Sheikh, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: Muslim anxieties with student life
As much as I tried to repress from memory a recent post by Laura Bates on Independent Voices titled “Slut dropping’ and ‘Pimps and Hoes’ – the sexual politics of freshers’ week”, it rings true for some common Muslim anxieties with student life. Having tutored Muslims of a wide age group throughout their secondary and sixth form years, a familiar pattern begins to emerge from their personal experiences with student life. Simply, being a devout Muslim student in Britain can be rife with complication. And it doesn’t take a stint at university to know this. As early as pre- and post-16 education, there’s plenty to ruffle the feathers of the faithful.
Just this past week, I shared the Bates’ article with two of my students, one studying for his GCSEs, the other having just started Sixth Form. Though too young to have any truck with the naughtiness surrounding a typical freshers’ week, or the soft-core shenanigans in student dorms, there was enough to prickle their conscience and remind them of how a sexually-charged student atmosphere affects their faith and willingness to integrate with other students.
One student mentioned how a simple question in his English class regarding the character Curley’s wife in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, gave birth to forty-five minutes of casual sexism. What was supposed to be a routine class exercise quickly descended into a long spell of bawdy trade-offs, and was a humiliating spectacle at the expense of the female students who made up over half the class. In his words, “nothing of a woman’s anatomy was spared”, as the jeering males debated whether ‘massaging the tit’ or ‘fingering the clit’ would prove more orgasmic.
Much to his conservative displeasure, students would often entertain each other with tales of recreational sex, narrating experiences of wild orgies at drug-fuelled beach parties. I couldn’t help thinking how alienating his time at school must be, listening to him after our session came to a close. When I asked what he would do to buffer himself from what was clearly in his eyes a Godless carnival, he replied inertly, “keep a still lid on my emotions”.
Just a few minutes down the road that evening, I posed the same question to another student, who it appeared, could not sit comfortably while his peers placed their sexual rhapsodies on full blast. His story was a sober realisation that wearing Islam on your sleeve was bound to have unpredictable consequences in a sexually-charged atmosphere.
It didn’t take long before he got to the root of the problem. “They know that I pray at lunchtimes and can tell from my beard that I’m a serious Muslim, but they’re always chatting to me about what they get up to in clubs, and how they want to go raw on girls, no condoms. That’s why I just stick with brothers who have taqwa (piety)”.
Of course, sharing in the hard-partying, libidinous anecdotes was forbidden territory, impossible without clouding his religious convictions. So much so that “casual conversations about football, cinema and cuisine”, or even discussions on paperback romances and Hollywood spectaculars had little chance of stimulating curiosity, especially when a prayer cap, rosary beads and an un-British countenance constantly reinforced his otherness.
And like many other Muslim students I’ve seen over the years, he thought whether he was hindering his own sociability and decided on occasions to sink into the conversational routines, scrapping the beard for a trendy goatee. Striking chummy relations meant playing the sycophant and entertaining tales of hypersexual sororities to fit in. But it was only a matter of time before he could barely register a presence with the more seasoned pleasure seekers in his classroom. Reluctant though he was to divulge any more detail, he did tell me that he considered moving to a faith-based school when at the end of a Sex-ed tutorial, some of his friends tried to show him their digital recordings of cunnilingus and fellatio, and a few snippets of their action-packed vista of sexcapades.
As a practising Muslim myself, it’s difficult suggesting ways for my students to carve out a space where they can freely exert their own identity. I can never point them in the direction of being a calculating liberal by day and moonlighting as a god-fearing monk by night, as one of them had ambitiously, yet unsuccessfully attempted. There’s always the danger of trying to negotiate your ‘Muslim-ness’ as it were, by either waving goodbye to your spiritual side, or smash cultural invitation from others to smithereens.
Students often ask me whether socialising with non-Muslims is allowed according to Shariah law, and I’ve often responded with annoyance for them asking such an absurd question in the first place. “Muslims are obliged to foster good relations with non-Muslims”, I would advise them.
But socialisation of course, is not limited to a kick in the park or dining at a restaurant, which most of my students are happy to oblige with, providing of course, the food is halal. “But Sir, I’ve been invited to parties where there’s going to be a lot of cross dressing and bikini-clad beauties. There will be free mixing. Maybe some ganja as well. And definitely haram music. Surely that’s not allowed is it?” It’s questions like these which make being a private tutor to young, practising Muslims at times a challenge too great to see through.
When I was a sixth former, I remember having to kindly spurn the appetites of marijuana-toking, adrenaline junkies, simply to remain at ease with my Muslim self. And although I felt like I was being accosted by irreverent teens, and their fetish for grunge, narcotics and casual sex, I could still find common ground with many of them. The desire to build relationships, even amidst cultural differences, was sadly, rare among my students, none of whom could develop an open mind about life beyond their religious doorstep.
But I’m thinking if it was a mistake drawing their attention to the sexual politics of freshers’ week. Of course, any person, irrespective of their faith, could easily feel their sensibilities tested and offended by the sexual tomfoolery in schools and universities. But it was an opportunity for me to listen in on a distinct Muslim reaction to the boorish behaviour. My students had enough of the ‘Pimps and Hoes’ antics at secondary and A-Level, let alone think of enduring the same cultural clash at university, which was on the horizons.
There was already talk about clinging to a strict Muslim circle on campus and the need for drawing up a list of essential survival strategies. And although I remonstrated about the dangers of cocooning themselves at university, I couldn’t deny that there was a large Muslim student population where I studied, who found relief by turning to the companionship of their own kind. The very moment they realised friendships would require separating the wheat from the chaff and wrestling with the implications of faith, conversations would swiftly conclude and the only pleasantries I’d see them exchange with others would be little bouts of unruffled humour and academic claptrap.
After speaking to a third year politics undergraduate at SOAS this week, I gathered he was still searching for the safest ground to break ice without crossing swords with every Tom, Dick and Harry. He bemoaned having to constantly manoeuvre with a counter culture and drawing a line in the sand seeing how he and his group of devout Muslim friends were culturally out-muscled by a “sex-crazed student mob”. “We can’t have our imaan (belief) affected by all this zina (lewdness)”.
Despite the fleshy excesses in student life which present Muslims with a conundrum, I told my students that it was absurd to pigeonhole non-Muslims by reducing their aesthetics to the profligacy of a ‘Slag ‘n’ Drag’ craze. But for those I spoke to and many others, joining in the unchecked hedonism for an uptick in popularity was simply out of bounds. They would always let faith chip away at the occasional self indulgence. It would seem then, they are already preparing to make their campus presence felt by defiantly claiming an authentic voice, and resisting any temptations to be unwittingly sucked into the erotic mania-or anything remotely similar – which Laura Bates so provocatively reminded us of.Tagged in: freshers, islam, muslim, sex, Students, university
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