When I arrived in Ireland last September, alone on my first trip to Europe, I was reminded of how, as a young Muslim girl growing up in the State of Uttar Pradesh in India, I was always discouraged from travelling alone. Using public transport was prohibited because it would have exposed me to public gaze and increased the chances of harassment by strangers. My mobility was curbed for my own safety, I was told.
Living and studying away from home in New Delhi, for five years in a democratic and academic environment cultivated my personality, and my perceptions and beliefs evolved. Today, I see travel not only as a mode of exploring new geographical locations, but more importantly, of meeting new people with different perspectives and ideas.
Carrying my luggage on my back and travelling alone from one place to another on buses, trains and planes, has instilled in me the kind of self-confidence that no patronising protective institution ever could. As an Indian Muslim woman, I think this kind of self-realisation is a big achievement in itself.
I am currently pursuing my Masters in Women’s Studies at UCC and I’m able to study in this world-class institution because I was given this opportunity by the Irish Government in the form of a scholarship and for this, I am very grateful. I know that not all deserving people get to enjoy the privilege that I have been given.
I identify as an Indian Muslim woman because my personal experience and academic training gives me the confidence to assert my identity wherever possible and not just to be referred to as another ‘international student’.
I believe that our historical, political and social context play a vital role in shaping our future. My parents’ decision to send me away to study was one that led me to where I am today. It took me some time to comprehend that our political situation in society largely determines the kind of life we live. Discrimination is so rampant and systematic in society, that it has been internalised and normalised in our day-to-day lives.
If we critically analyse, we observe that the construction of language is also misogynistic. A girl like me at 24 would be expected to settle down, while for a guy this is the crucial time to establish himself professionally. The driving factor that led me to join the Women’s Studies MA programme at UCC was to challenge this social tendency and through my course, I intend to use gender as a tool of analysis for feminist research. After only one semester, I can already see my vision taking shape, thanks to the expert faculty and my amazing bunch of classmates.
Religion has always been used politically by the powerful elites to subjugate the weak. If we talk about Islam, it is seen to be a religion where women are treated as inferior to men with virtually no legal rights. However, we tend to forget that Islamic philosophy and Islamic practice are two different things. One of the most damaging phases for Islam was the age of feudalism that bred patriarchy, institutionalised misogyny and made a gender neutral compilation of the Qur’an and its interpretation something aggressively masculine.
As a critical believer who thinks that the emergence of Islam was a political response to the historical problems of that space and time, be it slavery, adultery, female infanticide, I challenge the perception that the same religion encourages gender discrimination.
I think the lack of female scholars in Islamic philosophy feeds into the misinterpretation of Islam. We need more women academics to research and investigate religious texts and to promote the basic philosophy before it can be manipulated against the economic and political development of women.
My aim is to become one of these academics by making the most of the resources I’ve been given by UCC so that we can be in a position to counter religious questions on a woman’s autonomy more theoretically. And thanks to the exposure and experience I have been given, I’m optimistic about that.
This university has given me the chance to speak, and more importantly, to be heard as a person of lower status, a woman belonging to a minority community in my country. In UCC’s conducive environment of bilateral learning, I feel comfortable and confident to voice what I think. In a set-up without hierarchy, I feel myself delivering my best and really being productive. It reaffirms my faith in academia and its role in building a better and more democratic world. Coming to Ireland and studying at UCC may be the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Samar Khan is studying for an MA in Women’s Studies at UCC. Students benefit from academic expertise across a range of disciplines including sociology, applied social studies, law, history, literature, philosophy, folklore, politics, linguistics, performance, popular culture, and religions. Find out more here: https://www.ucc.ie/en/womensstudies/mainwomensstudies/ or follow @uccwomenstudies on Twitter.