A cap, gown and hijab teach tolerance and triumph

BA Politics graduate, Soumaya Z, moved to the UK from France to escape discrimination and overcome barriers to her education as a young, Muslim woman. Now she’s hoping to encourage others, like her, to pursue their ambitions. Here’s her #BBKstory.  

Photo of graduate, Soumaya Z

Family values, discrimination and the will to persevere 

At just twenty-years-old, Soumaya possesses the insights and wisdom of a person much older. It’s hardly surprising when you listen to her recall stories of her grandparents migrating from North Africa plus the lessons both her parents and grandparents have taught her along the way. Soumaya shares that her grandmother had made the move from Algeria to France and was forced to give up on her education in order to support her family. Despite this, she still reinforced in Soumaya the values of learning and was so proud of her granddaughter for her recent academic accomplishments. Her parents, too, sacrificed their education when Soumaya was born and always sought to push her beyond the limits, to always dream and aim high. 

Soumaya credits those values with inspiring her to pursue her studies. However, despite being home-schooled by her parents, reading and writing at four-years-old, and completing the first year of her undergraduate degree in France aged just sixteen, Soumaya soon realised that the politics of her native country were counterintuitive to her progress and ambitions. 

She says, “As a Muslim (in France), it’s impossible to find a job, access education or do simple activities when you wear a hijab and it’s difficult even if you are just practicing your religion, praying or fasting. Hijabs and other Islamic clothes are also not allowed in schools and I faced Islamophobia when I was at school.  It was really hard. When I had exams for my French baccalaureate, I was insulted by a woman in the school talking negatively about my hijab. Alongside that, there is a lack of opportunities for Muslim women. I feel that I have a brighter future here in the UK.” 


Fortunate to be able to make the move to London just two years ago, the advice of her English tutor helped her to apply through the clearing system, with sights set firmly on Birkbeck to complete the second and third years of her undergraduate degree. 

Soumaya had to navigate a whole new academic system, alongside mastering a language which was not her mother tongue. There was also the added challenge of the pandemic and the ensuing isolation throughout her degree, though she applauds Birkbeck’s online programme for both her lectures and to be able to still meet with peers in the virtual world.  

With the obstacles to education now behind her, she is hopeful that others around the world can cease the “close-mindedness” and “change their mindsets to assimilate more people into their societies.” She reflects on the benefits of more tolerant and inclusive policies as not only improving the opportunities for Muslim women, but also women, in general, and other marginalised peoples. 


With one degree firmly under her belt, Soumaya is is aiming to complete a master’s degree programme and is already considering a doctorate. 

She reflects, “As a French student, it was a challenge to adapt to a new environment, country and language. However, I met incredible professors at Birkbeck who are committed to their work, as well as classmates from all over the world who made my university experience invaluable. In France, it would have been impossible to achieve what I achieved at Birkbeck, because of the adversity I suffered as a Muslim woman. Now two years later I have completed my bachelor’s in politics with an upper second-class degree at just 19 years old. 

“I really hope that sharing my personal experience will help other students to understand that they are not alone in their academic journey and that despite their differences they can go beyond the limits and attain their goals, without forgetting who they are, their identity.”

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2 thoughts on “A cap, gown and hijab teach tolerance and triumph

  1. Mohamed Touzani

    As a foreigner the basic common sense is to respect the traditions and the culture of your welcoming country. Moreover her religion (Islam) insist in doing so. Coming to a new a country and asking its citizens to abide by her traditions and faith is taking respect duties upside down. France gave her family a home, a better living conditions that she would have never dreamed of if they stayed in Algeria. Religion is a private thing and should stay private. I’m happy for her that she feels better in England but spitting her racism views on the country that gave her free healthcare and free education is a mark of her lack of gratefulness. I’m an immigrant from Morocco and I’m diametrically opposed to her views that appear to me as wining and lack of motivation to adapt in any environment.

  2. Ismail

    Well done! Sadly from my stay in France I’ve seen many 3rd – 4th generation French graduates of North African and BAME backgrounds denied opportunities for internships or careers even in the companies we Brits are associated with or interacted with. When I was in France on official basis I myself often faced cold shoulder until they learnt I was a Brit visiting from London. Many top ecoles/grande écoles deny opportunities for enrolment or refuses to admit Muslim students/those of colour or if so, make life harder, often treating them harshly compared to the rest of the white French Christian, Jewish and atheist students. Countless North African origin French Muslim youths (a legacy from the French colonisation of Africas) say they end up going to other countries’ top universities to study eg Canadian universities in Quebec (Quebec its own problems but better than France), UK’s Russell Group and reputable universities such as Birkbeck and SOAS or go to the American Ivy Leagues universities, simply because they are denied opportunities or treated too harshly and that’s even after appearing fully secular with little sign of being practising Muslim other than their Muslim name giving the clue. It’s France’s loss. I love to be proven wrong but based on own experience or living and travelling, I’ve never seen so inherently racist and Islamophobic as French society, with Germany, Switzerland, Austria catching up with France when it comes to racism and anti Muslim bigotry.


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