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The Origin of the Academic Graduation Gown and the Irony of Islamophobia

Have you ever thought about why our graduation gowns look the way they do?

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Have you ever thought about why our graduation gowns look the way they do?

For most students ending one of the pinnacle landmarks of their educational journey, the graduation ceremony is one of the most exciting times of a student’s life. However, what we must understand is the origins of the classical “subfusc”, or academic gown, didn’t come from the neo-typical Western academical institutions. 

Typically, within commonwealth institutions, the academic dress initially was derived to mimic Oxford and Cambridge’s formal attire and has been a tradition as early as the 1600s. Traditionally it was used to showcase modest dress, resembling the attire of the clergy distinguished by being long and closed.

Dating as far back as when most states were not running in a secular fashion, (as they are today) the academic gown had, in fact, a religious sentiment behind it – and more surprisingly, the academic dress was meant to mirror the Arabian thobe.

Many people don’t delve into the history behind such a common dress, but it is worth noting that the styled dress originated in Fez, Morocco. The oldest university in the world is currently operational today in Morocco and is known as Al-Qarawiyyan University. The exact traced date of its origin goes as far back as 895 CE, founded by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri. She used her inheritance to form a large mosque with an associated school, thus ending up becoming one of the first higher education centers to exist. 

With its initial launch, the university ended up attracting many Western students, and during the Islamic Golden Age, having such an education bolstered the evolution of medicine, technology, and religious studies alike. 

It is said that even the cap’s shape and string attached to the robe appear to mimic the Quran, with a bookmark on it. One should consider the Islamic Golden Age to be one of the most influential periods to promote Islamic education. 

Famous intellectual scholars like the Dutch orientalist Jacob van Gool, a mathematician, astronomer, and traveler, studied in one of these institutions, and upon his return he helped make the dress symbolize a student’s academic achievement. 

And not much has changed – the cap and gown style is universally still used for graduation ceremonies to this very day. 

The Irony of Islamophobia

Now, after the impressive deep-dive into Islam’s role in bolstering and prompting higher education, a huge irony of Islamophobia and Muslim prejudice still exists within the UK and its educational institutes … Let’s dive into statistics! 

A study conducted by Birmingham University found that Islamophobia is heavily present in Britain’s social groups, being more notorious amongst more affluent classes (23.2% harboring prejudiced views about Islamic belief) – this is despite anti-Islamophobia campaigns having been embraced and championed ferociously over the last decade. 

In fact, the boom of modern-day tech (like TikTok) has allowed influencer culture to be more vocal about anti-Islamic prejudice, being the most active amongst younger groups, typically of university age.

But sadly, even with the rise of Muslim celebrities and Islamic activism, Muslims are the UK’s second ‘least liked’ group, after Gypsy and Irish Travelers, with 25.9% of the British public feeling negatively towards Muslims. Another study in 2017, conducted by The National Union of Students, found that one in three Muslim students experienced some kind of abuse or crime on campus. 

It is unfortunate that such numbers exist within the higher educational setting, considering that higher education built its foundations in the Islamic world. Efforts made by students within higher education have been actively trying to promote awareness to highlight the issue that shouldn’t be a problem in today’s day and age. Hamza Rehman, Vice President and Postgraduate Officer at Warwick Students Union, spoke about his own experiences, dictating that many slurs and comments have been made toward him due to his religious and cultural background. 

We should note that despite the diversity quotas increasing along with modest dress being more and more accepted, we should be aware of the fact that Islamophobia is still a pressing issue within Britain’s educational institutions.


 References

Students and Academic Dress

 Graduation Garments in Islamic History 

University of London: Origins of University Costumes 

Early Academic Dress: The Gown 

Birmingham Survey Reveals Islamophobia is the Posh Persons Prejudice 

Coventry News: Islamophobia 

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