What is the international student experience on the Gold Coast? Lizzy Keen explores how two women – a Bangladeshi Muslim and an Indian academic – found their place in the Sunshine State.
Outside the window of a sunburnt fibro share-house in Mermaid Beach, the post-summer warmth lingers well into June. The beach two blocks away is still sprinkled with bikinis and board shorts.
Inside one of the share-house bedrooms, Hasina* is dressed head-to-toe in black; a hijab hugs her forehead and jaw, an abaya drapes to the timber floorboards.
Before arriving on the Gold Coast in 2012 from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, Bangladeshi-born Hasina had never heard of Australia, let alone been to a Western country.
Nor had she travelled anywhere alone, in accordance with the Sharia legal system in Saudi Arabia whereby women are expected to go outside in a group or accompanied by a male guardian.
“It’s an issue if a single woman goes out by herself,” Hasina explains.
“It is preferred that she is accompanied by a man for her protection. Men often stare at women if they’re alone, or if it’s crowded, some might find ways to touch her.”
But even after 9/11, when Muslims started to come under harsher, unchecked media scrutiny, she says she wasn’t scared about coming to a country where Muslims constitute a minority.
“After 9/11 there was a lot of attention on Muslims and I was wearing this,” she gestures to the abaya, sending her fuchsia bracelets into a shimmy.
“But I wasn’t scared to come, despite what was going on. I wanted to move out of Saudi, I wanted something different for myself.”
For Hasina’s friend and former housemate Diti, who sits opposite in jeans and a printed T-shirt, Australia circa 2013 posed a greater apparent risk for an Indian student.
Back home in Kolkata, in India’s east, Diti’s family were still expressing concerns for her safety following a series of racial attacks against Indian students that took place in Sydney and Melbourne in 2009 and 2010.
“At that time, the news in India was very specific about Indian students being beaten up in CBDs and on the streets. I had this fear that when I came I would be victimised,” Diti says.
At the time, many Indian students returned home in wake of the attacks, while Bollywood implemented a boycott of Australia. Googling ‘Indian students Australia’ and ‘Is Australia safe for Indians’ finds its way into related searches.
“My family was seriously asking if I was going to be stabbed. When I eventually arrived in student accommodation I didn’t leave my room, worrying I’d be attacked.”
But it was here at a student accommodation complex in Labrador that Diti and Hasina became roommates, with their shared Bengali (spoken in West Bangal and Bangladesh) tying the early knots of their friendship.
Hasina is currently completing her Masters of Professional Accounting, while Diti is roughly mid-way through a PhD in cultural and urban studies. For now, the Gold Coast is home.
Before being accepted to Griffith University Gold Coast, Hasina and Diti had no knowledge of the city’s famously diverse appeal to ocean lovers, property developers, grassroots artists, backpackers, suntan junkies and partygoers.
Growing up in liberal and festive Kolkata, Diti took to partying as hard as her fellow students, but was soon troubled by the sexualised clubbing culture.
“Soon after I started the heavy partying I began to experience body image issues and struggled with the expectations around women and how they should look and behave,” Diti recalls.
“I don’t want to categorise, but I felt like I had to be skinny to be accepted.” Since receiving a scholarship for her PhD, clubbing has taken the backseat to her studies.
Diti admits, however, that the biggest ‘image’ shock she encountered was “people wearing thongs everywhere, even to class! It put me on edge!”
Religion was an important part of Hasina’s settling in to the Gold Coast, where Muslims represent just 0.8 per cent of the population. Does she find it difficult to express her religious identity in a city known for its liberal lifestyle?
“Religious practice in my culture isn’t hard, because women don’t have to attend the mosque to pray like men do,” Hasina explains. “I used to go to the mosque in Labrador, but praying at home is easy for me.”
“Religion has strongly shaped who I am and one day I would like to become more devoted, to follow all parts of the religion.”
The very few criticisms that non-Muslim Australians have had of Hasina have been shouted from a car travelling past her on her way home from the shops – a phenomenon that media presenter Waleed Aly calls ‘goonish racism’.
“They would shout things like, ‘Get out of our country’ and keep driving. The first time I just stood there and thought, ‘What just happened?’”
Hasina laughs it off, especially when she remembers the moments in which the city’s true spirit of acceptance shone through in a period of global angst towards Muslims after the November 2015 Paris bombings.
“Days after the bombings I was waiting for my bus when three women walking their dogs approached me and said, ‘Don’t you listen to anything bad anybody says about you [as a Muslim]. Just ignore them.’ I was so touched by that.”
Both Diti and Hasina have noticed Australia’s tendency towards soft racism – racism delivered so subliminally that it’s almost impossible to detect. For Diti, it has emerged in the form of “naturalised humour”.
“Friends often make jokes about my Indian culture, which can be funny but still feels horrible,” Diti says. Other examples include the abbreviation of Indian names to sound like Indian meals, and people assuming she can’t speak English.
Hasina first struggled finding a job because employers “didn’t want to hire me if I was covered [with hijab and abaya]. It was frustrating but I’m not desperate enough to stop wearing my abaya for the sake of work.”
Outside the sun is beaming into the p.m., signalling lunchtime for the girls, who are planning to eat at Pacific Fair. Diti mentions that one of the things the Gold Coast offers that Kolkata doesn’t is safety from prying eyes in public.
“On my first day at Griffith [University] I couldn’t believe I could just wear whatever I wanted! I didn’t have to worry about being hissed or stared at. In India, men often feel they are entitled to look at women,” Diti explains.
For Hasina, the Gold Coast offered liberation from Riyadh’s omnipresent gossip networks. “In my culture, everyone knows everyone, there are connections everywhere. If you make one move, your parents will know about it,” Hasina says.
Before they ready themselves to leave, my final question makes them pause. Hasina answers first.
“For me, being local means being treated the same as everybody else. It means giving us, as internationals, the acknowledgement and space and value as human beings who have come here for a better life,” Hasina says.
Diti fortifies her friend’s answer with her own.
“The sense of belonging is a beautiful thing and when you don’t have it, you’re striving for it. It doesn’t take much to make us feel like one of you; just a few nice words, a touch of humanity without any labels,” Diti says.
“Every time I get that, I feel like a local.”
*Not her real name