Photo; Simona Evstatieva

‘People seem to be mostly interested in my horrible experiences’

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Too often, the label of ‘pitiable’ is forcibly applied to minority groups, says Master’s student of Gender Studies Simone Zalla Aumaj (25). But Simone isn’t pitiable, she says. She’s a strong woman, who uses the trauma of her Afghanistan-born parents and other minorities to improve the world – starting at the university. “Utrecht University shouldn’t just be thinking about how to attract a diverse group of students, but also how to retain them.”

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Who’s telling my story? That’s the name of the exhibition Simone Zalla Aumaj organised in March 2019 in the University Hall. In the exhibition, the Master’s student of Gender Studies offered a platform to students who ‘don’t fit the standard’ of people at the university. One international student, for example, wrote a poem about feeling at home in Dutch (student) culture; a student who identifies as neither male nor female created a self-portrait, and another student recreated a painting of an enslaved woman and her white mistress, but in reversed positions.

Art is one of the ways Simone wants to keep the conversation about diversity and inclusivity going. She says there’s quite a lot of work to be done in this area. “When I started my studies, I immediately felt I didn’t fit the standard, as a daughter of two Afghan refugees. I didn’t recognise myself in fellow students, the study association, the teachers, or the curriculum. I did visit the study association a few times, but I didn’t feel at home there. They made jokes there, for example, about people with a background similar to mine. Apparently, my fellow students felt comfortable enough to do so in my presence, because they saw me as an exception to the group they were joking about.”

Inclusivity is daring to make decisions that are only important to a small group of people

Simone: “That’s why Utrecht University shouldn’t just be thinking about the question of how to attract a diverse group of students, but also about how to retain them. That means being flexible, and daring to adjust the way things have always been.” The pilot with gender-neutral bathrooms is a good example, Simone thinks. “The pilot shows there’s hope for the future, because the UU is acting on a sensitive issue.” But at the same time, the fact that a year later, the results of the questionnaire about the gender-neutral bathrooms still aren’t known, confirms Simone’s suspicion that the university is afraid of the diversity discussions, and of friction. “I can imagine that it’s hard to defend doing something for ‘just a handful of people’, but that’s exactly what inclusivity is. Inclusivity is daring to make decisions that are only important to a small group of people, so you can get everyone involved.”

Simone disagrees with people who state the university shouldn’t promote inclusivity, as that would be at odds with the institute’s neutrality. “That’s so heavy to me. I think that as a university you should indeed take a (political) position, otherwise you’re condoning the status quo. Aside from that, the university is a place where societal issues should be questioned, and not avoided.”

Her dream would be to become a professor who builds bridges between societal challenges on the one hand, and academic research on the other. An example in that area is professor Halleh Ghorashi of the VU University Amsterdam, for whom she works as a research assistant. “She doesn’t just produce theory, but she wants her research to have an impact on society. Halleh Ghorashi does this with her project: Engaged Scholarships: Narratives of Change in a Comparative Perspective. With this, she creates a connection between the institute and the societal stakeholders. She aims to increase inclusivity for marginalized groups in the Netherlands, United States, and South Africa.”

My sisters felt I should have a Dutch name

For her efforts, Simone received (link in Dutch, ed.) this year's ECHO award for students from non-Western backgrounds who distinguish themselves through study achievements and social engagement. Simone’s motivation of fighting for minorities stems from the appreciation she has for her parents. “By fleeing Afghanistan and completely upending their lives, my parents gave me the opportunity to make something of my life. It feels like I’d be nullifying all that effort if I didn’t try my hardest to accomplish something in society. My parents, and a larger community of minorities along with them, each have a story about the way they’ve tried to shape their lives in the Netherlands, and how they faced hurdles of connection here. I want to transform their experiences of pain and sadness, their trauma, by fighting for minorities.”

Still, it’s not just her parents who are dealing with trauma: Simone herself deals with trauma, too. “I think that’s unavoidable. There’ve been tons of studies on how trauma is passed on to children. My parents, for instance, always emphasised to me that in the eyes of the Dutch, I’ll always be a migrant. I didn’t believe that at first. I thought: I was born here, and I don’t know any other country but the Netherlands. But they’d already experienced that it didn’t matter that they were a veterinarian and a pharmacist, people couldn’t see beyond the fact that they looked different and spoke with an accent. They were treated and talked to differently than white people. And my sisters, who are 7 and 10 years older than me, had also experienced being bullied and beaten up because of where they come from. It was my sisters who’d told my parents to give me a Dutch name to prevent the same thing from happening to me.”

Conversations about diversity require a lot of patience

“Of course it’s painful and confronting if your parents tell you from a young age on that you’ll never truly fit in. But if they hadn’t done that, the blow might’ve come at a later age. Now, it’s mostly served as a motivation to always take an extra step. And I hope that the next generation won’t have to anymore.” Still, she did have similar experiences to those of her parents and sisters. In primary school, following 9/11, she was suddenly called a terrorist, and in secondary school, the bomb jokes were plenty. The first time she was called a terrorist is imprinted in her mind. “That was intense.” But they’re experiences she doesn’t want to dwell on for too long.

“Sometimes I’m invited to talk about diversity at the university, but people mostly seem to be interested in my ‘horrible experiences’. They’ll ask me whether I can talk about all the times I’ve felt excluded. Sometimes, it seems as though people mostly just want my story to be as sad as possible. As if people don’t feel the need to fight for diversity and inclusivity quite as much if I’m not just a second-generation migrant, but also a strong woman. It’s like they don’t know what to do with you then. Do they still have to help me? But I don’t go to meetings like that to tell a sad story. I want to share my ideas about policy.”

“Conversations about diversity require a lot of patience. There are days on which I think: why am I doing this, if nothing’s changing? It truly takes a lot of time and energy to let people understand the necessity of diversity and inclusivity. It’s also a sensitive and strategic process. You can’t just sit at the table and share your opinion, because that often closes doors. If I notice ignorance in people, I often go back to a moment in which I myself was confronted with something I hadn’t been aware of before. To me that’s the issue of people who identify as neither male nor female. I didn’t understand that immediately, and it left me with so many questions. It required a transition. So in my talks, I sometimes go back to that moment. I think by doing so, I take my conversation partners with me on a process of growth, instead of forcing them to become defensive by telling them they’re wrong.”

This is the last article Annelies Waterlander wrote as an editor of DUB. We wish her all the best in her new job as press officer of the UU.
 

Who are the Promising Fifteen of 2019?

Mid-December, DUB will present the third edition of the ‘Promising Fifteen’. Which fifteen UU students were remarkable in 2019 because of their athletic achievements, studies, volunteer work or other reasons? Until that time, we’ll give a sneak peek every week by publishing an extensive interview with one of the students we chose. This article about Simone is the last of those. Read the interviews or check out the fifteen students who were promising in 2017 (in Dutch, ed.) and 2018.

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