Life’s good as a Kiwi Muslim

Life’s good as a Kiwi Muslim, which is why New Zealand is ranked the most ‘Islamic country in the world’. The relentless media promotion of Islam in NZ has been happening for decades.

Tayyaba Khan, 23, is a typical Kiwi chick: she speaks a mile a minute in a broad New Zild accent, loves in-line skating at Mission Bay, and agonises over essays for her health sciences degree.

You’ll see the former AUT Muslim Students Association president at the movies with friends and in restaurants and cafes (coffee, please). One of her favourite phrases is “Hey dude!” and she begins her emails with “Kia ora”.

She loves vertiginous heels, jeans, bright makeup and jewellery.

Today Tayyaba, of Pakuranga, is wearing coloured contact lenses which add a spooky grey tinge to her brown eyes, and pink makeup to go with her outfit: a white T-shirt under a pink hoodie, a long black skirt and brown stilettos.

The only outward sign of her Islamic faith is a scarf covering her hair and wrapped round her throat: bright pink, it is one of a large and eye-catching collection of about 40.

Tayyaba was born in Pakistan but spent little time there. She lived in Japan for five years, moving to New Zealand with her family at age 10.

In Tayyaba’s all-Muslim household – her parents, four siblings, an aunt, uncle and three cousins – people communicate in a “fusion” of English and Urdu.

But this open, assertive woman sees herself as 100 per cent Kiwi.

“This is home, for sure. I’ll do the normal Kiwi thing like the OE, but New Zealand is home at the end of the day.

“What makes me a Kiwi is the culture and the language and how I live. I walk barefoot on the footpath and I love it … you can’t get any more Kiwi than that! I’m also very familiar with Maori culture.”

Islam does not separate Tayyaba from mainstream New Zealand, she says. That she has never tasted alcohol and doesn’t believe in pre-marital sex are “little things”.

“I wouldn’t be seen in bars at night, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be out having a good time. I don’t find myself different from the mainstream.”

Tayyaba is technically a Muslimah, a female follower of Islam; a Muslim is a male adherent. Like all Muslims, she follows the five central tenets of Islam: the profession of faith (“there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”); prayer (salah) five times daily; giving to the poor; fasting during the month of Ramadan, the time that Muslims believe their holy book, the Koran, was revealed; and making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the centre of Muslim worship, at least once (she went when she was 8).

Tayyaba arranges her day round her prayers.

She does most of her worship at home with family, in the prayer room at AUT, with friends in their homes, or in a mosque; each session takes about six minutes.

On a Saturday morning at a Newton cafe, she sips a hot chocolate and relates that her first prayers of the day (fajr) got her out of a warm bed at 6am: (“Got up, prayed quickly, went back to sleep.”)

Noon prayers (zuhr) are scheduled for 12.45. The mid-afternoon prayer (asr) is at 3.15, when she’ll be with Muslim friends. Sunset prayers (maghrib) are at 5.35pm, when she’ll be home. The final evening prayer (isha) is set for 9pm.

For noon prayers today, Tayyaba is at the Ponsonby mosque, built in 1979 and New Zealand’s oldest. The mosque and its people were an integral part of her childhood.

“When I walk in, I feel like it’s home I feel so peaceful there.”

The breeze-block mosque, in Vermont St, has at its heart a domed prayer room oriented southwest towards Mecca – the shortest distance between there and Auckland is calculated through the Earth rather than overland – and a building called the ka’bah, which Muslims believe Allah chose as a place of worship.

Tayyaba arrives a few minutes early, removing her high heels at the door, and ritually washes her face, hands and feet. As 12.45pm nears, one of the members chants melodiously in Arabic: “God is most great … ”

As he utters certain phrases, those drifting towards the main prayer room murmur responses. Like many other non-Arab Muslims, Tayyaba has learned enough Arabic since childhood to carry out rituals.

Men and women worship separately. This is to minimise distraction for everybody, says Tayyaba, not some sort of chauvinist segregation.

Women pray in an upstairs gallery, still within earshot of the imam (priest), Sheikh Mohammed Airot, or on the other side of a curtain in the main mosque. Today 20 males file into the mosque; Tayyaba steps behind the curtain.

She stands, feet together, facing the Waitakeres. She smooths her skirt, tugs down the T-shirt visible under the bottom of her hooded sweater, and begins.

When she is praying, her face is solemn in concentration; her lips move but she makes no sound, a deliberate part of ritual.

But that T-shirt is making her feel uncomfortable; with each prostration it rides up, exposing her lower back. Eventually she reaches for a white communal hijab (cloak) kept handy for this sort of problem, tugs it over her head and continues.

Two small planes that drone overhead seem distractingly loud, but Tayyaba says afterwards she didn’t notice; prayer is meditation.

Prayers over, she explains that the hijab she is wearing, close round the head and flowing below, is common among Somali women. Muslimahs in every country have different ways of arranging their scarves, she says, but it’s purely fashion, not prescription.

Women who wear hijab covering the face, Tayyaba says, follow a school of Islamic thought she doesn’t share. She finds full hijab sinister because she can’t make eye contact.

Although Islam says scarves for Muslimahs are compulsory, some, like Tayyaba’s mother, go without except when praying. “Some women choose not to wear it. It doesn’t mean they are any less a Muslim.”

In fact, Tayyaba didn’t start covering up fulltime until three years ago, when she was 20. Beforehand, “I wasn’t very content or peaceful – there was something missing. So I decided to go into Islam a bit more.”

Delving into her faith, she started feeling more secure, more sure of herself. To demonstrate her new commitment she gave away some of her possessions, increased her involvement with Muslim community groups, and traded the revealing clothes she favoured at the time for scarves and looser attire.

“I felt different after taking hijab – my faith went up a level.” And “I wake up every morning and don’t have to worry about how I look, and whether I am cool or trendy.”

Muslims in NZ About 40,000 Muslims live in New Zealand, 25,000 of them in Auckland.

Historically the Muslim community has its roots in South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Fiji.

More recently they have been joined by Malaysians, Indonesians, Iranians, Somalis, Afghanis and people from the Balkans.

-NZ Herald