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Thursday, 25 April 2019 11:52 am

Beyond the hijab: Living as a Muslim female in Wellington

Dwi in text

GOOD CHOICE: Dwi chooses to wear a headscarf despite it not being required in her culture

They may appear inhibited under their hijabs to the western eye, but living in Wellington is a daily celebration of their culture for three Muslim university students. After finding others expected them to struggle to be accepted in Kiwi society, Dwi, Masz and Myn were all quick to say they have felt fully accepted in Wellington.

They say their hijabs, head coverings Islamic women are directed to wear in their holy book the Qur’an, have been no impediment to them fitting in.

They have found the largest part of their education is not the Victoria University courses they take or the English language they are here to study – it is the experience of living in an entirely different culture.

Maslina Mohd Akhir and Nurul Hazemyn Roslan are undergraduates from Malaysia. Their government paid for the two 24-year-olds to study English in New Zealand so they could go back and teach it at home.

Kiwis struggled with their names, so the pair chose their own shortened names, ‘Masz’ and ‘Myn’. “I liked getting to choose my name,” said Masz, pronounced “Mas”, who added the ‘z’ to the end of it just for fun.

Likewise, Myn preferred to have a ‘y’ in her name, saying the spelling ‘Min’ was boring.

Dwi Perwestri Sri Suwarningsih, or Dwi, is a second year Masters student at Victoria University in Education, and is an Indonesian Muslim.

She has found Kiwi and Indonesian cultures totally different, but people similar at heart wherever she goes.

Over the Christmas period Dwi was greeted “Merry Christmas” often, and had to learn that people weren’t necessarily saying it in a religious sense – “I know they just mean well.”

Since a young age, all three have worn hijabs and adhered to specific rules and practices of the Islamic religion, and living in Wellington has challenged them to think about why they do what they do.

“Being a minority has made us really have to think about why we do what we do for our religion,” said Myn. “Back home when you are the majority, everything is normal so you don’t question it. But here, I’ve had friends ask me ‘why are you doing that?’ and I’ve had to go look it up and find out.”

In text Hijab

GOOD TIMES: Myn, left, and Masz feel accepted in Wellington despite their cultural differences

Masz also finds that living in New Zealand has forced her to question things she does, and she is thankful for the help of Google in answering some of the tough questions.

However even Google isn’t able to answer some of the tough questions – they are still not sure why they aren’t supposed to touch dogs in the rain or with wet hands.

“Sometimes when we go into town as a group and it’s raining, we see a dog and we all run and don’t know where to go to avoid touching it. People are confused, and they say, ‘he doesn’t bite, it’s okay.’ It’s just easier for us to just tell them we’re afraid of dogs.”

Still not sure why some of these rules exist, they don’t mind the uncertainty because living according to guidelines of the Qur’an helps them feel closer to God.

Dwi found Kiwis incredibly respectful and friendly, despite often not understanding her religion.

“Here you say goodnight before you got to sleep,” she laughed. “My landlord is a kiwi and he’s always saying, ‘goodnight Dwi, good morning Dwi, how are you doing Dwi…?’”

Indonesian Muslims, she said, are more relaxed than Muslims in other places, even nearby in Masz and Myn’s homeland. She noticed she was happy to shake the hand of males while other Muslim females don’t.

Finding the hijab helpful in warding off unwanted attention from guys, they all stressed they still had many males who were “just friends”. “It just makes it easier,” said Masz, who is married to a Muslim man back home.

“We feel protected by our hijabs. It means boys have to get to know us based on who we are, not just what we look like,” said Myn, who is single and “sort of looking”.

“They are also a way of being creative and dressing up. There are so many different kinds of hijabs, and different patterns.”

Masz also loved the creativity of wearing different colours and patterns each day. “We’ve had lots of people ask us if we feel oppressed because we wear it. Often they seem to want us to say we do feel oppressed, but we like it.”

Dwi, who also has a husband back home, said wearing her hijab makes her feel more comfortable and respected. “Maybe we expect that other men will not pay attention to us because we’re wearing hijabs, but actually that’s not the case. I’ve had men who have tried to be close to me and I say, ‘oh, sorry, I am married’. It’s not a guarantee you will be left alone.”

She said her landlord didn’t know what a hijab was. “He said people only call it headscarf here.”

“Some of the Indonesian Muslims here don’t wear them, and I’ve had scholars say to me ‘seriously, you don’t have to wear it’. But I choose to. I like to wear it, I’ve chosen it.”

She still remembers when she started wearing the hijab in 1994.

“A lot of people started wearing the hijab at school, and I really wanted to. So they gave me one and I started wearing it. When we graduated they didn’t allow us to wear them for the photos, and they made people take them off. I didn’t mind that much about taking it off for the photo but to support the people who really wanted to wear them, I protested and kept it on.”

Now, she says, they allow Indonesian teens to wear the hijab for their graduation photos. Islam is becoming more and more accepted in the island nation after only being introduced within the last 200 years, and it now has the largest Muslim population in the world.

Food and drink have been issues faced by all three, and they have sometimes had to adapt their diets because it was easier.

Masz and Myn had both researched where they could find halal meat in Wellington, and worried they would be forced to be vegetarians. However, they found sourcing halal meat to be surprisingly easy, the real problem was being at restaurants where they would have to be vegetarian for the night.

Halal, a way in which all Muslims are required to eat in the Qur’an, literally means ‘permissible’. A Muslim calling on the name of Allah kills animals for halal meat, and then says three times, “God is the greatest” (Allahu akbar). There are also some other requirements as to how the animal is killed.

Dwi will often just eat vegetarian food here because she has found getting the halal meat too difficult to bother with.

She has had people offer her alcohol, which is forbidden in the Qur’an, but says she isn’t offended because “they just don’t understand.”

Masz and Myn both experienced Kiwi consideration when, at a restaurant, a waiter approached them to let them know that a meal was cooked with alcohol.

Praying five times a day is something they have also had to deal with, and they have only occasionally had problems finding somewhere to kneel and pray.

Masz and Myn, who live together about ten minutes away from the main campus, have found the Muslim centre at the university helpful for having a place to pray. Between classes, however, they have occasionally been forced to pray in hallways.

Dwi said she rarely used the centre for praying, because she lived only two minutes away from her classes when she was studying at the main campus. This year while she does her thesis, she and a few other grad students have a shared office in Karori, which she has to pray in.

With the other graduate students not being Muslim, praying in the shared office has been interesting for her. “One of the other students is Chinese and the first time I prayed, she was really confused. So I’ve had to explain to everyone and now they’re used to it.”

She has had people comment on how hard it must be for her, but she loves it.

Masz left, Myn right

FASHION ITEM: Masz and Myn show off their colourful head gear

On a road trip once, Masz and Myn had an experience they will never forget. With nowhere else to pray, and with rain pouring down, the group of Muslim friends had no option but to pray in a public toilet on the side of the road.

Ingrained in their minds is an irate lady who wanted to use the toilet, fuming at them for taking so long. “She was yelling at us, saying all these nasty things. I just don’t see why she couldn’t be nice about it, and just ask us if she could please use the bathroom. It would have been so much nicer,” said Masz.

Dwi said she also doesn’t attend a mosque because you can pray anywhere. However around July most Muslims do come together is to celebrate the end of Ramadan, where they have a big feast following fasting during the daylight hours for a month.

People from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, some North African countries and the Middle East gathered at the feast, which is held once a year.

“There aren’t too many Muslims here from the Middle East though,” said Dwi, who has a friend from Saudi Arabia here who wears the full Burqa covering her face.

“It’s a bit different for them because they have to wear it,” she said, “and if other people from Saudi see them not fully covered they may not be happy.”

According to the latest census, there are about 50,000 practicing Muslims in New Zealand, and the number is climbing. With migrants, high birth rates and some conversions, it is one of the fastest growing religions.

Islam varies drastically between regions in Indonesia, let alone between different countries that practice it, said Dwi, who is from Jogjakarta, a one-hour flight from Jakarta.

Java is one of many islands in Indonesia, where each area of each island follow different religions – variations of Islam, Hindu, Animism and Christianity.


Windy Wellington? No problems: Dwi chooses her hijab for the weather

Dwi has had people ask her “are you Sunni or Shi’a?” which she said showed a lack of understanding, but was also funny, because those are two terms for Muslim groups from Iran.

It is a shame, she said, that people get a bad impression of Islam because they only hear about the worst sides of it. An example was the recent religious terrorism in Java covered extensively in the media, when a few Indonesian Muslims went on a holiday to the Middle East and adopted extremist views, taking them home with them.

“For me it’s a culture,” she said, “not a doctrine I have to strictly follow. It’s what I learn from my mother and my grandmother.”

Despite seeing it as a cultural identity, Dwi prays to Allah five times a day and chooses to fast at Ramadan, the tenets of Islam that make sense to her. Things like not shaking hands, she says, don’t make a difference to how close she is to God.

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is a journalism student at Whitireia. She previously studied at the University of Idaho and has a degree in Anthropology and International Studies.
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