Conversations - Leyla Kaya

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.

Leyla sits down with Mariam and May outside of Bourke St Bakery in Parramatta Square

Leyla sits down with Mariam and May outside of Bourke St Bakery in Parramatta Square

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

Conversations - Ibrahim Taha

In recent times, there has been an abundance of Muslims presented in the media, yet despite (or rather, because of) this, there has been countless cases of misrepresentation and vast generalization within the public. With the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world population often being categorized into one group, this has left many without a voice. One such subgroup, commonly stereotyped in the public forum, are the Muslim youth, who are often spoken for- either by community leaders or organizations, that are out of touch with the challenges faced by these young people in their daily lives. 

This series aims to counteract these distressing tends, by providing a platform in which Muslim youth are able the share their experiences, raw and unedited. 

 Ibrahim Taha sits down with Mariam Hamid and May Preedeesanit in a cafe at Sydney's West

 Ibrahim Taha sits down with Mariam Hamid and May Preedeesanit in a cafe at Sydney's West

Ibrahim Taha is a Muslim high-school student from Sydney’s Western Suburbs. A passionate and articulate young man, he is an active member of his community- having been a Labor Youth member since the age of only thirteen. We sat down with him to discuss his experiences growing up in a working class Arab-Muslim household. In this interview, he speaks out about his views on discrimination, equality, the media, the outcome of foreign and national events and government policy, and the ways in which tolerance and understanding may be achieved in the future.


How do you identify yourself? (Muslim? Australian?)

I identify myself as an Australian by nationality, Lebanese by cultural heritage and Muslim by faith…. I like to say I’m vegemite on Lebanese bread. 

What role does your faith play in defining your personal identity?

It plays a major role.  It’s part of who I am, it’s the air I breathe And my faiths instils values in me; egalitarianism, caring for others, loving one another and tolerance of all people, races, cultures and religions. And these are the same values that Australia holds as a country.

What are some challenges that you have faced as a young Muslim growing up in a western society, such as Australia?

I find that the challenge of the young Australian Muslim is the frustration at the double standards exhibited by society. I mean [we] see what is happening overseas, but they don’t see the coverage of it on news and they feel frustrated internally, and they need something to express that frustration, and it’s got to be a healthy method of expressing it.

Do you ever feel as though you have to be more self-aware of your actions and their consequences than your peers?

Yeah I do, absolutely. 

What is your opinion on the de-radicalisation policies implanted in Australian high schools (e.g. prayer registration)?

I go to a school that implements the prayer registration policy, and to be honest I don’t see how a piece of paper deters extremism…like I don’t know if there is any proof [of its effectiveness]. But we have other issues, like obesity, we’ve got 1 in 4 obese children in schools,  we’ve got 1 in 13 youth considering suicide, I haven’t seen any policies that are tackling these challenges that many Young Australians are facing.

What are your thoughts on the portrayal of Muslims in mainstream media?

And that’s a big misunderstanding and very troubling to me as well that there are some media out there reporting misunderstandings, stereotyping and negative narratives are portrayed everywhere generalising. And it’s deeply troubling that somehow the media presents the
religion of Islam as evil, that’s what deeply troubles me. But, that’s what we have to change. It’s encumbered upon us as Muslims to try everything to break those stereotypes. 

Do you believe you feel adequately represented by Muslim community leaders in the media and wider society? If not, how would you prefer to be represented?

I think we have decent spokespeople but there is always room for improvement, even when looking at leadership of the country there is always room for improvement. But what we can do is invest in the next generation, so that they become better, instead of sitting back and doing nothing, we should build capacity in our young Australian Muslims to then become next leaders of the Muslim community.

Have recent representations of Muslims affected the way you view yourself or how others in the community have responded to you? 

It does, and it sorta makes you question your place in society, whether you belong. But when you look back at history, my faith and my culture has always been a part of Australia. From the 1650’s when the Indonesian Muslims had contact with the Indigenous, to the 1800’s Afghan cavaliers. So whenever I reassure myself and look back, that Islam does have a place in Australian society and we do as well. 

You know quite a bit about Islam’s role in Australian history, but why do you think it’s been forgotten or glossed over by mainstream Australian culture?

Umm…I don’t think it’s just an issue from the Australian perspective, I think it’s our fault as well. We have also forgotten our roots, and that we belong here as well. So we have got to become active participants in society, and know our roots so that we can flourish in this country. I feel, there is a disconnect, between our history and our country, and because of this we have gotten a distorted understanding that we don’t belong here. 

You are a member of the Labour Youth, what attracted you to politics at such a young age?

I am interested in politics because with politics you can change a lot of things, you can change lives. And I was raised on the labour ideals. [Also], with young labour I find that it’s based on tolerance, I don’t find that I’m treated differently because I am Muslim.

Do you think it’s important for Muslims to take a more active role in politics?

Yeah I do, I mean you can’t just sit back and complain. How are we going to get things done if we don’t have Muslim MPs? If we don’t have a Muslim lobbyist? How are we going to represent the community, or make change for the community if no one is partaking in the system? There has got to be somebody in the system who is a part of the decision making process, making changes for not just Muslims but society in general.  The system is a lot better when there are different people, different cultures and faiths, [imparting] their cultures into the system, making it peaceful, happy, and successful for everyone.

Thank you for your time.

Mariam Hamid and May Preedeesanit.