Islamophobia Awareness Month: a conversation with Aisha Baba-Dikwa and Anjam Khan

Posted on November 28, 2023   by Microbiology Society

Islamophobia Awareness Month takes place throughout the month of November which aims to showcase the positive contributions of Muslims, as well as raise awareness of Islamophobia in society. To mark it, we caught up with Aisha Baba-Dikwa and Anjam Khan from the Members Panel to discuss their experiences.

Could you tell us about yourselves?

Aisha Baba-Dikwa headshot
© Aisha Baba-Dikwa

Aisha: My name is Aisha Baba-Dikwa; I live in Manchester, and I have been in research for almost eight years. I worked in a lab, then I moved on to work with the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) team at the University of Manchester, UK. I then moved on to industry and worked for a few months in the very early stage of a drug development. I am now at a company where they produce products for cancer patients. It's cellular biology, though as a microbiologist, I fit into this by doing checks in terms of microbiology, micro plasma, endotoxins and the bacteria, to ensure that the product is adequate for release.

Anjam: My name is Anjam Khan; I am a Principal Investigator in the Biosciences Institute and serve as Director of the Infectious Diseases Facility at Newcastle University, UK. My research encompasses a broad portfolio of areas, with a primary focus on providing insights into the biology of Salmonella and understanding the mechanisms by which it causes disease. Additionally, we are exploring the application of synthetic biology to develop innovative multivalent vaccines targeting emerging pathogens. Within the university, I have leadership roles in equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and also biosafety. I am an elected member of the Academic Promotions Committee and the University Senate. Recently, I have just established the first UK Infectious Diseases Research Network. Externally, I am a member of the Northumbria Police Strategic Independent Advisory Group and interim Chair of the newly formed Independent Scrutiny and Oversight Board.

The month of November is Islamophobia Awareness Month, what does Islamophobia mean to you, and why do you think it’s important to highlight it?

Aisha: To what I understand, Islamophobia is a fear of Islam. I think it’s important to highlight to Society members and wider audiences that Islam is nothing to be afraid of. Islam means peace and it is important to explain that. Islam for me, means our values help us in the furtherance of humanity. My father actually said this to me, because in secondary school, I was doing Bible knowledge, and my stepmother was not happy about it. My dad said to her, “Why can’t she? It’s fine for her to understand other people’s religions around her, to be able to appreciate her own”. He went on to say “Religion is like a ray of light that passes through a diamond, and when it passes through that diamond, it diffracts into different colours, different rays”. Whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism, it’s all the same message, and one of those rays is Islam. We are all the same because we are being governed by one particular message. That is what I think my Islam is.

Anjam Khan headshot
© Anjam Khan

Anjam: To me, Islamophobia is an irrational fear of Islam and is often accompanied by prejudice against Muslims. I believe that all forms of prejudice, including Islamophobia, stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding. It is crucial to raise awareness about Islamophobia to combat discrimination, promote understanding, and build a more inclusive society. Misrepresentation of Islam can occur when a few individuals exploit religion as a pretext for their political motives and actions. Unfortunately, some influential sectors, including the media and politicians, exacerbate misconceptions, spread misinformation and contribute to Islamophobia. It is worth noting that in the current Israel-Palestine crisis the numbers of cases of hate crimes, including Islamophobia and antisemitism, have drastically increased.

I was brought up in Manchester, in a white working-class area, and not many Asians were living there at that time. I was one of a few Asians in my school and was accepted by my white peers, because I was very good at playing football. I remember going to my friend’s house and his mum saying “You know, Anjam, we don’t normally like p****, but you’re very different. We like you”. I asked, “How many Pakistanis do you know?”. She paused and did not say anything; I said, “That’s why, because you don’t know any”. It all comes down to knowledge and understanding. When you possess knowledge about people of diverse ethnicities or different religions, it helps you to understand what you have in common and not focus on your differences, fostering a deeper appreciation for them. From my experience, for the vast majority of people, education and knowledge are the ultimate solutions to combating all forms of prejudice.

Have you been affected by Islamophobia in the workplace and has it had an impact on your career?

Aisha: I have never encountered Islamophobia at work, and it has not, so far, affected my career. My name shouts at you that I am a Muslim, and it is interesting. As a student back in Edinburgh, during the September 11 attack, the internet was not as accessible as it is now. I was in the lab and everyone disappeared. I was left there by myself when one other person came in and said, “Why are you still here? Everybody should go home because there has been an attack in America”. I quickly left the building and took the bus. On the bus, there were some men that began to intimidate me, saying I attacked America. Of course, it was because of who I was. I instantly removed my hijab, but I left my black hair cap on, and I ran out of the bus. About four men started pursuing me. I lived less than a minute from the bus stop and just before they could catch up with me, I got to my house. That was the only experience I had of being attacked for who I am.

Anjam: I am pleased to say that I have not suffered ‘direct’ Islamophobia in my career. What I find more concerning is the covert and subtle manifestations of Islamophobia, where it remains concealed and indirect, making it difficult to detect. Anyone in a position of authority and influence, such as someone making decisions about a research grant application or a job interview panel for example, could potentially harbour Islamophobic biases. However, I have never witnessed such instances because these decisions are typically made behind closed doors and the process is not transparent.

The Society implemented prayer rooms at its events, as well providing lunch, which delegates can take away to eat later in the day when events take place during Ramadan. Why is this important to Society members and the Members Panel?

Aisha: I was in Edinburgh, for the preparation of next year's conference and I was involved in this implementation of the prayer rooms. I would say the Society has really made a big step in providing these EDI focused accessibilities.

Anjam: I think that is a great strength of the Society. It has been very proactive in making conferences more inclusive, whether it is providing accessible, gender-neutral toilets, prayer rooms or quiet spaces. That way, many more people are turning up for conferences and feeling comfortable that they're being valued and supported. This fosters a positive and welcoming atmosphere.

How important is it to you that there is representation of the Muslim community within microbiology?

Anjam: I think this helps to promote diversity, equality, inclusivity and fosters something that is really important; it is cultural competence. This attracts future professionals, enhancing the profession's ability to innovate and serve its stakeholders effectively. If you see diverse people in senior positions, it also provides you with role models and inspiring leaders. We need to breakdown ‘glass ceilings’ by educating selection committees of unconscious biases, and nurturing people from diverse backgrounds, to give them the ability to have a fair chance to climb the slippery-ladder and go into senior posts.

Aisha: Representation is very important because, if I do not see anybody that looks like me, I feel uncomfortable initially, though I have now got used to it. It just is a human thing to see familiarity in a place and feel more comfortable. So, I think we are all the same in every form, but at the same time, we are different, and it is our differences that make us diverse.

The Society’s Annual Conference 2024 has fallen on the same date as Eid. This will no doubt affect our delegates who will be celebrating. What can the Society do better in the future when it comes to being more aware and inclusive of the Muslim community?

Aisha: I think there is still some more to be done on that. After fasting for 14–20 hours, I do not want to go home with a sandwich. It would be nice to do Iftar together and then eat good food together. Another big thing would be to try to avoid it at all, by not having the conference during the Ramadan period. Though, there has been a good start for us at the Society.

Anjam: Eid is one of two major holidays in the Muslim calendar and is celebrated with family and friends, accompanied by delicious food, in much the same way as people celebrate on Christmas Day! The Society can proactively take steps to be more aware and inclusive of the Muslim community in the future by ensuring the timings of meetings do not clash with important religious holidays and events. All Society members and Members Panel members that I have come across are absolutely brilliant and highly receptive at wanting to provide a more inclusive Society. I think it will be a massive step forward when the Society is not having its Annual Conference during the Ramadan period. This is one of the things I raised to the Society and it was received very favourably by Panel members. In a situation where there is an overlap like that of 2024’s conference, the Society could offer meals in the evening for people to open their fasts collectively, rather than cold sandwiches served earlier in the day at lunchtime. If it is just two or three people, from an economic viewpoint it may not be feasible, but then the Microbiology Society could potentially offer vouchers for the attendees to go to a cafe or a restaurant. Due to the differences in the Lunar and Gregorian calendars this overlap is not going to be a problem after 2024 for many years. The Society is clearly listening with a positive attitude and a genuine desire to be more inclusive, which is truly commendable.

Finally, what advice you would give to your younger self today?

Aisha: I am in Islam, not because of my parents, or theirs, or my ancestors who were. It is by choice, because I educated myself in what it is and what makes it different from other religions. I have accepted it because of what I have learned. That is why I am a Muslim, so for people to have a fear of my religion baffles me because everything about it, my way, is peace. So, my advice is to just educate myself.

Anjam: It's a combination of impostor syndrome and the question, "Am I truly deserving of being here?". The truth is you are worthy and we all are. Once you recognise this early in your career, you'll realise that reaching senior positions are within your grasp. Therefore, my advice is to set your sights high and strive to be the best you can be. Don't allow any ‘glass ceilings’ to limit you. Break through them, and the sky becomes your limit!

To find out more about our EDI initiatives and the Members Panel that Aisha and Anjam are members of, view our equality, diversity and inclusion webpages.

Thumbnail image credit: iStock/berkah jaya