Drinking, dating and hijabs: The perils of college life for Muslim women

I climbed out of the car and heard the raucous laughter and booming music spilling out of the open windows and doors of the house party. My Christian and Jewish friends and I were welcomed as the innocent, new freshmen on campus. Red cups full of beer were passed around; I shook my head when one came my way. The guy holding it glanced at me with hazy eyes. “What?! No beer?” he said incredulously. “No, not for me!” I yelled back at him over the music. He shook his head dumbfounded and moved on to a more willing participant.
Despite my reluctance to attend, I knew showing up to these parties was a path to acceptance by my non-Muslim peers. On the nights I chose to join them, I was the designated driver amongst my tight-knit group, driving my drunk friends to their college dorms and apartments. I created this niche for myself in my new environment. I made decisions that reflected what I thought was best for me at the time, but those growing pains were challenging and complicated.

Shabana Mir’s book “Muslim American Women on Campus” brought back these memories of my college days. Between August 2002 and May 2003, Mir, an Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology at Millikin University in Illinois, conducted over 120 interviews with twenty-six Muslim female undergraduates, evenly split between two universities in Washington, D.C.– Georgetown University and George Washington University. The women were given pseudonyms so they could freely express their angst and anxiety over trying to fit into a college lifestyle that, in many ways, conflicted with their Islamic identity. These interviews became the basis of Mir’s book “Muslim American Women on Campus.”

During her conversations with these young women, Mir uncovered the unique struggles Muslim women face in a college environment. She noted one phenomenon in particular—because the post 9/11 political climate encouraged the use of Orientalist stereotypes to label Muslim women, and because social and leisure activities on college campuses have always marginalized Muslim students to some degree (think keg parties), the women Mir interviewed confessed to creating hybrid identities that were neither stereotypically American nor stereotypically Muslim. In order to escape being categorized as either the Muslim girl desperate to fit in or as the quiet, anti-social Muslim girl who rejects all things American, these college students carved out a third space for themselves. They used the cultural resources as their disposal, including Orientalist discourse and American popular culture, to reinvent their identities, and better represent their beliefs and personalities.

Some of the women used the Orientalist stereotype of how a Muslim woman looks and behaves to alter the perceptions of their peers. “In order to edit the image of a subjugated, immobile, timid, xenophobic Muslim woman, Muslim American women were obliged to first adopt that image and to work with it. The stereotype was unavoidable.” Amira was one of the woman who attempted this strategy. She maintained a “subtle and self-consciously mellow” identity that she had carefully crafted for her non-Muslim group because the range permitted a Muslim persona was narrow. She did not announce or vociferously promote her faith. For example, she would politely refuse alcohol when offered without drawing attention to herself. Yet however inconspicuous her practice of Islam, Amira remained a devoted Muslim. “It shows to these people who probably have this perception that all Muslim girls cover their heads, all Muslim girls don’t talk to people who are not Muslim that you can approach someone like me about it.”

Intisar is another example of someone who tried to carve out an identity that was neither stereotypically American nor stereotypically Muslim, but she found that sustaining this hybrid identity was no easy task. Intisar played college basketball and wore a hijab, a combination that both went against the Orientalist prototype of a Muslim woman and met the disapproval of her Muslim community (her mother included). Intisar hid her basketball elective course from her family, other Muslims and non-Muslims, but “the pressure to be an exemplary Muslim women bore down on Intisar. [After all] trailblazing entailed individual choices that were also collective community property.” During her sophomore year, Intisar quit playing basketball.

Mir’s research on Muslim college women’s struggle to whittle out an identity for themselves is one of the few of its kind. A quick read over the references shows that Mir has a vested and long relationship with the subject matter, and with this experience comes the important finding that women will create unique, multidimensional identities “with religious, ethnic, racial, and gendered aspects- that fly in the face of the identities expected of them both by many within Muslim communities (such as fellow Muslim students and families) and by those outside their communities (non-Muslim peers, college administrators).” Her assessment is on point and could be instrumental in creating college cultures that are inclusive rather than exclusive of this group.

She interviewed the women over ten years ago, but has kept in touch and become friends with some of them. Where are these women today? Have their identities solidified? Or, are they still grappling with aspects of it? If this study took place in 2014 would the participants of today have the same struggles?
Najiyah Khan is a staff writer for Altmuslimah and writes on a variety of topics, with domestic violence being her focus. She lives in the Washington DC area where she volunteers her time doing fundraising and outreach with numerous organizations.

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