My book Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity focuses on Muslim undergraduate women in campus culture. I did over 18 months of research at Georgetown and George Washington Universities to research Muslim students’ experiences on campus, with a special focus on leisure culture and social lives.
In a political climate that often stereotypes Muslim women like myself, I became interested in Muslim women’s struggles to be understood by their peers and professors. As they pursue their education, their future careers, and connections with Muslim and non-Muslim others, they experiment with different ways of being Muslim, ethnic, cultural, American, connected, successful, and “normal”—and all at the same time. My research participants were young American women, who want to fit in, have successful careers, and to find “someone.” They are sometimes acidly realistic about the challenges they face, but they are also energetically idealistic in their desire to overcome these challenges and to change the realities that constrain them.
I wrote this book as an insider—a Muslim woman, an academic, and an immigrant.
The concept of Orientalism treats Muslims as static, essentialized entities. They are regarded as fanatical; they are all considered religious, – and when they’re religious that means they’re fundamentalists and fanatical. Through the perspective of Orientalism, Muslims are seen as anti-modern – which means that they are hostile to the present era and want to reconstruct a different time rather than live certain principles within this era – they are seen as ultra-traditional, xenophobic and anti-Western. Muslim women are seen as oppressed victims of Muslim men, and in need of being rescued by white people.
For example: it is common for people to assume that I am oppressed as a Muslim woman; if I am not, and if I am articulate and independent, they assume that I must be nominally Muslim and non-practicing; when they discover that I am a practicing Muslim, they are confused and want to know more about why on earth I choose to be a Muslim even though I am an assertive professional woman. Then when I tell them that being egalitarian and Muslim is not a strange thing, they put the burden of proof on me and want to know how I can prove this.
In my book, I discuss how Muslim American undergraduate women experience these same stereotypes. Muslim students are obliged to engage with Orientalist stereotypes and images in their identity formation.
But there is another problem. Many Muslims internalize Orientalist assumptions, and become intensely defensive, using Orientalist stereotypes as identity markers. The internal argument goes: if the West has turned to feminism, we Muslims and we Eastern people are regarded as sexist and patriarchal, well, that is where we stand, and we will defend this identity. Therefore, some Muslim college students represent themselves using mainly religious identities in accordance with the Orientalist assumption that Muslims are all religious people, and religion is all that defines them.
In my book, I show how drinking culture is at the core of the college experience. Therefore, a student’s choice to not drink puts her at the margins of campus culture. Even in a ‘dry’ campus, drinking norms are so much more powerful than the official world of policies that alcohol pervades many campus spaces where it is not supposed to be.
In my research, not drinking was a powerful indicator of Muslim religiosity. But non-drinkers were excluded from a level of camaraderie in campus social life, so Muslim women often stuck to Muslim-only social networks. Some Muslim undergraduates drank to acquire full participation in college leisure life. The central importance of alcohol in college culture is a signal that shows up the limitations of campus diversity.
I also show how Muslim women’s modest clothing falls into the margins of college culture. Muslim women in general and hijab-wearing women in particular resisted the stereotypes associated with modest clothes and hijab (the oppressed, foreign, anti-feminist, shy, or terrorist Muslim woman). As for women who did not wear hijab, they had to respond to another set of questions. College peers were surprised when hijabis did “ordinary” things (e.g. playing basketball), or when non-hijabis, for example, declined alcohol. Hijabis became the uncomfortably visible representatives who were obligated to answer a range of questions about Islam, Muslims, and Middle Eastern politics. At the same time, though, a hijabi was also considered overly religious, so she was considered too biased to be reliable. Hijab made a woman’s religious identity hyper-visible and turned hijabis into often unwilling warriors for Muslim identity and causes. During such times when the U.S. political climate is especially Islamophobic, visibly Muslim students can be at risk.
In my research, I found that at mainstream universities, Whiteness and secular-Christianity are dominant, and that pluralism is limited. Dominant majority culture minoritizes, marginalizes, and stereotypes non-Christian and non-white religious and cultural communities. An Orientalist bias about Muslims is embedded in broader American culture, reinforced by a broad range of forces and groups, including popular culture and the media (e.g. Hollywood, news networks such as CNN and Fox News), political authorities (e.g. Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, etc.), political and cultural pundits and commentators, and academics.
College students, as well as many faculty members, appear to have the same stereotypes and the same prejudices as the general culture. It is necessary for us to reexamine campus climate and campus culture. My ethnographic study of Muslim women students illustrates that we must be aware of demographic change on campuses and the nature of campus culture as experienced by Muslim students. Indeed, my study raises broader questions about how we think of campus communities and how our central social and leisure activities exclude large numbers of students. While drinking, for example, opens up spaces of camaraderie for drinkers, it also actively prevents the development of a more inclusive college culture, and prevents non-drinkers (such as Muslims) from building networks.
Dr. Shabana Mir is Associate Professor of Anthropology at American Islamic College, Chicago.