Girls loyal to Islam - and Aotearoa

By Susan Pepperell

Anjum Rahman (L), Radiya Ali, Khatra Omar and Aaminah Ghani abseiling at Pirongia Forest park Lodge. Photo / Stephen Barker
Anjum Rahman (L), Radiya Ali, Khatra Omar and Aaminah Ghani abseiling at Pirongia Forest park Lodge. Photo / Stephen Barker

Susan Pepperell goes beyond the veil to meet some inspirational Muslim women.

When Anjum Rahman was at primary school in the 1970s, she was only the Muslim girl in Hamilton.

There was another one in the north Waikato town of Ngaruawahia and one down the road in Putaruru, but in the big smoke she reckons she was it.

Today, Hamilton's Muslim population numbers about 1800. Nationally, there are 37,000 Muslims.

At the Waikato mosque they may be united by their faith but they come from more than 40 different countries, and many are refugees. And about two-thirds are aged under 30.

At puberty the girls wear a hijab, or headscarf, in accordance with their faith and begin the difficult job of forging an identity drawn from their own culture, their new "Kiwiness" and their Islamic beliefs.

In the snow at Mt Ruapehu, wearing pink beanies and padded jackets, a group of teenage Muslim girls awkwardly strapping on their skis for the first time barely rates a passing glance.

At the mosque, their heads covered and their bodies draped in traditional Muslim robes from neck to toe, they also blend in effortlessly.

It's easy when you look like everyone else. It's when you don't that defining who you are and how you fit in takes a little extra work.

Radiya Ali has worked that out. At 17 she knows she's a Kiwi. "I know because I wear Jandals," she laughs.

Born in the eastern African nation of Djibouti, Ali spent her formative years in Yemen before moving to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

She arrived in New Zealand six years ago with her parents and six brothers and sisters, unable to speak English but knowing that if she wanted to do anything with her life she had to learn in a hurry.

It took her a year to learn English - and about three years to learn she was a Muslim girl who could do anything.

Ali is one of 15 young female leaders taking part in a Hamilton-based programme that teaches girls how to forge their own identity as Muslim Kiwis. And they do it, while wearing their headscarves, out in the rugged landscape of New Zealand's great outdoors.

These girls have gone abseiling, caving, horse riding, canoeing and, most recently, skiing. They've learned bushcraft, swum outdoors for the first time, tried snowboarding and dangled from a flying fox.

Many had missed out on school camps, held back by parents who didn't understand the concept or felt uncomfortable letting their daughters participate.

But this programme, which started about four years ago with the formation of the Women's Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association, has managed to overcome those issues.

It was set up by older Muslim women including Rahman and Aliya Danzeisen, who felt a strong need to connect their community's youth to the land of the country they were growing up in.

Danzeisen, a teacher at Hamilton's Hillcrest High School, says young Muslim women are the first generation "truly painting the canvas of what a Kiwi-Muslim is, and we want to develop strong, confident knowledgeable females who can lead our community in the next decade".

These girls, she says, are part of a significant population of Muslim youth either born in New Zealand or raised here since childhood.

"No one has really defined what a Kiwi-Muslim is. Traditionally we have tried to assimilate, now it's about integration.

"We wanted them to know the history of this country, for them to feel like this is their land so they feel a connection and recognise its beauty."

When they asked the girls what they thought they needed to do to feel more connected with New Zealand, outdoor activities were high on the list. They found a willing teacher in Kate Parr, an outdoor education instructor who specialises in first-time experiences.

Parr runs First Step Outdoors, which offers people a chance to try new things at a basic level in a safe environment.

She brought in other female instructors and everyone worked together to learn, take risks and have fun. "The girls are fantastic, they rise to any challenge - a lot of them have never had these kinds of opportunities," she said.

This month's ski trip, which involved 30 girls and six instructors, stood out as the highlight of the programme so far.

Somali-born and New Zealand-raised Khatra Omar declared the snowboarding "awesome" but exceptionally difficult to master.

The 17-year-old has notched up 16 of her 17 years in New Zealand, and is part of a large Somali community in Hamilton that has witnessed more than its share of intolerance over the years.

But Omar says most people are "pretty good" and is wise to what it takes for everyone to get along. "The more they understand, they more accepting they become."

The girl, who wears a delicately beaded headband over a black hijab, believes the camps she has attended have helped support her and make her into a better person, with greater understanding of cultures other than her own.

In the outdoors an all-female, all-Muslim group has its own distinct dynamic. Parr says the girls do not feel any pressure to perform and instead use the group's support to extend themselves. Over time they have learned to trust her more, gained confidence and have even done better at school.

Ali says she's mostly learned about herself. "It made me confident enough to know I could do anything and be comfortable. We had the confidence but we didn't know we had it."

The other girls sit cross-legged on a mat at the Hamilton mosque and nod their agreement. Each has, at some point, made the decision to wear a headscarf as an outward sign of their Islamic faith.

It creates, they say, a sense of identity as well as fulfilling a religious requirement. As Rahman puts it, it's about saying the physical form is not what is important about them.

"It's about identity, breaking away and doing what you believe is right, being more reliant on yourself."

For Eman Hepburn, a Pakeha Muslim, it is how she feels most comfortable.

"In the beginning I felt that people were staring but I knew the reason why I was making the choice so I became stronger. I feel very comfortable now, and barely notice."

And most who do have heard the taunts, been on the receiving end of bigoted diatribes or worse.

Rahman hopes that the youth programme will help the girls deal with that by teaching them patience, and that the answer does not lie in responding and being at each other's throats.

"I'm really proud of these girls, they've come a long way. There's a confidence that wasn't there three years ago. Their aspirations have grown as well."

But what Rahman and Danzeisen really want is to leave a legacy of kids who will give back. Rahman believes the only way to achieve tolerance is in building a strong sense of community.

She worries about the rise of Islamaphobia in Europe and how the proposal to build a mosque at Ground Zero in New York ignited hatred. "Building a sense of community is the only way to stop it. I spend a lot of time feeling helpless but you do what you can in the sphere of influence you have. You just need to have your heart in the right place. That's all it is."

Rahman hopes that when some of the girls move cities, other New Zealanders will realise these girls are just normal kids and that diversity in a community is ordinary.

The girls certainly won't be shy about sharing what they've learned. This month's ski camp was mostly organised by them.

And, as part of their challenge as youth leaders, they are now planning more events, camps and trips topped off by a visit to Wellington at the end of the year.

The girls want to meet some MPs, let them know about the challenges they face as Muslim New Zealanders and tell them what they've done to meet their new culture halfway.

As Ali says, it's not about forgetting your culture, it's about keeping it, respecting someone else's culture and making a whole new one as a Muslim Kiwi.

"Everything I have and everything I know is here now. I feel lucky that I can do what I like to do and that I have everything I need around me.

"New Zealand is my home and I am a Kiwi."

DID YOU KNOW

There are 37,000 Muslims in New Zealand, which is about 1 per cent of the population.

New Zealand's first Muslim immigrants were 15 Chinese gold diggers in Dunstan, recorded in the 1874 Census.

The first Muslims in the North Island were several Indian men who came in the 1890s.

By 1950, New Zealand's Muslim population was 150 and another 60 refugees arrived in 1951 from Europe. In the 1960s the first Asian Muslim students arrived, followed by an influx of Fijian Indian Muslims in the 1970s, most of whom settled in Auckland.

The numbers of New Zealand Muslims have tripled each decade.

The largest ethnic group of Muslims in New Zealand today comes from Fiji.

Source: Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand

- Herald on Sunday

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