with this responsibility of representing our faith, wanting to practice Islam, and attempting to be accepted into the wider secular and ‘party-oriented’ Australian society, that young Muslims often find themselves confused, lost in their beliefs and losing sight of who they are.

It is therefore crucial for such individuals to have a place where their identity, beliefs and struggles are recognised and supported. The University of South Australia is therefore lucky enough to possess The International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding. This university-run organisation excels in helping both non-Muslims and Muslims recognise not just the similarities and mutual connections between us, but also the differences and explain that these are not differences to be feared.

A 17 year-old girl I know recently felt compelled to take off her hijab when she ventured into the city. She was scared that the taunts and verbal abuse she had suffered silently for weeks following the Sydney siege would develop into something physical and much scarier. She had been born and raised in Australia, and chose to wear the headscarf, but because of this abuse she abandoned the one physical reminder of her closeness to God. Her story is not uncommon, many women have felt the need to take off their scarves and hide this part of their identity in fear of jeopardising their safety.

The only thing heard in mass, whispered from the media into the ears of the average unwitting Australian, are stories of ‘Jihadi Brides’, ‘oppressed women in burqas’ and ‘honour killings’, as the news channels latch on to the few examples of fundamentalist behaviour in the name of Islam. What many do not understand is that Islam, like most organised religions, is not just a ‘rule book’. It provides guidance, a way of life, and is the basis of everything we do. It is present from the moment we wake up and utter the supplication, thanking God for giving us another day, to entering the toilet, eating, starting the car, and in times of distress.

While being raised as a Muslim has been the biggest privilege of my life and I believe in God, the Prophet Muhammad, that Islam is the one true religion, I find myself doing things I know are inherently forbidden. The temptations faced by young people, including drinking, going out and having relationships, are difficult to say no to. Perhaps adding to that temptation is the appeal of knowing it is something you should not be doing. At times it also feels like the only way you can show your normality, the way to be accepted amongst others your age. This is the struggle I face, compromising between who I want to be – a better practicing Muslim, and who I am – a young girl trying to experience everything life has to offer, albeit disregarding every rule of the Holy Book.

The number of times someone has exclaimed, “but you don’t look like a Muslim” is countless, and they are right. No, I don’t wear the headscarf – the primary identifying symbol of my faith; no, I don’t pray 5 times a day; and no, I cannot recite the Holy Book. But I identify as Muslim, and am proud to tell people of my faith. I respect and admire my hijab-wearing sisters who may or may not have felt the need to succumb to the temptations of a night on Hindley Street. Who may or may not have ever shown their ankles outside of their home. My sisters in Islam are the ones who bear the burden of relentless verbal and physical abuse from men in suits in the central business district, bus drivers and neighbours. They have been spat at by strangers, had their scarves ripped off their heads, and still call Australia home.

That’s why the Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding is so important. Once there is a mutual understanding we can work toward removing the sectarianism that exists in our society from both groups. This is what the centre aims to do – to change the thinking and conversation within the different communities. In order to bridge this gap, the Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding takes on the perspective of cohesion through the development of empathy. This is done by examining the assumptions of western hegemony, the political formations of Muslim and non-Muslim subjectivities and the unresolved imbrications of multiculturalism and racism.

Words by Rufia Valiff


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