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
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).
According to REACH Centre in Seattle, USA, the following diversity values
- Diversity awareness is growth-orientated rather than deficiency
- Diversity awareness is a systemic change process, not a content
- Everyone is a learner/everyone is a teacher
- We work at living our basic
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
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.
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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