Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

'Unwelcome Sisters?' an Analysis of Findings from a Study of How Muslim Women (and Muslim Men) Experience University

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

'Unwelcome Sisters?' an Analysis of Findings from a Study of How Muslim Women (and Muslim Men) Experience University

Article excerpt

Integrating students into an academic community has long been established as an important aspect of a student's life and learning on university campuses. Yet efforts at greater inclusiveness by both institutions and teaching staff are taking place in the context of an increasingly diverse student body, in Australia as elsewhere. Differences between students, and between staff and students, offer both challenges and opportunities. This article reports findings from a national study of female and male Muslim students in Australian universities--a group strongly associated with difference. The study found that, although their academic satisfaction and commitment are strong, their sense of belonging may be diminished by factors operating at both institutional and interpersonal levels. Gender differences were generally not significant within the group, which challenges certain stereotypes regarding relations between male and female Muslims.

Key words

diversity (student)

gender issues

Islamic culture

religious differences

social integration

student experience

Introduction

In the context of integrating students into a community of learners, interactions with student peers and with teaching staff have long been established as an important aspect of university student learning. As Pascarella and Terenzini's (1991) monumental study established, student interactions with 'major agents of socialization' on campus influence both intellectual outcomes and changes in attitudes and values. Increasingly, therefore, teachers are working to make classes more interactive, and to place greater emphasis on group work in and out of class. Services and support are also being expanded at institutional level to help students integrate. Yet these efforts at inclusivity take place in the context of an increasingly diverse student body, in Australia as elsewhere, and that diversity can pose challenges to institutions, teachers and students themselves. Assumptions of cultural, ethnic and linguistic homogeneity within student populations are no longer justified (if they ever were).

Supporting and integrating students associated with difference is not the only goal. It is increasingly recognised that, in pedagogical as well as social terms, all students should be educated to function interculturally within their own multicultural societies and as global citizens. Highlighting the benefits of exposure to and contact with difference, Smith and Schonfeld's (2000) review of United States studies of diversity noted that 'studies on cognitive development show that critical thinking, problem-solving capacities and cognitive complexity increase for all students exposed to diversity on the campus and in the classroom'. In earlier studies, studying ideas, cultures and perspectives other than one's own had been found by Ratcliff (1995) to help develop intellectual inquisitiveness and critical thinking, and Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn, and Terenzini (1996) reported that students' interactions with diverse peers led to greater openness to diversity and challenge.

In Australia, the debate on diversity has been heavily influenced by rising numbers of international students. Valuable work has been done on demolishing stereotypes associated, for example, with the supposed characteristics of the 'Asian learner' (Biggs, 1999; Chalmers & Volet, 1998; Kember, 2000). It can be argued, however, that local aspects of difference--such as Aboriginality, or speaking a language other than English at home--should also be included in discussions of how to integrate students equally into academic life. Religious difference, historically overlooked on ostensibly secular western campuses (Nash, 2001), comes into play here. The research project reported in this paper took as its starting point the view that Muslim students--female and male, international and local--would provide a useful case study of how we in universities are responding to new aspects of difference. …

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