By Claire Coleman
For the past four years, 24-year-old engineering student Sofia Ahmed has been leading a double life. During a typical week, she will study in her university library by day, then head to any one of Liverpool’s many student bars at night.
There, she will party until the early hours: drinking, smoking and experimenting with the hedonistic lifestyle of a typical British undergraduate.
But at the weekend, Sofia plays the role of a completely different person; a dutiful daughter of a well-to-do, traditional Muslim family who have raised their daughter to shun such Western temptations.
“Every Friday I get on a train home to Manchester to stay with my family,” she says. “It isn’t up for discussion; it is just expected. Before I leave, I tidy myself up, make sure I don’t smell of drink or cigarettes, and head home to play the dutiful daughter, helping my mother in the kitchen, attending mosque and sitting with my parents’ guests.”
On Sunday night, Sofia returns to Liverpool and the cycle begins again.
“Within half an hour, I will be slipping into a sexy dress and be on my way to a bar to meet friends.”
For most teenagers, university life brings the first experience of freedom from parental control. It is a taste of a life to come.
But for many female Muslims like Sofia, this taste is bittersweet. When she graduates this year, she will return to her parents’ home, where she’ll revert back to the life of a “good girl”, cocooned in a close-knit community where drinking, smoking and having boyfriends is considered sinful.
“In my time at university I have done everything that is forbidden by my religion. I didn’t set out to rebel, nor did I feel peer pressure to do what I’ve been doing,” she says.
“I was just genuinely curious about what all my friends were getting up to. You can’t grow up in this country and ignore the culture around you.”
And as more Muslim women than ever go into higher education, this double life is becoming something of a hidden social phenomenon.
Psychologist Irma Hussain has counselled many Muslim women who have experienced this culture clash.
“Muslim women have faced these conflicts for more than 20 years, but nowadays more women who come from very traditional families are going into higher education, which they never would have been allowed to before.”
“It is a great temptation to break from tradition when they are away from their family and everyone around them is having a good time, but it is not without consequences.”
“Some may look back and think it was fun, but others struggle with the double life and can never be happy leading such a conflicting existence.”
But those thoughts are far from their minds when they set out.
“My first night at university was amazing,” recalls Sofia. “I’d never really gone out before, so I had no clothes to wear. That afternoon, I went out and bought a sparkly red top with a scoop neck and a cut-away back. I wore it that night with black trousers and heels so high they made my feet hurt. I was really excited.”
“In the student bar, there was a promotion on alcopops. Never having drunk before, I was knocking them back. I hadn’t gone out with the intention of getting drunk or of kissing a man, but I did both. That pretty much set the tone for the next four years.”
Luckily for Sofia, her university years quenched her thirst for freedom, and she is now happy that those days are coming to an end.
“After four years of living it up, I feel as if I’ve got it out of my system. I’ve always known that my years at university would be a fixed time in which I would be able to live my life the way I wanted to, but after doing what I thought I wanted, I realise that what my parents have planned for my future is not so bad.”
Unfortunately, not all young Muslims find it so easy to forgo their new life.
For Faribah Khan (23), a graduate of Bath University, her education, and all that has come with it, has been a major source of tension with her parents.
“The only reason my parents allowed me to go to university was because they hadn’t found a suitable man for me, and an education was a respectable second best to marriage,” she says.
“I was excited about university and getting away from home. It was my chance to escape.”
Although her family moved from Iran to the UK when she was three, Faribah’s parents have made sure she would never forget her roots.
“We speak Farsi and Iranian food is always on the table. Going home is like travelling from the UK to the Middle East.”
“The religion goes hand in hand with the culture. I was brought up to fast during Ramadan, celebrate festivals and have an innate belief in the principles of Islam.”
In a bid to break free, Faribah applied to universities such as Birmingham and Leeds, where she believed she would be able to live independently from her parents.
“But they refused to let me live away from home and insisted I should go to the local university in Bath.”
“I resented that – just as I resented the fact that I had no choice in what I studied. It had to be science as it was ‘respectable’.”
Despite having to live in the family home, Faribah still managed to enjoy some of the student life on offer. And her parents’ worst nightmare came true when she fell in love with a British boy.
“Robert and I dated for the whole time I was studying, but I knew there was no real future to our relationship. He wasn’t a Muslim so my parents would never have accepted him.”
“I kept him a secret. I would lie and say I was staying at a friend’s house so I could spend the night with him in his student digs.”
“He hated the lying and the fact he could never meet my family. It made our relationship seem wrong, bad, dirty even.”
For devout Muslims, this really is the crux of the matter. How can a woman call herself a Muslim and behave in a way that contravenes the laws laid down by Islam?
But having been brought up in Britain, most of these girls find no contradiction in taking a couple of years off from tradition to enjoy what all their friends are doing.
And ironically, these women are only experiencing what their brothers have been doing for years.
“It’s almost an accepted rite of passage that men go to university and live it up before returning home to settle down with a good Muslim girl,” says Amina (30) from London.
“One guy I know has had a succession of girlfriends throughout his time at university. He’s living with one of them now but admits he’d never marry any of them.”
Faribah also knew her freedom and relationship had a shelf life. “I cried for a month when my university course ended,” she confesses. “I was convinced I’d be married off within a year to a suitable Iranian man.”
That day still hasn’t arrived. Now, nearly three years after leaving university, she is still living with her parents, but is also working in public relations.
‘They think I’m still a virgin but if they ever knew, they would either ostracise me or marry me off to the first potential suitor, like they did with my sister, Leila.”
“She married young. She knows about my life and has the same wishes as me. But she has to keep her views hidden from her husband. She’s content because he is a good man. But I don’t want to be content; I want to be happy.”
Not surprisingly, many Muslim women students find it incredibly hard to lead this double life. In the case of Malaysian- born Faria (21), a student at Sheffield University, her freedom came with overwhelming guilt.
“In my country, unmarried men and women are not allowed to be alone together. If caught, you can be jailed or fined,” she says.
“But because I was on my own, I felt I could enjoy a Western life. I dated and eventually slept with a boy I met here.”
For a while, she enjoyed her new-found openness. But soon, she was overcome by feelings of guilt and paranoia.
“I felt anxious throughout our relationship and had to lie to my parents and tell them I spent all my time studying.”
“Then finally, last year, I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t cope with my double life any more. I regret having a sexual relationship. I can’t wait to finish my studies and go back to my country to make a fresh start.”
“If anyone in Malaysia discovered the truth, my life wouldn’t be worth living.”
But though they have had very differing experiences there is one thing Sofia, Faribah and Faria agree on: they all expect to have an arranged marriage and are insistent they will keep their wild-child days secret from their husbands.
As Faribah says: “I know people will find it hard to understand that after living a free life I am willing to accept an arranged marriage, but ultimately, my family is all I have.”
**All names have been changed.