Last month the CM Young Storyteller began a project to counter the abundant misrepresentation of Muslim youth in the media by providing them with a platform, wherein they are able share their experiences and thoughts on topical issues that are important to them. This month we were able to sit down with Leyla Kaya, a proactive school leader from Sydney’s West, who hopes to share her experiences growing up in Australia, whilst offering a little advice for other young Muslim girls. eyla, a thoughtful and optimistic Muslim student talks to us about school, cultural misunderstandings, being Australian, her faith and her decision to put on the Islamic hijab.
How do you identify yourself?
I’m Australian, I’m Cypriot-Turkish and I’m Muslim.
How would you describe being a Muslim high-schooler?
Umm… it’s just the same as any other person. I’m just a normal high schooler, there’s nothing different about me, there’s nothing special; I’m just like the other people in my class. Also, at my school I’m extremely lucky that all teachers are really supportive, like they’ll open up a room [for prayer], even every day.
Growing up, did you ever feel conflicted in defining your identity? Between being a Muslim and an Australian?
It was not until I [put on] the hijab two years ago that things started to change. Before that, I was accepted as Australian. I had no trouble going out or going to school. [The hijab] has enriched my identity and it’s made me stand proud to be an Australian, but at the same time it raises an issue of belonging because you’re looked at differently because of what you wear- previously I had no issue with that. And once I put on the hijab, I was overwhelmed with support at my school, from all of my friends, my family.
But it was also the one off incidents that make you question your beliefs and how you dress. One time I was at The Entrance and I was just walking along the beach, and one guy yells out from his car as he drives past, along the lines of “go back to where you came from!” and it’s incidents like these where I just freeze and I didn’t know what to say. My whole life, I was like, I’m an Australian, I’m Muslim, I’m Turkish. I’m so diverse, and I’m accepted and that’s great. But when people, other Australians, are going ‘you’re not Australian, you don’t belong’, and they try to pinpoint differences and say ‘you’re not welcome here’, it makes you question yourself.
How you do feel when these things happens to you in Australia, your own community?
Compared to what’s happened internationally and in other countries such as America, my experiences are nothing. There were 3 people in America last year who were shot based on their Muslim appearance, and in the media, it was covered as a dispute over a parking spot- but it wasn’t. Tt was simply because they were Muslim. And even in Australia, Muslims are 3 times more prone to being discriminated against, and the unemployment rate for Muslims is significantly higher than for non-Muslims.
So you think that International events and local incidents of Islamophobia are interconnected?
What is like growing up then, where you feel your faith is demonized and always having to apologize for your faith?
Well, I’m not going to apologize, because I’m not represented by groups like Isis. I will condemn it; I will say that terrorism is against my religion, I will say that killing someone- killing innocent people- is against ANY religion. But that’s not who I am, that’s not who I’m represented by, so I’m not going to apologize based on international events that I’m not a part of, that I’m not associated with.
On that, what effect has the general media portrayal of Islam and Muslims had on you? How do you think it impacts society and Muslims broadly?
It makes us feel like we’re not worth it- our sense of identity is completely undermined, like we don’t have a place in the world. All this coverage about western lives, it kind of expresses our double standards- like we care a lot of the things in Paris- we learn French at school, we have an obsession with the Eiffel tower- but our grieving should not be selective. We should not just be feeling sorry for the innocent lives lost in France, just because we’ve never been to Turkey or Lebanon. They’re still people, they’re still human. We shouldn’t value one life over another. There were 430 million interactions over Facebook when the Paris attacks happened. I don’t remember seeing that much publication for anything else.
There was a recent survey that was conducted in America that said that 53% of Americans thought that Muslim values clashed against American values. Why do you think there is this misunderstanding, even here in Australia? Have you ever felt torn between your Australian roots and your Muslim roots?
Yeah, especially growing up in Australia it’s like ‘you’re one of us, or you’re one of them [Muslims]’. I think that Australia, being the multicultural society it is, it gives the opportunity for people to have a multifaceted identity. It gives us the opportunity to be Turkish, to be Australian, to be Muslim. Just the same way an Italian can be an Australian and an Italian.
What role does your faith play in defining you?
Faith is the number one thing for me. That’s a part of my identity, especially now that I’m wearing the hijab, as well. It just reaffirms my identity even more and it gives me more confidence than before. But it’s also a major responsibility now, because when I go out in the streets now, I represent my entire religion. So I have to be even more careful about what I do and what I say because anything that I do, it might be pinpointed against me.
What does being an Australian mean to you?
To me it means living in a society where you are accepted, where are you are free to express your own opinion, where you have ability to have a say, where you are able to come home from school and not feel threatened.
Tell us a little about your decision to put on the hijab.
So it got to a point in my life where it was just routine- like, get up, go to school, go home, weekend, go back to school. And I started questioning why I’m here and what the purpose of life is, so I started reading more about my religion. I had the belief inside of me, but I wanted to do something more. I wanted to show that I am a proud Muslim and I wanted to make a stand and prove that I was doing something for myself.
What is the hijab and what does it mean to you, personally?
For me, it’s about showing humility and not caring what other people think- rather doing it for yourself and doing it for God, especially. It gives you confidence, as well. Before, you think ‘what should I wear? how should I do my hair?’ and stuff like that, but now, it doesn’t matter. You’re not obsessed with worldly things anymore, you’re more like ‘people are going to judge me for my character now, instead of what I look like’.
Do you find that the hijab empowers you as a woman?
Why do you think the Muslim dress code is such a hot topic in the western media?
Because it’s different, but really it’s not. Like, they make it seem so bizarre and so oppressive, but then you look at nuns, and what do they wear? They pretty much wear the same as what Muslim women wear- they wear a headscarf, they wear long black garments. You look back in history, what did Christian women used to wear, what did Jewish women used to wear? It’s all the same thing.
Do you think we need greater/better Muslim perspective in the media?
Yes, I think so. I think Walid Aly who is on the Project is one of the best Muslim representatives we have in the media. And I think we need more positive stories in the news, it’s completely negative. WE need Muslims in the media, and that’s what inspires me to be a part of the media industry, I want to stand up and not be represented by someone else, I want to represent myself.
What message do you have for young Muslim girls who are considering putting on the hijab?
I would say that, stand for what you believe in. You put this scarf on for a reason, don’t forget your intentions behind it. And remember that at the end of the day it’s up to you, you’ve made this decision and it’s up to you to stick with it and just don’t care what other people think.
Mariam Hamid and May Preedeesanit