Conversations about identity – Leadership Network member shares her story

When the March 2019 terror attacks happened in Christchurch, Leadership Network member Arina Aizal decided not to shy away from the public but to instead reach out and share her experiences of being Muslim in New Zealand. Last year, the Foundation named Arina as one of the 25 young people excelling in building ties between New Zealand and Asia.

Arina: “...stepping up to share my culture to the world, when Muslims were the centre of attention... was a big step I knew I had to make.”

You couldn’t have blamed her if she’d opted for anonymity. Instead, as New Zealand’s Muslim community reeled from the horrific Christchurch mosque terror attacks, Arina Aizal introduced herself to the world.

Using YouTube and Instagram, blog posts and video uploads, the University of Otago student started conversations about her cultural and religious identity, and she developed an impressive online following. 

“For a few weeks, going out of my room wearing the hijab became something so foreign, when in fact I had been wearing it for a few years without that feeling of alienation. 

“So, stepping up to share my culture to the world, when Muslims were the centre of attention and one of the only things being talked about in the news, was a big step I knew I had to make.”

By sharing her personal experiences as a Muslim living in New Zealand, Arina sought to open up the world of Islam to help others better understand it, and to make herself feel more understood. 

Grappling with issues of identity and belonging isn’t new for Arina. 

At 10 years old, she moved with her family from her native Malaysia to Dunedin, for her father’s studies. 

She made friends from all over during her stint at a Kiwi primary school – she became used to being around people of different cultures, and she embedded pieces of “Kiwi culture” in her Malaysian self, she says.

“When my family had to return, I experienced reverse culture shock. I had a hard time fitting in with my friends and classmates back home.” 

Arina and a man on stage talking to an interviewer

Arina talking at the New Zealand International Education Conference about being an international student, ambassadors for ENZ, her work and goals

Today, with insights garnered from a global studies paper she took this semester, Arina describes her bi-cultural identity using the analogy of looking through coloured lenses. 

“Before I went to New Zealand, the ‘lenses of my glasses’ were blue. When I came to New Zealand, it added a new colour – which is red. My glasses then became purple.

“That is what migration does to you. It broadens your understanding about the world and changes your perspective of things.” 

So, how does she label herself? 

She can’t – Being at once Malaysian and Kiwi is something she will always juggle, she says. 

“Once I accepted this, I realised it was much easier for me to navigate myself between my two worlds. I feel at home with the people I am with, not the countries.” 

After graduating high school in Malaysia in 2016, Arina returned to New Zealand for university.

She opted to take a gender studies paper about sexuality, to bulk out her first year of a planned degree in anatomy, figuring she should take advantage of study topics less available in Malaysia. 

The decision motivated her to change tack, and she’s set to graduate in December with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Gender Studies. 

She’s passionate about sexual violence prevention – it’s been a focus of her studies and she’s volunteered for Rape Crisis Dunedin and Thursdays in Black, both organisations working in this space.

“I want a world where women – and men – can feel safe. 

“When I graduate, I hope to land somewhere, working in New Zealand, and contribute in the path of empowering women and sexual violence prevention.” 

University is about more than just study, though. Arina has involved herself in student politics – supporting and advocating for international students as their elected representative on the University of Otago Student Union. 

With Covid, it’s been a tough gig: While Kiwi flatmates dip in and out of family life, border closures have forced international students to stay in New Zealand if they want to continue their studies.

Many of her peers are feeling homesick, and financial strain and mental health issues are common, she says. 

Arina holding a 25 to Watch certificate with Rt Hon Winston Peters

Arina was chosen as one of the Foundation's '25 to Watch' for her work advocating for international students

Last year, the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono included Arina in its ‘25 to Watch’ – an impressive cohort of young people who are contributing to New Zealand-Asia relations.

“I believe the 25 to Watch are part of that group because we all have a strong drive and bravery to make changes in the world, in our own ways.”

She’s also joined the Foundation’s Leadership Network.

It’s providing opportunities for her to connect with and learn from inspiring young people, who bring refreshingly different perspectives while having similar goals for both New Zealand and Asia, she says.

“I bring the voice of a migrant, who wants to inspire women of culture to speak up - I want to create spaces in this world to make it safer for them to do so.

“I want to inspire women from different cultural backgrounds to empower each other because, like everyone else, there should not be anything restricting us from achieving our goals.”