Excerpt: Muslim American Women on Campus, by Shabana Mir

Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity, by Shabana MirShabana Mir’s powerful ethnographic study of women on Washington, D.C., college campuses reveals that being a young female Muslim in post-9/11 America means experiencing double scrutiny—scrutiny from the Muslim community as well as from the dominant non-Muslim community. Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life Identity illuminates the processes by which a group of ethnically diverse American college women, all identifying as Muslim and all raised in the United States, construct their identities during one of the most formative times in their lives.

Mir, an anthropologist of education, focuses on key leisure practices—drinking, dating, and fashion—to probe how Muslim American students adapt to campus life and build social networks that are seamlessly American, Muslim, and youthful. Mir concludes that institutions of higher learning continue to have much to learn about fostering religious diversity on campus.

In this excerpt (pp. 47-51), Mir explores the challenges Muslim American women face amidst the prevalence alcohol culture on college campuses.


Muslim Participation/Marginality in College Drinking Cultures

Fatima was an adventurous designer of third space identities, a non-hijabi who was at the same time religiously devout, socially liberal, sexually conservative, and politically aware. When Fatima entered the gates of Georgetown, having newly graduated from a strictly Islamic school, she was horrified to find that some of her Muslim friends drank alcohol. Though the overwhelming majority of Muslim theological opinion agrees that intoxicants (beer, wine, and inebriating drugs) are forbidden to adherents of Islam, this ban like most religious taboos is violated as well as observed. Such is also the case with Muslim American college students, men and women. Indeed, in the world of Georgetown, encountering another Muslim drinker was not a momentous discovery. In a world-weary monotone, Fatima said: “But now it’s just, ‘Oh, he drinks: OK, he’s another one among so many.’” As numbers are crucial in any cultural change, this is significant for the future of American Islam. Religious Muslim American students at Georgetown became more unconcerned with alcohol culture over time, even if they did not drink (and, in this book, I do not even deal with the large contingent of liberal postcolonial elites, students from Muslim countries who filled college bars). Fatima was a proud though jaded teetotaler, profoundly aware of the social consequences on campus of not drinking. I met many Muslims like her, and many unlike her. The contours of Muslim religious identity clouded over in the spaces of youth culture, pregnant with multifarious possibilities—drinking; not drinking; drinking with regular breaks for teetotalism; periods of drinking; hanging out with drinkers; avoiding any spaces with alcohol; and not drinking but passing as drinkers. Being Muslim in alcohol cultures is, like the Facebook status, complicated.

The extent to which my research participants self-identified as religious depended tremendously on how they related to drinking, dating, clubbing, and clothing. Alcohol was the most frequently mentioned obstacle to Muslim nondrinkers becoming “normal” on campus. It bears mention that the prohibition of alcohol is not the most central preoccupation in Islamic theology, but it is very prominent in the cultural production of Muslim religiosity. In the United States, it functions among other things as a form and a tool of resistance to majority behaviors that may lead to religious and cultural assimilation.

Alcohol (drinking, declining, or avoiding it) serves as an expressive principle that illustrates how Muslims walk a tightrope of identity construction in the United States. In this chapter, I examine how Muslim students’ participation in alcohol culture yielded status and emotional rewards while nondrinkers were poignantly uncertain regarding their placement by non-Muslim peers (Goffman 1963: 14[1]). Yasmin identified as an insider within campus culture because she was intimately familiar with alcohol culture. But Fatima’s marginality continued through the weekdays after the alcohol culture of weekends and evenings had passed. She remained within her peripheral spaces and reflected with trepidation on the prospect of similar marginality in her future workplace. Sarah managed to belong in alcohol culture on some level by extroverted sociability and dancing in nightclubs, but as a nondrinker, she was blocked from an additional layer of social intimacy at parties. And then at parties where “there’s so many people crammed into such a small space, and everyone has drinks,” for the tiny Sarah, alcohol was literally inescapable since “if you’re short, people like, run into you, their stuff is going to spill all over you.” As a certain quantity of alcohol spilled on it renders a garment impure for salaat, merely attending a party can become a symbolically abhorrent act by obstructing prayer and ritual purity.

College and Alcohol

Drinking together is valued social capital important for social success on campus. More socially acceptable than other drugs, alcohol is in its effects (getting buzzed, getting trashed, or acting drunk, etc.) public and social, and heavy drinking is “ritually scripted” (Hoyt Alverson cited in Brady 2005.[2]). A “buzz” is so important to sociability that underage students practice “pregaming,” drinking heavily before going out (Brady 2005), so they are not the only one at the party “without a good buzz” (Pederson and LaBrie 2008: 409[3]). The image of Georgetown and GWU students discursively portrayed in campus newspapers and student talk normalized the notion that students “work hard and play hard,” that “normal” students want to date and drink (Magolda 2000: 38–39[4]).

About 1,825 college students between eighteen and twenty-four years of age die from alcohol-­related injuries annually. Nondrinkers, too, suffer the “second-hand effects” of drinking: half of campus crime is linked to alcohol, and 97,000 students between eighteen and twenty-four years of age are victims of alcohol-­related sexual assault or date rape (NIAA 2012[5]). Among sexual assault victims, 55 percent had been drinking, as had 74 percent of campus perpetrators of sexual assault. Every year 159,000 freshmen drop out because of alcohol or drugs (Weitzman and Nelson 2004[6]; Wechsler et al. 2003[7]; Wechsler and Wuethrich 2002[8]). Despite all this, many universities accept money from the alcohol industry for campus alcohol-awareness programs, while claiming that they are addressing the problems (Wechsler 2002). University policies encourage individuals to drink responsibly and in moderation, yet dry social opportunities can be rare and university authorities frequently overlook violations.

The Narrow Path of Crazy Freedom

Campus leisure culture is centered on sociability at college bars, clubs, Greek housing, and campus parties—a core of “crazy,” or intense, hedonistic activities regarded as the pinnacle of college entertainment. Campus fun is not just any fun: it is a brand marketed and promoted to students by economic and cultural forces. These student consumers then narrate these experiences to perform specific constructions of “a fun person.” As a consumer of alcohol culture, Yasmin spoke caustically of the construction of college leisure as “marketed and packaged to us so we can consume large amounts of alcohol [and cigarettes].”

In my participants’ college experience, college seemed to mandate craziness; indeed, there was an unbending set of expectations at the heart of college fun. Overall, dangerous drinking and other risky behaviors tend to fade after college—usually. “Why are they here?” Yasmin wondered at the adults “stuck in their college years” and still hanging out at college bars. Mahnaz, a talented dance artist and a self-confessed “party girl,” claimed that she did not enjoy drinking but merely drank in fidelity to the total college experience. As we sat chatting in Red Square, Mahnaz mused that, since by then drinking had already facilitated her social networks, she no longer got trashed because she wanted to, but drank “more like a social, party, let’s-go-have-fun type thing.” Two years later and gainfully employed, Mahnaz drank the odd glass of wine while watching football but could not understand why she had enjoyed getting drunk in college. College students were free to go “crazy”; at the very least, they were freer to be crazy. Crazy fun was closely intertwined with individual freedom from parental monitoring. And religious Muslim American women were asked why, when college bestowed freedom from their parents and communities, they would not choose to fit in, become insiders, become normal, and have some crazy fun.

Not everyone responded positively to this newfound freedom from home communities and curfews. Once her college choice had released her from her small-town life and curfew, Sarah leaped with freshman enthusiasm into the social and leisure activities she had heretofore been denied. But under the hegemonic glare of “crazy” alcohol culture and without the buffer of a parental curfew, Sarah felt unable to choose to distance herself from peer leisure culture. Since she was a relatively liberal Muslim who aspired to be at the center of the action, Sarah’s resentment of leisure culture surprised me. Within the very embrace of that environment, where campus parties were “all just about drinking,” she experienced a new marginality. But the glorified liberty of campus culture meant that Sarah was free to occupy alcohol-oriented spaces repugnant to her—“you’re free to do whatever you want”—and what you don’t want. While non-Muslim American youth were free to do whatever they wanted, religious Muslims desired a freedom that was not so crazy. And they wanted a saner form of freedom without marginality.

Muslims who reported drinking during their high school days felt that they were freer to abstain as college students. The highly structured social world of minors is characterized by a lower degree of individual choice and is capable of being far more culturally homogenizing than college, despite the legal restrictions on minors. Faiyza and Heather, who used to drink (or had pretended to be drunk) at high school parties now felt that they had a newfound option to decline. Faiyza, a Pakistani American young woman in the premedical program, had never been to an MSA [Muslim Student Association] event. We met in a GWU classroom and hit it off immediately, as she regaled me with tales about how she used to drink to try to be like everyone else at her predominantly white high school. Then she graduated and joined her family, expatriates in the Middle East, for some time. She “really re-evaluated everything,” and came to both embrace and defend her difference after coming to college: “Because [now] I’ll talk more about Islam and stuff.” At college, where many Muslims felt that their religious backgrounds were objectified, Faiyza turned that overemphasis to her advantage. To Faiyza, a year in the Middle East gave her access to third spaces of identity and alternative identity models. She met and became friends with religious Western Muslim expatriates and discovered a way to seam the American and the Muslim together. Now comfortably a member of leisure culture, she became adept at interrogating her peers’ assumptions about Islam and the Muslim world, constructing third spaces of identity at college clubs and bars. At college, she tried drinking as a freshman but within a month lost interest in it. Faiyza’s prior exposure to crazy fun may have helped her get over it sooner. But to do so, it was important for her to have access to alternative freedoms and models of “healthy,” integrated Muslim American youth identities.

From Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity by Shabana Mir. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffe, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
  2. [2]Brady, Joann. 2005. “Binge Drinking Entrenched in College Culture.” ABC News, Good Morning America, September 7. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Health/story?id=1085909#.T7qekHlYuuE.
  3. [3]Pedersen, Eric R., and Joseph W. LaBrie. 2008. “Normative Misperceptions of Drinking among College Students: A Look at the Specific Contexts of Pre-partying and Drinking Games.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 69 (3): 406–11.
  4. [4]Magolda, Peter M. 2000. “The Campus Tour: Ritual and Community in Higher Education.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 31 (1): 24–46.
  5. [5]NIAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). 2002. A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges, http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/media/TaskForceReport.pdf. Accessed May 15, 2013.
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