Practicing Islam at a Catholic university: “I’m 1 of 5 hijabi students on campus”

A lot of people start off by commenting on the headscarf. “Can you ever take it off?” Uh, that’s not how it works.

Alexandra Svokos April 14, 2015
At Boston College (BC), a Jesuit Catholic university where 70% of students identify as Catholic, Fatmah Berikaa says she is the only student who lives on campus and wears a hijab.

Berikaa, an Egyptian-American who grew up in Massachusetts, says she chose BC for its academic programs, its friendly campus and its financial aid. She lives in a dorm on the Upper Campus with other freshmen. Berikaa hopes to teach and is studying secondary education and English, with a focus in English as a second language, and minoring in Arabic.

Berikaa talked to The Huffington Post about her experiences on campus –  what she worried about before starting at the school, how strangers approach her with questions, and how she manages living in a dorm and squeezing in prayers between classes. Here’s her story, as told to Alexandra Svokos.

I was super worried about attending a Catholic university. I thought I would be the only Muslim on campus. We have a Facebook page for every class here and I would scan it looking for names that sounded Muslim, just to get an idea of what to expect. I met a few on Facebook before coming, but I met a bunch more once I got involved with the campus’ Muslim Student Association (MSA).

I’m one of five hijabi students on campus – women who wear the headscarf – and I’m the only one who actually lives on campus. Islam is a big part of who I am – it’s kind of, inside and out, part of my identity – so I always feel pressure, like I’m essentially representing my religion all the time. It’s hard sometimes, because that’s 1.6 billion people who can be judged based on how I’m seen. I don’t want people to see me having a bad day and generalise that to the entire population.

On campus, people are really open and friendly. People walk up to me and start asking questions. Sometimes people are really offensive without even meaning it, but I’d rather have them ask me outrageous questions and get the right information than go on believing something that’s not true.

A lot of people start off by commenting on the headscarf. They’ll talk about the colour, or ask to feel it. And then every once in a while, you’ll get ridiculous questions like
“Can you ever take it off?”

I don’t shower with it. For the record, that’s not how it works.

I teach ESL in Boston as part of a volunteer program, and a lot of the students there are recent immigrants from El Salvador or Colombia, and they don’t have big Muslim populations in those countries. They’ve never seen a Muslim, so they ask me a lot of crazy questions like
“I heard that men can have four wives...”

It’s really sweet that they make the effort.

I love when people ask questions, because it shows that they’re making the effort. So I want to reciprocate and make the same effort.

Once I got here, I found that a majority of the people that I was meeting came from really diverse backgrounds, and that’s great. But it’s also nice spending some time with people who are on the same page as you.

The Boston College MSA. Photo: Fatmah Berikaa

I can’t even begin to describe how much I love our MSA. We’re all going through the same things, so everyone is supportive. We do a lot of things together too. We go for Friday prayers, obviously. We also have social events as a group – we’ll do lunch after jamaat prayer, we see each other around campus daily. I have a friend who lives down the hall from me, and a couple live in buildings near mine. So it’s nice to hang out together, watch movies, do lunch and stuff.

I applied into the only building that’s all girls, which I love. Interacting with guys in class or in a club is not a big deal at all, but I don’t necessarily want to think,
“Hmm, do I have to put on my scarf to go down the hall to wash my hands?”

So it’s nice having a little safe space.

My RAs asked me about boys being on the floor at the beginning of the semester. I didn’t want it to be awkward – to be like,
“Well, you have to let us know before you bring a man home.”

I’ll poke my head out the door to make sure there’s no one in the hallways, or if there is, I’ll just put my scarf on. And then there’s that occasional awkward moment when you get out of the shower and you’re trapped in the bathroom because there’s a man in the hallway.

Fatmah and her friends in the MSA. Photo: Fatmah Berikaa

My religion absolutely affects my student life. Islam puts a big emphasis on how important knowledge is; knowledge is super important in our religion. That’s obviously a motivator when the latest episode of Downton Abbey is more appealing than my philosophy essay.

Praying five times a day is great for me because it gives me time to talk to God, and it helps me relax so I can refocus myself. I plan my schedule around prayer times, in terms of classes and work – it’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s not even about changing a class time, it’s just knowing I need 10 or 15 minutes between each class to get my prayer in.

It’s not a super lengthy process, and all I need is a prayer rug and a clean space. Depending on where I am on campus, I usually pray in my dorm, my friend’s dorm, an empty classroom or lecture hall. I keep a small little prayer rug with me, and it’s not really that big of a deal.

On jummah – which is Friday, the holy day – we gather in this building that the school provides for us. We call it the hut, though I think it’s technically called the Multifaith Center. But it looks like a hut. It’s really cute. Every week, the guides take turns giving a sermon and leading a prayer. The space feels really, really safe and cozy, and it’s always pretty clean. We all look forward to Friday prayer.

You know, there’s not as much bias as I would have thought. Sometimes people will say ignorant things. But it’s never confrontational. Other than that, everyone on campus is really accepting. That’s not always the case in the real world. I have had a lot of instances outside of BC where things have happened, or people have been really, really offensive. But that’s not happened at BC, which I was surprised at, but also am really thankful for.

A lot of people look at Muslims like we’re aliens, like our lives aren’t parallel to theirs. That’s just not true. I giggle out loud when my friend sends me a text. I procrastinate. I stress over finals. I love Nutella milkshakes.

We’re just like everybody else.

If people don’t have personal interactions with Muslims, they have no way of knowing that. We’re just “the other”. I want to tell people to go out and meet a Muslim. Just go meet one on the train or at work or whatever. Just make small talk.

If I were to say something to the Muslims reading, I would say: It’s our job to represent. We can’t leave people in the dark. They want to understand us, and they need to understand us. It’s important for our religious image that they know who we are and what we’re about.

Islam is such a big part of who I am, and I want people to be able to see the beauty in it, the way I see the beauty in it.

This post originally appeared here.
Alexandra Svokos Alexandra Svokos is the College & Education Fellow for The Huffington Post. She is a 2014 graduate of Columbia University WHERE she served as editor-in-chief of campus news site Bwog as well as editor of IvyGate. Her writing has been featured in Quartz, Gothamist, Cosmopolitan, and Mic. She tweets as @asvokos (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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Raja | 5 years ago | Reply | Recommend You know what I will do when I go abroad to study? I will look out for Punjabis first, then Indians and then Pakistanis because I can relate to them, because of the language, the culture etc. I will never look our for a hindu first. There is the difference. Stop being so insecure and defiant at the same time.
Faulitics | 5 years ago | Reply | Recommend Thats incorrect. Dhoti is more than a piece of cloth around your waist. Refer to the wikipedia entry for dhoti to get a better picture.
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