Being Muslim on Campus: Pressures and Possibilities

In light of recent political events, The Atlantic published an article on The Muslim Student’s Burden in the Wake of Terror, noting how Muslim students are under pressure to respond to international events.  As I read the article, I found myself thinking about Shabana Mir’s (2014) ethnography, Muslim American Women on Campus, and the burden on her subjects. Mir studied Muslim American female undergraduates at Georgetown and George Washington universities, zooming in on their social lives from 2002 to 2003.

Like the students in The Atlantic article, these women, too, are burdened with responding to certain pressures, albeit of a different kind. More specifically, they are burdened with responding to social pressures within what Mir describes as a “hedonistic” campus culture. Her research offers insight into what these students perceive to be “normal” campus behavior, as they navigate three arenas of campus social life: alcohol, attire, and dating. They struggle to construct authentic identities, and often end up either compromising their religious principles or feeling denied social access.

This much is clear: the struggles these women experienced were real. They faced both internal and external scrutiny being visibly Muslim through their attire and religious observances (or lack thereof). To Mir’s credit, this is a valuable contribution in understanding how American Muslim students, especially women, negotiate identity on college campuses.

However, I wondered if the pressures these women reacted to were magnified in their minds and whether their perceptions of themselves might have been skewed, affecting their ability to feel authentic and valuable in their respective contexts. In particular, I thought about why a more empowering picture of these young women did not emerge. We learn little about who these women are or have the potential to be and more about who they are not or cannot be – all in relation to what they perceive to be “normal” college behavior.

We learn they cannot successfully and comfortably socialize in a club or bar, and that they are asked awkward questions about their head covering or relationship practices. But we do not know much about what their majors are, what their achievements and contributions are in the academic setting, what other extracurricular activities they are involved in (if any), what their interests and passions are, what their future goals are and how they hope to get there.

Mir notes that all her subjects were academically and professionally motivated, and most had a strong grasp on their potential career trajectories. These factors, though, were “not at the heart of their Who am I journeys” (2014, 25-27). Why not? Why not a focus on the prospects? What about other facets of their being? I wasn’t sure if they failed to consider these factors, or if Mir did; but had either of them sufficiently examined other layers of their experiences, could the discourse be framed in the context of possibilities? Would we then see a more empowering picture emerge? Perhaps.

As Mir herself writes, treating “our identities as complex, simultaneous, and seamless…opens up multiple possibilities of identities” (2014, 177). In focusing on the pressures, whether real or perceived magnified, I wonder what possibilities are lost.

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