'Conversations With A Muslimah' is a series of posts that highlights the experiences of Muslim women around the globe by interviewing notable figures from each community. In this article Marwa Hamid spoke to the head of IHV in Bonn Germany..
When I first arrived in Germany, I felt lonely and homesick. For the first time in my life I shifted from being a member of the majority to a minority and unfortunately a minority that is portrayed in a very repelling way.
Still, even after many years I feel that the lines written by Dr Epifania Amoo-Adare represent my deepest thoughts and inner emotions. In the book titled Renegade Architecture, Dr Amoo-Adare states:
‘As a woman, and as a minority, I am particularly disadvantaged within the politics of space’
I have accepted with time the challenges that I might face are caused by the stereotypes other people have previously instilled within themselves about Muslim women. As a scientist, I receive many offers and opportunities from people who have no clue about my religious beliefs, but are thrilled about the research I am conducting. I got used to the shock in their eyes when they saw me for the first time. They did not expect to see a woman, in particular a woman in a head cover to be open minded and active in science.
I am not a special case when it comes to labelling Muslim women with oppression, illiteracy and dependence. In fact, I would be surprised if people did not jump to conclusions based on the dress code I personally decided to adhere to. Overcoming such limitation is not an easy task, lacking a sense of belonging can be very frustrating. That is why having students’ societies, women guilds and social clubs or any kind of a community structure that we can fit in is very crucial. Giving women from an early age the opportunity to participate in such communal structures or even lead them can be an asset when it comes to reshaping the stereotypes others have created about us.
Sofia is a young German Muslim born to parents who migrated to Germany at an early age. She is also an undergraduate English language student at the University of Bonn, and considers Germany her home. This young lady is not only interested in women literature and feminist movements but she has up-taken the onus to correct the stereotypes that chase Muslim women in the west.
Sofia is interested in showing the world that she is more than just a head cover and that her head cover is a choice she personally opted for and was never forced to accept. By leading the University of Bonn Islamic Society Sofia finds herself in a position that provides her with a platform to express her opinion, interact with peers and help establish an inter-religious communication hub..
Can you tell me a bit about the group that you are involved with?
The IHV Bonn (german Islamische Hochschulvereinigung Bonn) is the Muslim association of our University. We organise lectures, panel discussions, workshops, excursions and social gatherings around Islamic and social issues. Our goal is to provide a platform for intra- and interfaith dialogue at the university.
What led you to join the IHV?
I got to know the association very...randomly. When I was still in school, I went to some IHV meetings to listen to lectures but I did not know what the IHV actually was. Later on, as a student I joined the group and I really appreciated having so many young and intelligent people around me with whom I could ponder about Islamic topics. My friend and I offered our help in the organisation and took on a position in the managing board.
What role do you play in the IHV?
At first, my friend and I would share the position as a treasurer. Over the years, we took over the positions that was free or required and I got to work with a lot of interesting and ambitious people from whom I have learned a lot. Since the start of the past academic year, me and my friend were elected as president and vice-president. But to be honest, these titles are mainly formalities. Moreover, we regard ourselves a team everyone's wishes and critcism are respected.
What does your family think about your participation?
I think my parents are proud that I invest my free time in volunteering in the Islamic and educational field. Although my younger brother is not at university yet, he got to know the IHV a little bit and is looking forward to participating in a Muslim students association in the future.
Do you think the group influences other youth or people in the community? If so how?
The most important thing about our activities is that it is open for everyone – regardless of one's gender, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. Organising lectures in an academic environment has the advantage that the attendants can ask critical questions without being judged.
Sometimes young people don't have the courage to start a conversation with their local imams. Furthermore, our lectures also attract non-Muslims and they get a chance to learn more about Islam from well-educated scholars, and they get to know young Muslim people and perhaps get rid of their prejudices.
Do you face any obstacles because of your gender or hijab? How do you overcome them?
I would say that the IHV provides a very supportive and fair environment – especially for women. There are actually way more women in the association and we are trying to encourage more men to get involved. But I think this gender imbalance is a general phenomenon in volunteering work. The president of our umbrella organisation is actually a woman as well.
Are there many youth getting involved?
Yes, I think a lot of universities in Germany have Muslim students association and most of them also belong to our umbrella organisation. Some of them have existed for decades and are in close collaboration with their universities. During our yearly nationwide conferences, we discuss our obstacles, support each other and learn from each other's experiences.
What are some of the issues Muslim youth in Germany are facing?
The anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany – especially in the last couple of years – is one of the most prominent issues Muslim youth are facing. We are often blamed for things we do not agree with. It is problem we are constantly confronted with. Whenever there is an attack in Europe, the initial thought of most of us is “Please, don't let this be a Muslim” instead of just worrying about the incident itself. This is a huge mental pressure for young people that can even lead to an identity crisis. We always have to be aware that everything we do or say, can be traced back to our religion.
Another issue is that a lot of young people are misinformed or confused about Islam. A mass of information can be found on the internet which also makes it easier for just anyone to discuss Islamic issues even when they are not entitled to do that. Some groups in Germany utilise the internet to make propaganda for their interests. These are often movements who are quick to exclude people from our religion, view themselves as the only one who are on the “right path” and bring disunity to our community.
What would you like to see happen in the future, in regard to the issues Muslim youth are dealing with today?
I hope our Muslim youth do not let themselves feel discouraged by the anti-Muslim sentiment and view themselves as a self-evident part of German society. Moreover, I hope we never stop fighting for our right to gain a voice andcontinue shaping our society for the better. This can only be achieved if we create an environment within the Muslim community that is free of judgment and where everyone feels comfortable and can get support from each other. I would also like seeing us Muslims becoming more aware of race and gender issues.
Do you believe that schools/government are supporting what you do?
Due to the recent developments in Germany, I think the government has realised that the topic of Islam and Muslims needs to be addressed on different levels. E.g. in our federal state (NRW) few schools offer Islamic education as an alternative for Catholic and Protestant education. Futhermore, our IHV has also worked with groups of school students during seminars about Islam and the Muslim identity in Germany. However, the extent of support of Muslim students association like ours always depends on each individual university.
Do you have any ideas on how you can get this support?
A huge part of our work is the dialogue with our non-Muslim fellow students. We try to have a positive impact on our university. As our work is evolving, this will lead – if God wills – to more and more support.
Sofia and her fellow members of the organisation are moving forward with their agenda, breaking stereotypes and reshaping paradigms. Rumi once said ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there’ and by having a platform that promotes and encourages inter faith dialogue, one can think of similarities rather than differences and learn to coexist and tolerate each other. If you would like to learn more about IHV Bonn, follow their Facebook page at the link.. facebook.com/bonn.ihv
Author: Marwa Hamid