What is it like being a Muslim Student at Otago University?

What is it like being a Muslim Student at Otago University?

Life for me at Otago University is probably quite similar to yours. 


I have found it quite difficult to write this piece mainly because I do not see myself being any different to the other students here.

For me, the environment at Otago has been one that I have been able to thrive in. I love to be involved in whatever is going on – I am yet to figure out why this is, however I have a sneaking suspicion that it could possibly be my subconscious need to procrastinate, as much as possible, from study. Being at Otago University did not change this, over the last four years I have joined the debating club, the Yoga Club, the International Socialists, the Badminton club, Law for Change, the Muslim Student’s Association, the Otago Dance association and several others that been forgotten about along the way. The ones that I have stuck with have been Law for Change over the last two years and currently the Ignite programme. 

As a Muslim student at Otago, my day is just like yours. This is because not all Muslims come in the same packaging. There are over a billion of us worldwide and each is an individual. Islam is the religion I was born into and have grown up with. For me, it is not something I consciously think about but the values that come with being Muslim are now so deeply ingrained within my identity that they are second nature. It is something I carry with me in my interaction with other students, with the University itself and the general public.

I understand that for some Muslim students life can be very difficult. However, for me, it has been more about the little things in life that remind me I’m different. I’m a vegan (you’re not really a vegan until everyone knows) so for me the dietary requirements of being Muslim have never been an issue. I don’t wear a scarf so no one has looked at me funny or questioned my actions. I fast sporadically so even then it doesn’t really become an issue. 

It becomes an issue when people make snide comments or jokes when I tell them where I’m from or when even worse jokes are made when people don’t know where I’m from. I have never been one to hide or be ashamed of my cultural and religious affiliations. I may not be a practising Muslim but it is still a group I belong to and I think it is important to get the perspective of someone that has grown up in a western country but still is a member of their faith.

Being Muslim in Otago

By Khalisah Ishak

What’s it like being a Muslim student in Otago, you ask?

Well, being Muslim in Otago involves a lot more freezing water and being freezing cold than being Muslim in other parts of New Zealand. Your day begins an hour before sunrise: you wake up, toes numb with cold, and splash your face and feet with water (which is also freezing cold), as you take wudhu (ablution) for Fajr (morning prayers). Depending on the state of your flat, your sajjadah (prayer mat) may or may not be frozen solid. Then you head to class, laughing awkwardly as your classmates marvel at your ability to always be early for your 8 a.m. lectures. You decide not to tell them that you woke up at 7 a.m. to pray—they already think you’re a bit weird.

Being a Muslim student also involves juggling your hectic schedule with your Islamic duties. Like laundry. Or, more specifically, making sure you do your laundry on time so you don’t run out of hijabs (headscarves) and end up wrapping an actual scarf around your head, hoping no one can tell the difference. Turns out, if you use your replica of Tom Baker’s brightly-coloured Doctor Who scarf, people can—in fact—tell the difference.

Being Muslim is always standing out in a crowd, always being different, always the foreign, indecipherable Other—always self-conscious of everything you’re doing. Especially when you’re caught in a public toilet with one bare foot in the sink as a blonde freshman in a Kathmandu jacket stares at you in shock. Ordinarily, you would never take wudhu in a public toilet. But it’s winter when the sun sets at 5 p.m. and you have to squeeze two of your five daily prayers between classes and there’s simply no way you can go home, do your wudhu and prayers, and come back in time for your next class. Being Muslim is wondering whether you should try to explain yourself or just shrug and carry on because the entire world already thinks you’re a terrorist anyway. At least now you’re a terrorist with clean feet.

Being Muslim is a thousand little things—from prayer and wudhu, five times a day, to awkward explanations every time you have to tell someone that you don’t drink alcohol or eat pork. It’s Sawm (fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Hijri calendar), Zakat (charity), Hajj (pilgrimage) and Tawhid (belief in God). It’s a challenge, a constant test of will, and a reward like no other. It’s a balancing act between who you are, who you strive to be, and what the rest of the world sees you as.

Usually, however, your day-to-day is no different from other students. You wake up, you go to class, you finish your assignments, and you run around town with your friends. You think about what you’ll eat for dinner, if you passed that last test, and whether or not you should go to the library tonight. 

The fact that you’re Muslim—that you’re, you know, not like everyone else—doesn’t even occur to you until someone points it out. Until your lecturer brings up the topic of religion and politics, looking at everyone except you, and then pointedly asks for an opinion from someone not from a European background. At which point you glance around at your classmates—they’re all of European descent—and you think, “Oh my good golly Molly, he’s talking about me.”

What’s it like being Muslim in Otago? Well, what’s it like being Buddhist in Otago? Or Jewish, or Sikh, or Hindu? It’s like being anyone else. You’re normal, you’re you—until people around you start discussing recent terror attacks and all the Muslims begin sliding down in their seats as if hoping the ground will open up and swallow them whole. 

What are you supposed to say, you wonder? You could stand up and declare that Islam is a religion of peace. Maybe emphasise that every single mentally-stable Muslim in the world condemns these terrorist groups and terror attacks. You could tell them how it horrifies you every time some psychopath out there claiming to be Muslim commits an act of violence in the name of Islam, twisting your faith into something unrecognisable. But what’s the point? You’ve done that so often, so many times, that—at some point—you wonder if anyone is even listening anymore.

What’s it like being Muslim, in general? Well, for the most part, you’re just like anyone else. Until the rest of the world reminds you that you’re not a person—you’re a problem.

Student life at Otago as someone who identifies as being Muslim definitely has its differences. 

Ali Johnston

Student life in general can be a blast, but it can also be pretty rough. However, since I’m Muslim, I have a couple extra things that I have to juggle, like finding a place to pray or trying not to eat a table during Ramadan when your whole clique just got chips from Union Grill. Otherwise student life as a Muslim isn’t too different from anybody else.

One big difference however, is the culture. As a Dud City local, I grew up around the Scarfie culture and obviously after making friends from around here it was hard to avoid it all. As a Muslim, I stay away from the giggle juice but hanging around your intoxicated mates is still always a good time, knowing that you’ll remember every stupid thing they say or do without suffering any of the consequences. No embarrassment (or not as much), no hangovers, no chundering, no regrets. I honestly haven’t thrown up since the last time I had food poisoning which was in like 2006, if I did drink that probably wouldn’t be the case. One other plus side is that your buddies love you because you can always be the sober d. Primo.

Because I was born here and have grown with the culture, accent and the ability to tick the NZ Pākehā box on a survey, I am pretty lucky in a sense that I blend into society rather easily, even though on the inside my beliefs differ from most people here. People often think I’m Maori or Pacific Islander, until I tell them that I’m actually half Pākehā and half Indonesian, that’s better blending than Kylie Jenner’s contour. Muslims are often associated with burkas and turbans which is really more of a cultural thing than a religious thing, anyhow, as a bloke I don’t have to wear a headscarf or cover most of my skin, just as long as I don’t show too much thigh, which I’m sure the rest of society is probably quite happy about. 

When people find out that I am in fact Muslim, I often become their image for Islam. It’s not that I am an amazing scholar type person for people to look up to or anything, but I represent a more common type of Muslim in today’s society. People know that I pray and fast and that I wouldn’t eat an incredibly yum smelling piece of bacon and they also know I am one of the least violent people you’ll come across. So instead of people I know talking smack about how I’m part of a murderous religion, they’ll see the difference between me and the Islamic terrorists on the news. It helps people see the contrast between a Muslim and a “Muslim”, and helps them understand that you can’t define all Muslims under one title or blame the entire religion for the actions of such a small minority. This means that I am included in all the hot goss and my friends and I can all talk smack about the extremists you hear about in all forms of media, because most Muslims, myself included of course, know that they really aren’t the greatest bunch of guys.

Being a Muslim in NZ society means not being able to eat a leg of ham or down a bottley wine on Christmas with the fam, having to fast during Ramadan, and finding places to pray during the day. But New Zealand as a whole is understanding and accommodating. Blending into the society here seems to be really easy, especially for me. You can do a lot of the things a typical Scarfie might do and you can definitely enjoy your time at university, as long as you don’t lose yourself or your values, like your beliefs, your friends and your family, you’ll be Gucci.

A Literal Dunedin Scarfie


I moved to Dunedin five years ago to pursue a career in dentistry, and have somehow managed to make it to dental school, although I’m still waiting for them to find out that my acceptance was an accident. The past five years have been some of the best of my life and I’ve well and truly fallen in love with this city. The University of Otago has been a huge part of that and for that reason I’m planning to try and get a job here (attached is a copy of my CV). 

I’m a Palestinian Muslim student who wears a hijab (head scarf). Balancing my religion with the university lifestyle has been something that I feel I’ve done successfully without compromising any part of my identity. Despite being raised in New Zealand and adopting the majority of the kiwi culture, I still hold on to many parts of my Arab culture, such as operating on Middle Eastern timing and turning up to everything late. I’ve maintained this tradition so well that my classmates will clap for me if I turn up before the lecture has ended. 

If anything, I’m overwhelmed with how accepting and open-minded all of the staff and students are here. One of the first things that I noticed when I moved here was how diverse the student body appeared to be and how nobody seemed to care about what anyone else was doing. This is one of my favourite things about this place. 

I adopted the headscarf halfway through my second year at university. The decision was made on a spiritual level and I hadn’t thought of what it would be like rocking up to the lectures looking like a new student. I received positive indifference from my classmates and lecturers. Even in smaller classes where the change was far more noticeable, I found that I was treated exactly the same. 

Thank you to each and every one of you for contributing to making this community such an inclusive and supportive one and for making my university experience one I will never forget.

Being Muslim in Otago


Becoming aware of my Muslim identity, four years marked a dramatic change in my life. The amount of facial hair increased and jeans disappeared from my closet. Now a lot of non-Muslim males wear beards in Dunedin, so I am not always recognised as a Muslim. Comments relating to my Muslimhood increase depending on the dress I wear. These comments are mostly positive and relate to the outfit. However, some people treat me as an ambassador of Islam and ask questions, or tell me their experiences from travelling to Islamic countries or meeting another Muslim somewhere. I love these conversations, as they give me a great opportunity to speak up for what I believe and share information. 

There is seldom a longer conversation where the role of women and/or terrorism do not feature. It is incredible how much wisdom people display here despite the incredible amount of misinformation on the media. People are open to challenge stereotypes. However, Islamophobia exists and there are people who think that I hate women just because I am a male Muslim, or that Islam is violent by definition. If any of you guys are reading this: yes Islam still stands for Peace, and whoever mistreats their wives (or women in general) is still a misogynist and not a good Muslim. Good Muslims will treat everyone with kindness, except racists and misogynists maybe.

Since I became Muslim the amount of dead animals I consumed decreased to zero. Adhering to a vegan diet for spiritual, ethical and health reasons I am ever grateful for the $3-Lunches offered at the OUSA. I am a regular customer and helper in ‘Krishna’s Kitchen’ (as some call it) and value the friendships I developed there. I love the fact that the food is blessed with so much goodness and guaranteed halal. 

A fact that disturbs me about the University of Otago is the amount of animals abused and killed in the laboratories in the name of bad science. Hearing that instead of arriving in the 21st century and acknowledging the uselessness of animal testing the university plans to spend millions to build a new animal torture lab. I am deeply troubled to learn at an institution that promotes torture. Who are the terrorists now??? 

I love to connect with other Muslims. A couple of months ago a little group of us started meeting for casual spiritual gatherings. We sit and drink tea and remember the glory of God, sometimes we share thoughts, feelings, and opinions about a topic. Aw yeah, and we sing! Apparently we got invited to perform at this year’s Islam Awareness Week and apparently we accepted. So watch out for some happy singing Muslims! If ever want to come to the spiritual gatherings, they are every Saturday at 6:15 in Clubs ‘n’ Socs. You can find more info at http://bit.ly/2aI8Ig8.

Until then (and probably thereafter) I will continue to pray for the end of patriarchy and animal testing in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the world. May God fulfil these prayers and make our voices strong!

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2016.
Posted 11:12am Sunday 21st August 2016 by Critic.