Anti-Muslim attitudes not the NZ way

Dr Trudie Cain and Mehpara Khan at Massey University's Auckland campus in Albany

Muslim New Zealanders are just normal New Zealanders, the woman at the centre of a widely publicised anti-Muslim attack in Huntly has told Massey University students.

As a guest speaker for a course on New Zealand identity and citizenship, Mehpara Khan talked about the multiple and interwoven threads of her identity – as a woman, a Muslim and a New Zealander.

“There are multiple threads that make up who I am – the Hijab [head scarf traditionally worn by Muslim women] is not the sum total of my identity, but it makes up an important part of the mix as does being just a normal New Zealander.”

In talking about Muslim identity, she said “there have been so many negative stories in the media about Muslims since 9/11 that it’s had an impact on perceptions and behaviours, particularly when people haven’t met a Muslim to balance and provide perspective on what they’re hearing and seeing.

“Often Muslims are talked about as an “other”, a nameless, faceless group as opposed to being viewed as a bunch of normal people who live and work in our communities and contribute to society.”

New Zealand-born Ms Khan made headlines last month when she and four of her friends were attacked verbally and physically and had beer cans thrown at them during a pit stop in Huntly. Ms Khan’s video of the incident went viral, prompting an outpouring of condemnation of the treatment as well as support from New Zealanders for her capturing it on film.

Challenging stereotypes

She told students the incident “showed the impact that constant negative information about Muslims and Islam has in the long run in a very human way. It showed someone real who was being affected by it – and that person came with a voice that had a Kiwi accent, which challenged a lot of standing stereotypes about what it means to be a Muslim in New Zealand.”

She was addressing first year Bachelor of Arts students enrolled in a new core paper, titled Tūrangawaewae: Identity and Belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand, that explores ideas, myths and changing realities about identity, culture and citizenship in New Zealand.

Ms Khan says her recent experience prompted questions and a wider public conversation around national identity, and she is keen to foster constructive ways forward for dealing with the issues.

“There was such huge public condemnation of this type of behaviour because it goes against so many of the values we hold for what it means to be a Kiwi – which is generally nice, easy-going people.”  

She says the issue also brought into question how the growing ethnic faces who do identify as New Zealanders fit into the mix.

“How can we be perceived as ‘normal’ – or accepted as a different kind of New Zealander?”

In her talk she suggested a couple of ways to do this. “I think it starts with being aware of your prejudices and stereotypes and trying to hold off forming an opinion until you at least hear people speak. But we also need to be having conversations at home about how negative behaviour, big or small, towards any group is not okay and shouldn’t be just accepted as normal.” 

The Tūrangawaewae paper explores what it means to be in and of this place (Aotearoa) through four themes: the changing face of New Zealand; what it means to have a voice in this country; how place shapes us in significant ways; and the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be a New Zealander.

Course co-ordinator Dr Trudie Cain says Ms Khan’s talk gave the students some insight into another’s experience of being a New Zealander. “It highlighted the extent to which our experiences are shaped by our various threads of identity and also exposed the discrimination that some people can face in this country.”

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