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Revise attitudes to female Muslim students, universities told

Katherine Demopoulos
Wednesday August 2, 2006

Universities must undergo a radical rethink in their attitudes to Muslim women if they are to become fully inclusive and supportive environments, according to joint research from Liverpool John Moores and Bristol universities.

David Tyrer of Liverpool John Moores University and Fauzia Ahmad of the University of Bristol conducted 105 interviews with 93 Muslim women aged 19 to 26.

The researchers say that their findings challenge the dominant stereotypes of Muslim women. Rather than feeling torn between two cultures or oppressed by family expectations or tradition, it is the institutions themselves that are putting obstacles in the way of the Muslim women's development.

Universities need to recognise and tackle the significant role of institutional factors on Muslim women's experience of university and their subsequent direction in the labour market, the researchers said.

They found that some Muslim women said that they felt discriminated against even on ethnic monitoring forms and said universities should review the categories used.

Latifa, a 20-year-old student of Arab and Islamic studies who comes from a Moroccan-English background, said in her experience that university ethnic monitoring forms never had a box for "Arab".

"It's really weird 'cause I have to tick the 'Mixed' one or the 'Other', d'you know what I mean? It's like 'Reject'. The only box I tick is ever, is 'Other' or 'Mixed', and then I just write, there's no space to write it but I just write what I am 'cause I never really know what to tick."

Teaching staff also need to improve - through equal opportunities training - both in their own behaviour and their response to the racist or Islamophobic actions of others.

They should ensure that set texts for courses "do not only include those which represent Muslim women in problematic ways, and should work with library staff to ensure balanced library holdings".

The women interviewed in the survey also suggested that universities needed to learn to timetable classes more sensitively.

Yasmin, a 24-year-old student of sociology and public policy management, told the researchers: "Early lectures and late lectures were very hard for me because I feel I have to think of my own security and my own safety, and there is a high risk of me being attacked and I face verbal abuse every day." She attributed the abuse to "looking like a Muslim".

They also complained of a lack of provision for halal food - one university required students to pre-order a frozen halal ready meal - and prayer facilities falling short of women student's needs. Even where there is space for prayer, female students sometimes miss out because there is no space for them to pray separately from men, the research found.

Maintenance and cleaning of the prayer room is also reported as being left to the students, and facilities for pre-prayer washing - wudhu - are often restricted to the institutions' normal toilets, a practice that was felt to be undignified.

The researchers concluded: "It is vital therefore, that institutional factors and culturalist explanations that serve to construct Muslim women in particular ways and reinforce racism and sexism in both education and the labour market, continue to be challenged."

Say: “Are those equal who know and those who do not know?
It is only men of understanding who will remember.” (S 39:9)
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