Category Archives: University Life

A Letter to my 19 year old self

I’m not exactly 100 years old, but when I look back on some of the decisions I made in my late teens and early 20s I can’t help but cringe. There are so many things I wish I’d known then, so many things I wish people would have told me and spoken about openly. But I wasn’t the first person to make a few silly decisions, nor will I be the last. In the interest of saving a few young MSA girls from treading the road best left not taken, here is a letter from me to my younger self/all the girls I see so much of myself in:

Dear 19 year old self,

I know you think you know what you’re doing. I know you have good intentions and it’s all for the sake of Allah and so on and so forth. But that’s how it always starts, isn’t it? Innocence is often corrupted not through evil, but through the misdirected desire to do the right thing.

You may think the right thing is to keep your voice down and your eyes to the ground in person, but the real danger is behind the screens. You may think the right thing is to have a chat about this event or organising that stall, but it so easily comes undone. It’s so easy to be swept away, to give your heart to some nice boy with a beard and pretty words about the ummah and what the future will hold for the two of you.

Pretty words aren’t necessarily empty ones. They are promises and well-meaning ones at that, but they are promises which may or may not come to pass. He will tell you to wait, and your heart will jump to give him a chance, but your head should form the reply ‘I wait for no one’. When he tells you he’s not ready, tell him to come back when he is. If he tells you he is ready, don’t believe him until he shows you he is. Take notes at events instead of sneaking glances across the room. Pay attention to your friends and your studies, because they are the only things you are guaranteed to leave here with.

Does all of this mean you can’t have any fun? Of course not. Have a giggle about the crushes, the awkward and cutesy encounters over the bake stalls and BBQs.  Many of them have borne fruit and blossomed into permanent and lifelong commitments. But so many haven’t.

This is why I am telling you something you probably don’t want to hear: don’t waste your best and brightest years on uncertain love. Protect your heart before you get attached. Protect your heart from those who would do harm to you without meaning to. Protect your heart from the love which just isn’t ready to blossom yet. Let the premature, uncertain love go, and trust that the certain love will come when it is ready.

PS-Just because you call him ‘brother’ doesn’t mean you aren’t flirting.

The Life Cycle of a Muslim Uni Student

I imagine leaving high school is somewhat similar to being released from prison. After all, school is a lot like a prison: a comfortable, cossetted prison, but a prison nonetheless, even down to the uniforms. I certainly felt like I was incarcerated in Year 12. I’d count down the days until I was done, imagining all the great, exciting things waiting for me beyond the classroom walls. When I finally emerged at the end of Year 12, I was pumped and ready to go. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to go down a fairly predictable path. Of course, at the time it was all unfamiliar and exhilarating. Islamic Awareness Week? What a novel idea! Scooping  up burnt onions onto bread to serve up to a queue of hungry diners? Sign me up!

Now that I’m just a little bit older, I realise that leaving high school and coming to uni was perhaps more like going from a maximum security prison to a minimum security one. Uni certainly had a lot less rules and regulations than high school, but it was still largely buffered from the outside world of office cubicles, tax returns and awkward water cooler moments. Like high school, it has its cliques and squabbles, especially when people are involved in activities on campus. While I was never heavily involved in the MSA, I saw enough of it to realise that there were constant tensions simmering under the surface that occasionally bubbled over into outright political battles.

Now that I’ve had my little philosophical ramble, let’s get into the life cycle of the Muslim uni student, transitioning from a caterpillar into a big fat butterfly.

First Year

There are two ways the first year of uni tends to go for a Muslim student:

1.) G’day MSA

Some people bolt straight from the school gates to their uni MSA, seeing it as offering a promise of safety amidst the big bad world of uni. It acts as a guiding post and a place to just be. The bake sales, da’wah stalls and weekly lectures are all thrilling and new at first, but pretty soon they’re well into the swing of things and volunteering their little hearts out. Typically these people either know few Muslims at their uni, thus compelling them to seek out people in the MSA to be their friends, or  they already know lots of people in the MSA either from their year in high school and are thus at home right away.

These people are earnest, sincere and have plenty of time on their hands to change the world. (Or try to, at the very least.) They often attend MSA events at other universities just to scope them out and see what their friends from high school are doing. They’re generally quite squeamish when it comes to the opposite sex and keep their distance wherever possible.

2.) Party Up, School’s Out

These people will think they’re being totally rebellious and testing all kinds of boundaries, but what they don’t realise is that plenty of Muslims before them have done the exact same things upon entering uni. The mixed guy-girl friendship groups, the many hours mucking around at the library and the parties, it’s all happening.

As with above, these people tend to fall into one of two categories. Many of them may have gone to schools where they were in the minority as Muslims, and now that their little Muslim support group isn’t as available, they suddenly find themselves swayed by other currents. The other category are people who attended Islamic schools and who now feel the urge to test out their new ‘freedoms’ by doing everything their high school made a feeble attempt to restrict them from.

No doubt their Muslim friends will be watching their Facebook profiles with some consternation, but they’re too busy living life to really notice or care.

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Second year

So our Muslim uni student has survived their first year of uni, red-faced, sleepy-eyed, but still kicking. Second year tends to see the path taken in first year solidify. If the person became active in the MSA in their first year, they’ll now be an integral part of it. They’ll be less squeamish now when it comes to the opposite sex, and often crushes and little interests developed in first year will now take a more serious, marriage-orientated turn.

If the Muslim uni student drifted away from the Islamic scene in first year, it’s unlikely that they’ll steer themselves back this soon. The hang-out sessions will continue, albeit with slightly less enthusiasm now that people are starting to realise that they’ll actually need to make connections outside of the classroom to establish a career.

Third and Fourth year

By now, our caterpillar has started to well and truly form its wings. The shiny-eyed enthusiasm of first year will have given way to a weary cynicism for all but the most fervent MSA kids. At this point, many will start to branch out and become more focused on what’s to come once uni ends, thus leaving them with a lot less free time to set up stalls and participate in working bees. If they’re really dedicated, they’ll most likely have a mentoring role and will delegate the more involved tasks to the new recruits. A decent proportion of these people will also now be either in steady relationships or in the frame of mind to enter one, which also leaves less time to bake cupcakes or review feedback forms.

As for our other category of Muslim uni students, many of them will now start to pull back from their uni friends and their exploits. Their wild oats will have been well and truly sown and many of them will start to think about serious things like career plans and fulfilling their parents’ expectations.

Fifth and Sixth year

If people are still at uni at this point, they keep their presence on the low-down. They tend to only be on campus when they need to be and as such rarely attend MSA events, only socialising when they see people at the musallah. Even if they wanted to get their hands dirty, they wouldn’t know anyone there well because most of their friends would’ve moved on to greener pastures. They’ll generally be nostalgic about their glory days in the MSA, despite the fact that they’re still technically at uni. Only the most die-hard MSA devotees will still take a keen interest in its activities, but even if they do it’ll be in an advisory rather than a participatory capacity.

What stage are you in at the moment? Did you go through these sorts of changes as you went through uni?

The Great Muslim Divide

I’ll make a Halal bet that when you read the title, you expected to hear about ideological, theological or some other -ogical split. Granted, there are plenty of those, but I’m referring here to another divide: the one between married people and non-married people. This divide manifests itself in all kinds of ways, both overt and subtle.

Because Muslims don’t live together before marriage, marriage is a much bigger step into the unknown than it is for most people today. Therefore, married people in the community tend to attract a certain mystique. Whether the married person is 18 or 28, their status in the community is instantly upgraded. This can be somewhat frustrating for single people, who complain that they’re treated as less mature and responsible than married people, even when those people are younger than them. They can sometimes feel discarded by married friends who were formerly their inseparable sidekicks, while married friends may feel their single friends are less than understanding when it comes to their lack of free time.

Marriage is an idealised state of existence. This is a universal phenomena, common to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. To be married is to be ‘complete’, to be single is to be lacking. While there has been a movement lately, a la Yasmin Mogahed and co, to redefine the love story of life being with Allah swt, this viewpoint hasn’t penetrated to all sectors of the community and most likely never will. There is still a great deal of emphasis on fulfilling half our deen and a great deal of suspicion towards those who seem less than eager to do so. People feel entitled to ask others about their relationship status and it’s not uncommon for girls (and probably guys too, though I’m obviously not in on those discussions) to sit around bemoaning their singledom.

A large part of this idealisation is attributable to an inherent human need for companionship. Marriage is the only way for a Muslim to achieve this intimacy and as such, will to some extent always be highly sought after as a state of being. The desire to get married isn’t solely to do with marriage itself either. For Muslims, marriage entails moving out of the family home for the first time, gaining autonomy over all aspects of life and making plans for the future independent of external constraints. It’s no wonder that single people living at home can feel as though their lives are in a permanent limbo, caught between being a child on the one side and being an adult on the other.

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Once people get married, many of them disappear from the Muslim community. It’s as though single people are conscripted to do their time until such time as they meet a partner, at which point they are released from their duties. Participation in community activities almost seems like a rite of passage for many Muslims, something to fill up the time until they enter the real world of full-time work and matrimonial bliss. This disappearing act also allows the idealisation of marriage to continue unabated. (Single people tend to assume their former comrades are off having the time of their life, when in fact they’re probably just doing boring things like sorting out their sock drawers.)

Of course there are married people who remain active in the community, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Let’s face it: under-employed students are always going to be the lifeblood of many community events. They have the time and energy and haven’t yet been stripped of all their illusions about changing the world. Maybe young Muslims get so burned out by their constant whirl of lectures, dinners and training workshops that marriage is simply a convenient exit point. I know I feel like I need time out if I get too immersed in Muslim community activities. Maybe married people simply get so used to their time-out that they never return from it. Life marches on mercilessly, and it’s as easy to fall out of the swing of things as it is to fall in.

As an unmarried person, there’s only so much I can surmise about marriage. I can and do talk to my married friends about their experiences, but until I get married myself, there will always be some element of guesswork involved. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of marriage; it’s like a club with exclusive membership and secret codes of honour. The absence of married people from the realm they once inhabited is felt by those closest to them, but there are always new foot soldiers to make up the numbers at the registration tables and the da’wah stalls. As Mufasa would say, perhaps it’s all just part of the circle of life.

Have you noticed the disappearing act in the Muslim community? Do you notice a divide between married friends and non-married friends?

Cyber-segregation

I have several Muslim guys on my Facebook friends list. Some I met through Muslim community projects, some I met socially and a few I added just because I like reading the things they post. If you asked me why I have male friends on Facebook I wouldn’t be able to provide you with a definitive reason. It’s not like I hang out with them as I do with female friends, nor is there any real need for it. A lot of us will add people of the opposite sex from our uni MSA or from community projects, but we can easily conduct all necessary interaction over online groups or at meetings. If there is a burning need to speak to someone one-on-one, a PM would suffice as opposed to an actual friend request. I must therefore conclude that if we do have friends of the opposite sex on Facebook, it’s because we’re okay with it to some extent.

The interesting thing I’ve noticed on Facebook is that a lot of the most overtly ‘religious’ people actually tend to have the most friends of the opposite sex. I can guess why. Their profiles generally don’t feature any photos of themselves, and their posts are all Islamic in theme. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think their profile was run by a spam-bot programmed to churn out Islamic phrases and links. But there is a person behind the impersonal online persona. Their feelings may be obscured behind endless status updates about the beauty of nature and the sufferings of the ummah, but they are still there. This means these people are as susceptible to forming attachments as anyone, and because they most likely are also the type of person to avoid free-mixing in real life, their Facebook profile can in fact become one of the main ways of meeting a potential partner.

Online communication has the potential to get very personal very quickly, due to the simple fact that it’s so much easier to type words onto a screen than it is to say them in real life. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve found ourselves saying things online and then wondering later why  we didn’t put a sock in it. Some person we would barely consider an acquaintance sends us a PM or starts a chat about some random thing, and before we know it, bam, we’re onto talking about why we’re not married yet. Also, because a lot of conversations online take place at odd hours, people become less inhibited. If it’s much easier to type personal things onto a screen than it is to say them in real life, it’s much, much easier to type them onto a screen at 2am than it is at 1pm.

These types of interactions happen so frequently, and in far more insidious ways than the example I just mentioned. Social networking has made cheating far easier; people can look up old flames with a click of a button and thus indulge ancient longings. We can stare at the profile pictures of someone attractive for far longer than our one allowed glance. There’s no one looking over our shoulder like there is in person. We can stalk someone’s status updates from 2009, look at the 500 photos they’re tagged in and go through their friends list with a fine-tooth comb. Online, we’re free to set our own private limits, and this again makes me wonder why it’s not more common amongst Muslims to cyber-segregate.

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People just don’t do the things they do online in real life. In real life, we’d never we just go up to an acquaintance, male or female, and start talking about personal things. As Muslims, it’s likely that if that acquaintance is of the opposite sex, the opportunity would never even come up. If we do mix with males in an Islamic context, we’re all too aware of conservative social convention and the knowledge that to flaunt it entails social suicide. But online, there are no prying eyes. There are no interruptions and no one to tell us when to stop. It seems to me then that if we’re looking to avoid developing attachments, cyber-segregation may be even more effective than real-life-segregation. But the majority of us don’t do it.

Some of us take measures like restricting access to photos where we’re dolled up. Some have female-only lists for when we post a particularly silly status. I even saw one hijabi post a photo of herself without a hijab because she’d restricted the setting for that photo to only females. But many of us don’t take any measures at all to filter our content on a gender basis. If we’re uncomfortable with the idea of someone staring at us for an extended period of time in real life, we have to realise that by putting photos of ourself online, we are giving our ‘friends’ free reign to do it behind their screens. A pretty scary thought, especially for those of us who accept people we barely know. It also raises questions about our responsibility as Muslims, both male and female, to maintain modesty and decorum.

If I reflect on the reasons why we don’t cyber-segregate, one which comes to mind is that Muslims are open to using Facebook as a means of getting to know a partner. Most Muslim community events don’t provide the opportunity to do more than exchange a quick salams, so for people looking to dig a bit deeper a friend request is the perfect way to do it. That way, we can scope out their profile, see their likes and dislikes and whether they can string a proper sentence together when they update their status. It’s an easy, non-threatening way of going on ‘the hunt’. No one will be able to tell if our cyber-friendship with a member of the opposite sex is initiated with the intent of marriage or simply because we work together on some Islamic project.

Facebook seems to somewhat legitimise free-mixing in the eyes of the community; it’s socially acceptable to comment on people of the opposite sex’s posts, but not to hang out with them in real life. It’s socially acceptable to use emoticons when talking to a person of the opposite sex on Facebook, but we’d never engage in playful banter to the same extent in real life. But beware: I’ve been able to guess that some people are in a relationship based purely on their Facebook interaction. If we’re looking to keep a relationship secret, it’s probably not the best idea to be constantly posting on the person’s Facebook wall and liking photos of them. There may not be the same barriers as there are in real life, but there are easy ways to spot when people are a little more than just (Facebook) friends.

Maybe we keep the door open online in the same way we keep our front door open for door-knocks. I certainly know of several people whose relationships arose through online contact, and I would make a fairly safe (and Halal) bet that these will only increase in the years to come. But recently, I’ve come across a few profiles whose owners only had friends of the same sex. Two, to be precise. I wondered how they managed it. Do they PM every person of the opposite sex who tries to add them, explaining their reasons? Did they have friends of the opposite sex, and then delete them all? Whatever their strategy, I have to admire them for sticking to their guns.

Why do you have friends of the opposite sex on Facebook? Do you tweak your Facebook profile to ensure people of the opposite sex only see certain things?

A Brother’s Guide to the MSA (‘Matrimonial Services Association’)

*Disclaimer: Author’s identity has been concealed.

I have been involved in the MSA (Muslim Students Association)  for several years now and, by and large, it has been a thoroughly rewarding experience. If you are reading this as a Muslim uni student not yet involved with your campus’ MSA, I can’t recommend enough that you get involved with it. Huge spiritual benefits of doing your bit for da’wah and maintaining brotherhood and/or sisterhood on campus.

In saying that, there have been plenty of instances during my years of involvement at MSAs which more than raised an eyebrow. I am speaking, of course, about the peculiar nature brother-sister interactions on campus and the often unspoken baggage that comes with it. Now, this blog has already talked about a myriad of issues and quirks when it comes to marriage and how young Muslims approach it. Naturally, at some point, MSAs had to come into it, given their notorious reputation as a “Matrimonial Services Association.”

Whether we like to admit it or not though, the matrimony tag has some truth to it, at least from my own experience. Personally, I know of three individuals who, after extended interaction at the head of an MSA, ended up meeting the person that would eventually become their future wife. It’s certainly not as uncommon as some blushing brothers and giggling sisters make it out to be. Something to consider as I run through of my observations during my time involved in a university MSA.

When it comes to marriage and the opposite gender, we – as guys – don’t really talk about it much. It might come up in jocular conversation like: “Are you married yet or what, bro?” but, by and large, it’s not something that is discussed in depth, or at least not as much as I am told the sisters discuss it. It’s a bit of a taboo to even speak of individual sisters as “marriage material,” so marriage and its machinations are often spoken of in very vague terms. I’ve found it’s often their body language that tells you a lot more than their casual “Oh nothing much is happening at my end, bro” response.

Marriage is only approached in a serious manner amongst ourselves in one of several occasions:

1) If a brother needs sincere advice on a potential marriage endeavour and naturally will seek the wisdom of his experienced confidantes. This is quite common, as you would expect, and is indicative of level-headedness and maturity, to some extent.

2) When some guys become a little bit too friendly with a sister, either online or in real life, and it might make things quite obvious to inconspicuous onlookers. Rumours spread quite quickly and the brother involved can sometimes be inundated with nosy questions, wink face emoticons, and suggestions that he should “fear Allah.” This blog has, in the past, referred to the Muslim community as “incestuous”. I don’t disagree. Do yourself a favour and don’t start clicking ‘like’ on her Facebook selfies, no matter how nonchalant you think you’re being; it only raises eyebrows.

3) Then you have the so-called “secret couples.” Note that I use the word couple sparingly here as I am not referring to the haram phenomenon of boyfriend/girlfriend. Unfortunately there is a lack of a better term to use in this instance. In any case, this is when a brother and sister are at an advanced stage of, let’s say, knowing each other, but they’ve hit a road block on their path to marriage. Perhaps their parents don’t approve and they’re lobbying (read: twiddling their thumbs in no man’s land), or they’re waiting to finish uni first. Whatever it is, they’re doomed to be stuck in limbo in an unofficial relationship indefinitely and cannot afford to make it public just yet.

Alternatively, you also have “public couples”: those who are well known to be in cahoots with one another, and are either close to marriage, or happily ‘engaged’. They’re perhaps the worst off, as their relationship is out in the open with everyone’s prying eyes upon them. They’re condemned to walk a veritable tightrope in their public actions while they await officialisation in the form of marriage.

4). Rivalry and competition is a notoriously common theme of the MSA circuit, but it’s rarely spoken of. You’ll definitely know when you’re in one, though. If you’ve got your eyes on someone, you begin to watch every move made by those from your own gender. That trendy Arab guy that she attended the Syria protest with? He’s a threat. The funny guy that keeps bantering with her on Facebook? He’s a threat. The young shaykh-in-training who is a friend of her family? Oh, you better believe he’s a threat. We’ve all been through this phase: one seems to develop a sixth sense when it comes to potential rivals acting suss, or if something else is amiss. Naturally, the sinister implications of such a threat require a heightened sense of awareness. It becomes all the more intensified when the threats are coming from people within the MSA, ensuring that you’re embroiled in a gargantuan struggle – a proverbial arm wrestle, if you will – that nobody else knows is taking place.

Before closing this post (which can scarcely be called a coherent blog reflection and more a serious of haphazard observations and musings), I must mention a few of the situations within MSA environments that I always found amusing. Have you ever wondered why there never seems to be any brothers around when it’s time to set up the da’wah stall or the hall for Friday prayers, but there seems to be – mashallah, mashallah – an abundance of brothers ready to help out with the BBQ, whether it be cooking the sausages, collecting money, or just standing unnecessarily close to the sister’s side of the table for no logical reason.

"Pass the tomato sauce, sister."

“Pass the tomato sauce, sister.”

You don’t need to be member of Mensa International to work out why that is. Everyone seems to be looking at each other and then quickly looking around at the ground or somewhere else. You can cut through the tension with a knife… or a tomato sauce bottle.

Moving right along to your input: have you noticed any peculiar incidents from your time being involved with MSAs? How many of the above scenarios ring true for you or people you know?