Student Life

Counselling and Personal Development

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Working with students from Muslim backgrounds

Australia defines itself as being a multicultural country/society, formed by colonisation and immigration in its history. In constitution and legislation, Australian multiculturalism is based on principles of freedom of speech and religion as well as acceptance and equality to embrace the multiplicity of different collective groups.

Students from Islamic backgrounds represent a significant proportion of Deakin’s international students and mainly come from countries in the Middle East, Pakistan, India and Indonesia. However, it is important to handle each person as unique. Not every student from a Muslim country identifies himself/herself with Islam.

Followers of Islam believe in one, unique incomparable God (Allah), God’s authority over human destiny, the day of Judgement, where the individual will be accountable for their life’s actions, and life after death.

The word ‘Islam’ is Arabic and means peace and submission.
The founder of the religion, Prophet Muhammed (born 571 a.c. in Mecca) is believed to be the messenger of God (Allah) and that through him, the holy book, the ‘Quar’an’ was revealed. The Quar’an contains the God-given law and covers issues of morality, worship, mans’ relationship to Allah and aspects of human relationships, as well as teachings about social justice, economics and politics.
Islam is organized around the Mosque, the place for worship.
‘Imams’ are experts on the Quar’an, chosen by the congregation and their responsibilities include leading prayer, marrying members of the community and also guidance and counselling according to interpretations of the Quar’an (fatwahs).

Diversity values

According to REACH Centre in Seattle, USA, the following diversity values are listed:

  • Diversity awareness is growth-orientated rather than deficiency orientated
  • Diversity awareness is a systemic change process, not a content area
  • Everyone is a learner/everyone is a teacher
  • We work at living our basic principles
  • Time is fluid/ we’re in a marathon not a sprint
  • Humour heals and keeps us human
  • Say OUCH! – so we can all learn

( REACH, 1996a, p. 17)

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Suggestions for applying cultural diversity sensitivity in practice

  • It is important to handle each case as unique. Not every student from a Muslim country identifies himself/herself with Islam. Avoid stereotypes.
  • Generally, an approach of not assuming to understand any non-verbal communication, if you are not really familiar with the culture, is recommended.
  • Be aware, that the use of personal space and rules of appropriateness of nonverbal communication such as smiling or touching are in fact very different in Islamic culture.
    • For example, it is considered as offensive in some Islamic cultures (as well as in other cultures, e.g. Hindu culture) to pass items with the left hand, as the left hand is the “toilet hand”.
    • It may also occur that some students avoid eye contact. While in our society direct eye contact is a sign of directness and honesty, in Islamic society averting the eyes stands for piety, modesty and respect. Therefore, it is important, not to take it personally as a first response and stay objective and neutral.
    • Shaking hands may seem to be a gesture of respect and welcome in our culture, but for Muslim women it is seen as inappropriate to shake hands with a man, if not someone from their close family. Even being in a room alone with a man could be seen as a breach of cultural rules for Islamic women.
    • The friendly gesture of sharing food or refreshments may not always be appropriate. Each year, Muslim people celebrate each year a month of Ramadan (dates of Ramadan change every year - external link), during which they are required to fast from sunrise to sunset.
  • You may notice that dress codes, especially of female Muslim students, are different to Australian culture. Women in Islamic culture are required to wear clothing that is loose so as not to describe the shape of the body, in fact, covering the whole body except for the face and the hands. Our culture may regard it as restraining. In the view of Islamic culture though it is seen as liberating women from being objects of men’s desires.

Trauma

Be aware that some Muslim students from certain countries might have experienced or witnessed trauma and torture and could suffer from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This should be assessed, because routine procedures may be quite distressing for them and would complicate the communication. In any case, staff should try to create an atmosphere as least stressful as possible and consult with professionals familiar with PTSD.

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Taking it further

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Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

14th May 2011