On Layla Mkhayber’s first day at the University of Sydney she was walking to class on campus with a friend when a woman in a gold tracksuit shoved into her and whispered, “you’re a terrorist.” No one seemed to notice or do anything. After a year at university because of similar incidents, sideways comments, navigating complex class dynamics, verbal harassment, along with being ignored, Layla’s anxiety and distress levels rose, and after a panic attack she finally visited the psychologist on campus.
“I was struggling to get out of bed and open my laptop to do studies or read emails. I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and it fluctuates during the university semester.”
In the UK, one-third of Muslim students say they face racism while studying and have experienced abuse or crime at their place of study in the UK, with most victims believing it was motivated by Islamophobia, a National Union of Students (NUS) survey has found. Female respondents who wore a religious Islamic garment – such as a hijab, niqab or jilbab – were reported as more likely to feel threatened.
This comes as the Islamophobia Register in Australia has just released its latest study and has found the number of Islamophobic attacks are becoming more public and more intense in terms of rhetoric and physicality. A total of 349 verified incidents were reported to the register over 2016 and 2017, most of which were directed at Muslim women and girls and carried out by male perpetrators of Anglo-Celtic appearance.
Layla Mkh is a 20-year-old student at University of Sydney, undertaking her Bachelor Arts in Arabic Language, Culture Studies and Gender Studies. She is the Convenor of USYD Women’s Collective (USYD WoCo). She has become vocal on issues of islamophobia at university through her work as a student representative, along with her work as a poet as part of the nation’s biggest slam poetry group, Bankstown Poetry Slam.
“I have a complicated relationship with islamophobia at university because universities are the place where things like racism can grow because they are not being forced to change. And if we talk about things like systemic racism and white supremacy; it is embedded within our curriculum at universities and people don’t even realise.”
The toxic culture of Australian university’s colleges has been extensively covered in the past few years in the media, with reports of sexual assault, drinking and hazing rituals. But other issues, like racism, islamophobia and privilege can slip under the radar, creating a toxic environment for many students in the classrooms and on campus.
Dr Omid Tofighian is a lecturer, researcher and community-advocate based at the American University of Cairo and previously worked at the University of Sydney. He most recently translated ‘No Man is a Mountain’ by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist detained at Manus Island.
Dr Tofighian says that in his experience, issues like racism and islamophobia are pervasive in the university context as the structures are still built on a white-settler colonial model; from the subjects taught to the classroom and lecture-based model.
Whilst at University of Sydney, Dr Tofighian managed the campaign, Why Is My Curriculum White? Australasia. The program is an off-shoot of the student-led protest movement that began in South Africa in 2016, Rhodes Must Fall.
“I was following movements in South Africa, Rhodes Must Fall – and that movement developed into Fees Must Fall, looking at how curriculum and institutions of power and the money is centred around white population, and even the ways that history is taught and parts of the colonial history is omitted, which supports a western colonial project.”
The protest was initially directed against the honouring of a statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that commemorates Cecil Rhodes, the British Imperialist. The movement spread as students across South Africa protested against university curriculum, and institutions of power where the money is centred around the white population. This campaign led to a wider movement to “decolonise” education and also gained momentum in the UK at Oxford University and University College London (UCL).
Dr Tofighian says that in Sydney, whilst there were interesting online class debates, it was difficult to get the movement off the ground. He attributes most of this to the fact that in other countries it was student-led protest movement and student bodies have a stronger history of self-organisation. But he also says, he didn’t get support that he was expecting from staff; from both white and racialized staff. And during his own time at the university, he also experienced his own issues with facing discrimination, intimidation, and racism.
“The amount of denialism in Australia and avoidance of so many deeply-rooted issues are significant. There needs to a willingness from academics – myself included – to look at what we have benefited from and even are complicit. The fact that we have colleges supporting people who have benefited from stolen land and dispossession and theft. We have items named after colonialists and in the museums that have come from exploitation and theft; while Torres Strait Islander and Indigenous people who have contributed to this country and are not named. To change there has to be willingness for people to give up privileges, which means people need to lose something, and we are not close to having that conversation.”
Othering can be subtle and happens in the classroom settings, says Layla.
“It’s more the micro-aggressions that get to you; the shoulder charging in the street, the constant stares, that no one will sit next to you. I don’t know if they’re scared or if they are worried I will be scared. When I studied politics, these were some of the least progressive and stressful conversations I’ve been in. In more academic and nicer terms, they were basically saying; leave, we are full. And these were the moments I felt the most alone at university.”
The Islamophobic Register showed a sense of insecurity and lack of support from Muslims was strongly felt and that bystanders intervened only in 14 per cent of the incidents reported, and sided with the victim in only a third of those. Report author Derya Iner, from Charles Sturt University’s Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation said both authorities and the broader community had a role to play in stopping the spread of Islamophobic attacks by making it clear they were unacceptable and ensuring Muslims were included in a positive vision of multicultural Australia.
“The reality”, says Layla, “is that we live in a country where every day, you will see a message that is misogynistic, racist, and Islamophobic. It is embedded in our academic institutions, it is in our class disparities, in places we live, it is in experiences of public transport, it is in dating; it is everywhere.”
However, Layla says she has hope, and while it is early days, after the Christchurch attacks she has noticed a shift on campus and students have become more sympathetic to her and her fellow Muslim students’ experiences.
“After Christchurch I was asked to speak at various university events which I did, but it is quite emotionally taxing. I have found people have been more understanding of the incidents that I say I experience. People are more empathetic. I’ve had a few friends say if you need me to walk you train station or catch a bus with you.”
However, she says that it is sad it took fifty innocent people being murdered in a place of worship for people to even acknowledge there might be an issue with white supremacy in this country.
“It’s not an individual’s fault that people are being fed Islamophobic messages. And it’s not someone’s fault if they were born into privilege. But it is the responsibility of people in privilege to learn and to look critically at these issues and this really needs to be fostered and supported more in universities.”