My experience as a Muslim woman in Cambridge

Jane Elinor O Connor 2 February 2018

As a visibly Muslim female from BME, working class background, the stares, subtle Islamophobia and sparkling water in champagne glasses have only made me feel more marginalised and more other than ever before.

The slogans of the punting touts are ingrained in my mind because a visibly brown Muslim woman, especially in a group of others that look like her, is a tourist. The question “are you a member of this college” is played on loop in my mind every time I walk through the grand older colleges such as St John’s and King’s.

At home, I am told my accent is different and in my 8-week home, my clothing, ideals, my beliefs and dietary requirements are too different, and I am not representative enough of the ethnocentrism of Cambridge.

But in dispersed corners of this institution are Muslims, praying in the fitting rooms of almost every shop in town, with the hope that the music will quieten and they will not miss their lecture. Smiles and apologies that move every muscle of our faces and tear apart the skin on our lips are made because every time we feel we are an inconvenience to anyone, we fear we’ll perpetuate their othering.

But this feeling of otherness and suffocating alienation has only made me prouder and closer to my beautiful religion. It reminds me of an old Arabic saying that translates to “differences are a mercy”, and indeed they are.

Feeling like the other has made me appreciate and celebrate my culture and community more. It has helped me to understand individuals from different minority and marginalised groups and it has led to numerous heart-warming moments that remind me I am not alone.

From my supervisor accurately pointing to the direction of the Qiblah (the direction in which Muslims pray, the Kaaba in Mecca), to conversations with people from many different backgrounds over our subject or our rent, I have discovered that there is a community where my difference, and our differences, are only to be celebrated.

While moving in between Cambridge and home, I am only a more assertive, visible Muslim. I wear my headscarf with more pride because it is also a symbol and celebration of my empowerment against these misconceptions and narratives of Muslim women, and it is a daily representation of my religion.

It is proof that the institutional narrative of Islamophobia present in the media is a right-wing agenda and construct, in every way inaccurate. And my visibility, my writing, my pride and our communities will only remind the Islamophobes and racists of their ignorance.