Campus Profile: Zeeniya Zuhair

Name: Zeeniya Zuhair 

Nickname: Zee

Program: Biomedical Science

Year: 3

Favorite place to eat at Ryerson: TIMS

Favorite spot to chill at Ryerson: The Hub Cafeteria

Favorite RU Prof (So far): Dr. Woodley and Dr. Koivisto

Favorite Dessert: Creme Brulee, Strawberry Cheesecake, and Kheer (Rice Pudding)

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I met Zeeniya through my sister who had all of these wonderful things to say about how open and vocal Zeeniya was about her experiences as someone who wears a religious covering. So I thought it would be a great idea to talk to her about her experience on campus as a woman who wears a niqab (or a veil). Read on to step into her shoes, you won’t be disappointed. 

So this is your third year at Ryerson, how would you describe your experience so far? 

I was raised in Toronto, so I didn’t feel like it was going to be a big difference to be at Ryerson, just that I was going to be exposed to a larger environment. 

Do you think that wearing your niqab has affected your experience at Ryerson?

I started wearing the niqab at the end of grade 7 or 8 to see if I liked it or not, just to test it out as an experiment. The community I was raised in was very diverse. When I decided to wear it, I thought it was just another head piece, that I was just integrating into the culture. I didn’t realize that I took a big step and would become a target in more vulnerable situations. Fortunately, because I was in such a diverse community, it was easy to get used to it, and it didn’t feel uncomfortable. I just became more aware of racial issues and people being segregated and being discriminated for whatever the case. In that sense, it opened my heart to serious situations, and that's why I still keep it on because it reminds me of that vulnerable situation I was put in many times. I always remember to include everyone when I’m in big groups so no one feels left out, I’m more aware now. The veil veil/niqab reminds me of that, of how it feels.  

But the biggest challenge was university. When I started university I thought it was going to be the same thing all over again. During the science orientation, I stepped in and I didn't see anyone who looked like me. I just saw a bunch of people that didn’t look like me, and I was so intimidated. I thought, oh my goodness can i do this? Am I going to fit in? Is anyone going to talk to me? Is anyone going to give me a chance? I felt so scared and intimidated! Even though I saw other muslims, and I knew they were on the same boat as me, but I felt like I was on a worse boat because at least people could see their faces. All of those things went through my mind. 

I would get so many questions from muslims and non- muslims alike, about why I wear the Niqab. I noticed muslim girls felt intimidated or insecure around me, because I wear the veil and they don't, or they don’t wear the hijab, so they thought I was judging them. So there was always that initial stigma about me. That I’m judging. There were many times in first year that I had to clarify that hey, me wearing this is my own choice. This is how i feel liberated and this is how I feel comfortable. I just can't take the world how you're taking the world. I’m proud of my look. When I meet people I learn about how to better myself and see the good in them and apply that in my own life. And I had to tell people this for them to understand me better. And at one point I was getting sick and tired of explaining myself, unfortunately there is that stigma, that just because i wear the veil, doesn't mean I'm better than anyone else. Especially compared to other muslim girls. And compared to non muslim people, many didn't know what it was. And it was really fun to explain to them what it was

So pretty much, your transition into University was not an easy one.

Yes, as surprising as it sounds for me personally, I did find it hard and I didn’t think the transition would be hard. I thought, I’ve been wearing the niqab for all these years, so it shouldn’t have been that hard.

Did you think it was hard because of what you were feeling inside or because of the signals you were getting from everyone else?

I know what I was feeling was a big part, but I was also observant about the signals I got. I remember when I sat down in science orientation and I asked someone a question and they gave me a weird look and didn’t respond. I had those weird interactions. I only went to my Science Frosh to check out some of the events, and I got weird smirks and people laughing, which was not what I was used to. I gave the benefit of the doubt, that hey there's people coming from other places besides Toronto, that aren’t used to diversity. It's their opportunity to see diversity and my opportunity to shift the perspective they initially had. 

Oh by the way, the people that made those rude and weird remarks are now really good friends of mine. 

Are you a part of any groups at Ryerson? 

I’m a part of the Science Launch Zone where I’m working on a Mental Health and Wellness Project. The aim is to alleviate the stigma of mental health and remove the taboo about discussing these vulnerable issues.  

*You can check out the project’s INSTAGRAM: @reclaim.yourself 

*There’s also an app coming out soon, so look out for that!

If you could describe the students at Ryerson in 3 words what would they be? 

Friendly, Approachable, Caring