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© Neena Bhandari, Women's Feature Service

ImageNeven Bondokji, 29, from Jordan, chose Australia over the United States and the United Kingdom as her favoured destination for study because she found the country "safer and less discriminatory towards Muslims".

"As a Muslim woman wearing the scarf, studying, living and working in Sydney has been very comfortable because of its multicultural ambience. It makes my family in Jordan comfortable, too, that I am not alone - on campus or in the streets with a scarf," says Bondokji, who is doing a Doctorate in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

For her, simple things like having a prayer room on campus or the concerns of Muslim students being addressed in student publications have made her feel "welcomed in this country".

In 2008, there were 435,263 international students from 200 countries enrolled in Australian educational institutes, making education the third largest export industry worth AU$16 billion (US$1=AU$1.23), according to Australian Education International.

The urban flair and cost-effectiveness, as well as the international quality of education, has made Australia an attractive destination for students from every nationality to study, live, work and even migrate.

"Studying in Australia has opened my eyes to different experiences and world views. Here, I have met more Asians, Pacific Islander and South Americans than I would have in the UK, and that has given me an insight into people from other cultures," says Bondokji, who is on an Australian Government scholarship for international postgraduate research students.

She also receives a living allowance scholarship from the University, which pays for her accommodation, and works to meet her other expenses. "I live in a women's boarding with 40 other students on a poorly lit road, next to a deserted motel where drug addicts abound," says Bondokji, who has devised her own ways to be safe. For instance, she hides all her valuables and alters the route she takes home each night after work.

While Bondokji has never faced racism, she has had her moments of alienation. "As a woman, living alone and wearing the scarf, people are sometimes hesitant to talk to me. This is a very alienating feeling, but it is mainly because there are many negative stereotypes about Muslim women. On the streets people might stare at me if I'm doing something they assume that a Muslim woman will not do like shopping for lingerie or going to the Mardi Gras gay and lesbian parade," says Bondokji.

In 2008, the largest cohort of international students was from China, accounting for 22.2 per cent of all overseas students; India was next at 17.3 per cent. China had 52.4 per cent female overseas students compared to 47.6 per cent males, while India had 24.5 per cent females compared to 75.5 per cent males.

Dongping Huang, 33, from China is doing a Master of Education at Melbourne's La Trobe University. She says, "Melbourne with its green environs and multicultural feel is one of the most suitable cities for an international student to live in. I chose La Trobe for its highly reputed faculty and international quality teaching at a competitive fee."

Initially the going was tough for Huang. "My English was not good enough to follow lecturers and communicate with other students. Also, the transition from Chinese style 'Lecturer-centred' and 'examination-oriented' learning to the more open Australian style posed challenges. In China, one seldom questions or disagrees with the lecturers, but here we have open discussions, tutorials and group work. During my first group discussion, I couldn't understand why mypeers were arguing on a topic instead of looking up the textbook for the answer. I did not realise that arguing is a way of learning," says Huang, who despite the challenges has never felt discriminated.

But she worries about the crime. "There is a lot of alcohol and drug-related crime here and I am cautious while walking by myself at night in the city near pubs. I also keep a distance from miscreants on public transport," she says.

Last year, female international students accounted for 44.3 per cent compared to 55.7 per cent males. This was primarily due to a high proportion of male students from the Indian sub-continent. In contrast, nearly two-thirds or 65.5 per cent of Japanese students were female, but there were only 5.1 per cent female students from Egypt.

Yasmine Fathy, 28, from Egypt is doing a Masters in Journalism at University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). "I went to the American University in Cairo, which has a similar style of learning to Australia, so I didn't struggle at all. I also found everyone to be very helpful," says Fathy, who arrived here in 2006 and had worked as a journalist in Egypt for the Al Ahram Weekly.

Reveals Fathy, "I generally feel very safe in Australia as a woman. I did experience some racism as an Arab Muslim, but it was in an office setting and although it upset me very much, it wasn't threatening in any way. However, I look more Indian than Egyptian and most people in Australia think I am Indian. So the recent attacks on Indian students have scared me and I do feel quite worried now."

Attacks, sometimes violent, on Indian overseas students in Melbourne and Sydney, have created a furore in India, threatening Australia's education market and straining bilateral ties between the two countries.

Payel Banerjee, 19, who came to Melbourne from Mumbai in 1992 and is doing a science degree at Melbourne's Monash University, put it this way, "This country is very accepting of people from other countries and is eager to share Australian values and in return experience other cultures. The recent attacks are deplorable, but Indian international students are more vulnerable because they live in far away, cheap and sometimes "unsafe" suburbs. They travel late at night on public transport and walk home."

In 2008, young men were nearly four times as likely to be victims of robbery as women and 48 per cent of all robberies occurred on a street, while 22 per cent occurred at retail premises such as malls, chemists, service stations, restaurants and supermarkets, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

But most overseas female students believe that Australia offers an all-encompassing learning experience. Belen Beccar Varela, 26, from Argentina who is studying Behavioural Science (psychology) at Flinders University in Adelaide, remarks, "I have enjoyed the challenge of learning English here. Sometimes people ask me about my background, but in a respectful way. I feel very safe and at ease."

But there is also a general recognition that life for an international student can be very tough. "We have many challenges on our plate - survival, food, accommodation, cost of living, transport, excelling in our studies, visa issues, family, culture, religion - and we try to balance them as best as we can without losing anything that defines us," says Shireen Fernandez from Malaysia. Fernandez is doing a Masters in International Communications and International Relations at Sydney's Macquarie University.

Acutely aware of what she has at stake by coming here, and the sacrifices of loved folks back home to make it possible, Fernandez - like the hundreds of her counterparts - is determined to make the most of her time in Australia.

Ultimately for women students, it is about achieving the best outcome that will enable them to succeed in the globalised world we live in today. 

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any www.india-voice.com content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated. 

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