Interview: Shabana Mir on College Experiences of Muslim American Women

Shabana Mir, author of Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity, discusses the everyday lives of these women on campus and the challenges and choices they face.

Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity, by Shabana MirQ: Your book focuses on women on two Washington, D.C., college campuses—Georgetown and George Washington University (GWU). Why did you choose these colleges, and do you think they are representative of average American college campuses?

A: Research is a messy endeavor. Like all human activity, research is shaped and colored by circumstances and context. It’s rare that researchers choose sites purely based on how representative they are of the populations or phenomena under study. Feasibility is a primary factor in site selection. Georgetown and GWU together offered me somewhat similar (yet different) research environments that were rich in potential for in-depth study of Muslim Americans’ post–9/11 identities in the United States. But they also offered me geographic locations that were relatively accessible by subway and bus—I had no car—and they were close enough to each other that I could spend time at each during the course of a single day. I could focus my physical and intellectual energies on ethnographic fieldwork. I was interested in the culture of the metropolitan university, which each of these universities offered but in a peculiarly distinct manner. Many Muslim American Georgetown students socialized with their counterparts at GWU and vice versa, and students at each school had some things to say about the other campus. Of course I could have selected a single campus, or a private and a public university, but the choice of two roughly similar institutions that had key differences in their religious-secular and cultural orientations, and that tended to enroll students of roughly similar class background, allowed for some fascinating comparative work. I enjoyed the research process immensely.

Q: Did you find that most of your subjects made a conscious choice to be “Muslim American” women?

A: Recently, I took (and passed) my citizenship test, and the interviewer asked me if I had a middle name. When I said no, she asked if I wanted to change my name. Hmm, I thought, am I supposed to, to become an American? For many Americans, including those born and raised here, there’s an assumption that they must prove just how American they are. My research participants felt that way much of the time, but those who practiced certain kinds of behaviors—drinking, dating, dressing in mainstream Western fashion—felt the pressure less. Diya was relatively indistinguishable from her White American friends in terms of lifestyle, but then she came under question for just how Muslim she was. If she didn’t wear hijab, was she a nominal Muslim? Amber, a hijabi, was on the other hand perpetually being required to speak up for Muslims in classroom discussions on Islam and terrorism, or Islam and gender. Almost all of my research participants felt that because of the pervasive nature of Muslim stereotypes, they were always or often having to prove that they were really American, normal, empowered, peaceful Muslims.

Q: Did the women in your book have a hard time combining their “Muslim” and “American” identities? Did they have to resolve conflicts between the two?

A: My participants knew that observers and others thought that their “Muslim” and “American” identities were in perpetual conflict. None of them said that they experienced this conflict. Where they saw conflict was in the way others saw what it means to be “American” and “Muslim.” In other words, if you think an “American” young person is a White, Christian person who drinks at college then, yes, there is conflict between being “American” and an observant Muslim. There are certainly plenty of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Christians who do not participate in hedonistic youth culture, and plenty who do. When we assume that an “American” and/or a “Muslim” has an “essence” that is religious or irreligious, liberal or conservative, etc., that is when we engage with the problem of conflict between these incommensurable identities. Intisar (a Somali-American student), for instance, is personally comfortable with praying in the prayer-room as well as attending a dance show; Teresa, a White convert, is comfortable with being an observant Muslim as well as smoking; but neither of them is comfortable being seen doing these “conflicting” things. The problem is not in being this complicated person. The problem is that the observer just can’t take it all in. These real, complicated, mixed people simply do not compute.

Q: What makes the situation of being a young Muslim woman in America distinct from that of a young Muslim man?

A: That’s a topic for another research study, which I’d love to do. Centuries of Orientalist literature, art, theology, and politics have focused on the characters of the brutal, sexist, terrifying Muslim male and the oppressed, hyperfeminine, silent Muslim female. You would think that preppie, middle-class Muslim women would escape these stereotypes—after all, times have changed!—but they don’t. Muslim males face both similar and different issues. As Muslims, both men and women are perceived as frightening and Other; but men are perceived as far more scary than women. Men are more likely to be profiled as terrorists. Women can be profiled in this way too, but they are also likely to be pitied, infantilized, and hyperfeminized as being oppressed, immobile, shy, and underdeveloped as persons.

Q: What were some of the struggles and problems that students confront as Muslims on American college campuses?

A: This was a surprise to me. When I was analyzing hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, I discovered that the one thing that all my participants mentioned was alcohol culture. They talked about the pervasiveness of alcohol culture on campus, whether they drank or not; they talked about how they dealt with drinking situations, and how their approaches to alcohol culture compared with other Muslim Americans’ behaviors. Drinking and being “cool” with alcohol culture seemed to be quite central to being a normal, American college student. Not drinking and not being cool with alcohol were seen as weird, overly religious, and foreign to their peers.

Some Muslim Americans “passed” as drinkers or as “down” with alcohol culture. What this shows us is: a) drinking culture, which is seen as a medium of sociable entertainment, can actually be an uncomfortable, awkward, and oppressive place for many college students; b) that campus culture can be overbearing for many college students’ identity work, forcing them to perform personae that are cool, hip, and “normal”; and c) that such performances represent a conflict between people’s real selves and the conformity that seemingly diverse and free cultures demand.

Q: Did you find a hopeful trend of people becoming more accepting of one another’s differences?

A: Yes and no. I found that some age-old assumptions still hold. But those who are typically considered “different,” i.e. non-Anglo and non-Christian people, have strategies to educate the majority into not only recognizing minorities but also stretching the boundaries of what is “normal” and who is “us.” For quite some time now, anthropologists and sociologists have been studying what happens between population groups that hold social, economic, and cultural power and legitimacy and those that don’t. My work is in that tradition. Historically, many social scientists believed that, if they were lucky, minorities typically “dissolved” like sugar into the majority and, over time, became fairly unrecognizable as distinct population groups. Today we know that not only is immigration a process by which diasporic groups become more conscious of their distinguishing factors (cultural, religious, etc.), but that being a minority is a process that makes these groups. When you keep calling someone a particular name, that name sticks, and often, they adopt it too. When Muslim Americans are identified primarily by their religion, this becomes an even more significant identifier than before.

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 Shabana Mir  is assistant professor of global studies and anthropology at Millikin University. Her book Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity is available now.