I graduated from Cambridge just over a week ago. My graduation was one of the most special and bizarre days of my life and full of vivid memories I’m sure I’ll always cherish. Waking up the next day to find that Britain had voted to exit the EU came as a bit of a downer then… As my mum drove me home with the car packed full of my University things I felt conscious not only that it was the end of a personal era, but the end of something more.
In the week since then I’ve been contemplating a lot. Contemplating what it means to be a graduate in Brexit Britain. Contemplating what it means to be a Muslim woman in Brexit Britain. And more specifically, contemplating what it means to be someone who, because of graduating from Cambridge, has gained a lot of privilege; but because of the legitimisation of racist and Islamaphobic rhetoric post-referendum, has also gained a lot of insecurity and fear.
Today is the 27th day of Ramadan. That’s a pretty big deal for most Muslims, it means last night was a night that those who could will have spent trying to exert ourselves in prayer and contemplation. Whilst the 27th night is of particular importance, more generally it is the nights that make Ramadan special. Because the interlude between fasts lasts from sunset to dawn it is the dark hours of the day that are the busiest. There are additional nightly prayers many try to perform in this month, where they can, in congregation. I’ve been blessed enough to participate in congregational prayers quite frequently this year and in doing so come to understand my post-graduation/Brexit existence in a new and confused way.
Arriving to the mosque at 11pm is surprisingly thrilling. Whilst most streets are empty and quiet this particular one is full and buzzing. It feels like a secret night-time club that I’m a part of and standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer every night confirms that feeling. It is a feeling of community and spirituality first and foremost. A feeling which is enjoyable in the way it makes you part of a collective.
Being part of the collective also brings a quiet joy in the anonymity it entails. You are one of many worshippers; one body of a mass that stream out of the gates in the middle of the night; one voice that chimes in with the others; one pair of shoes outside the door. Here no one need know who you are, what you do, where you’ve graduated from or anything else. It is peaceful, it is primarily spiritual, and it is united.
But there is another side to this feeling of collectivity too. One less joyous. I realise I am a Muslim in a new way. Not only through my own eyes but external ones. To someone watching from the outside I am part of a predominantly brown and strangely-dressed collective who enter the mosque, pray and leave the mosque. In that moment and in that existence I am primarily a Muslim before I am anything or anyone else. It sounds strange to say it or make a big deal of it because of course I am a Muslim, this is what I call myself. But I do the calling from inside myself, from within my own head where I am also uniquely individual and a simultaneity of things – just as every other one of the people there are. I know that to eyes that aren’t my own, to other eyes, and increasingly potentially malicious eyes, any of us would just be one of a number.
And this is where I get confused about everything I’ve learnt about privilege. Having graduated from Cambridge University I can hardly deny my educational privilege or deny the experience and access to things I have had that many others have not and will not. But I suppose what I am realising is that my Cambridge degree won’t save me from Islamaphobia. Sure, I’ve always known that – I didn’t go to University to combat Islamaphobia. And yet, in a long winded and indirect way, maybe I sort of did.
It is widely acknowledged that immigrants, especially those from ex-colonies, often prioritise education as a goal for their descendants. Perhaps because being barred from literacy and some particular forms of knowledge was one arm which upheld colonial rule; perhaps because of an internalisation of imperial rhetoric which posited that the relationship between colonised and coloniser reflected intellectual superiority and subservience. Whatever the reasons, education is often viewed as essential to increasing chances, to improving lifestyles and to success. Education is the tool that can make one generation of migrant children’s lives of a higher quality than the next. But surely also within this aim and this dream was the prospect and hope that education would put an end to the prejudice and disrespect shown to those people. That once educated we would be worthy of respect. That once educated our skin colour, our clothes and the places and manner in which we prayed wouldn’t matter. Being a grandchild of immigrants at University these hopes and dreams are not something you easily forget. But maybe also, to some extent, they are something you partially believe.
Maybe, to some extent, I had believed in a Cambridge degree more than I thought I had. Maybe, to some extent, I thought the privilege and the brand it bought me would be a stepping stone and a shield. But when I put on my abaya and turn up at the mosque I know that it doesn’t matter. Not in the good way, not in the anonymous way, but it doesn’t matter because I am a Muslim. No one will ever have already assumed or be unsurprised to find out where I graduated from. For me, though giving me access to a set of educational and class privileges I cannot ignore, being a graduate from Cambridge is also – and in some particular moments especially – irrelevant. The interplay of privilege with other factors is confusing and I suppose surprisingly distressing.
Of course, in the long-run and depending how I use it and what I do and where I go and numerous other factors and choices I may have, there is an undeniable privilege it bestows upon me and one which I can hopefully use to work towards helping to check intolerance in all its forms. But in my first week of post-graduation life and in the shorter-term of post-referendum Britain, these problematic feelings are sincere.
My grandfather rang the day after the EU referendum. He cautioned my mother that we should probably not leave the house for a few days and be careful when we do. In that instant I realised that anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s were resurfacing for him. Connected to that, I realised that all those hopes and dreams that may have come true in some regards had no relevance in others.
A Cambridge degree won’t protect me from Islamaphobia. A Cambridge degree won’t stand between me and a racist. A Cambridge degree won’t escort me and give me special protections when I get on public transport or enter new spaces. It won’t differentiate me when a sign reads ‘No Muslims’; it won’t defend me or arm me. I suppose I always knew that, but it is a truth worth remembering.
In post-Brexit Britain I feel more Muslim than I ever have, but not only by my own choosing.