Shabana Mir was a doctoral candidate at Indiana University when she conducted an interview-based research study on American Muslim women college students at two East Coast universities, from October 2002 to May 2003. She repeatedly interviewed twenty-six American Muslim female undergraduates, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, over a period of eight months. She interviewed them once or twice every month. Participants spanned a variety of ethnic backgrounds and types of Islamic practice, which roughly represented the campus population. Mir interviewed sixteen South Asian Americans (eleven Pakistani-Americans, four Bangladeshi-Americans, and one Indian American), two Iranian-Americans (one of whom was half-Pakistani), two Arab-Americans (one Saudi-American and one Libyan-American), one Somali-American, two White Americans, one African-American, and one young woman of mixed race origin (African-American, Caribbean, and Puerto-Rican). Four of the participants were converts and the remaining twenty-two were of immigrant origin, but all had grown up in the U.S.
Mir interviewed my participants on questions of campus climate and identity. The aspects of identity covered by the interviews included religious, American, ethnic, gender, academic and (future) professional identities. Through this study, one of the issues Mir explored is what norms and practices of women’s dress develop in social contexts, are enforced, are embraced and/or rejected. She discussed how participants engage with the issue of clothing as a) American students b) Muslim women c) members of a racialized population d) members of a religious community that often tends to be more conservative than the average White American college student e) and young women that have the privilege of attending expensive private universities that specialize in grooming young people for leadership.
Mir investigated what types of dress are considered as “Islamic,” modest, “moderate” and risqué. She examined the young women’s discourse to ascertain the degree to which the headscarf is considered obligatory, unnecessary, intimidating and/or a matter of individual choice, and the ways in which this affects them personally.
As may be expected, these young women’s identities were not static. Their identities came into play in different contexts in different ways, like a deck of cards that they use according to the context. Nor are American Muslim women a monolithic population. They include persons with widely divergent religious and other identities, perspectives and agendas. At the same time they are poignantly aware of common stereotypes about them that Muslims are monolithic, pugnacious, terrorists, fundamentalist, uniformly religious, boring, and intimidating/intimidated. These stereotypes come through the interview data of even my most widely divergent participants, as do their constant efforts to prove that they are unlike these stereotypes—that they are different, they are empowered, assertive, fun, friendly, and strong women. In her research paper, Mir examined how these themes are played out in regards to the discourse surrounding clothing. She concluded the paper with policy recommendations for university administrators and academics. Dr. Bradley A. U. Levinson served as the faculty sponsor for this research.
At the time of this research, Mir wrote:
The Nigerian woman Amina Lawal was accused of adultery and sentenced to be stoned; Laura Bush called on America to liberate Afghan women from the blue burka; Asra Nomani demanded the right to pray in the main section of the mosque in a West Virginia town, and Irshad Manji’s book instantly became the talk of the town. These high-profile incidents have all served to reinforce that the “issue” of Muslim women is an American topic of debate. Muslim women are perceived as oppressed; it is believed that Islam and/or Muslim men in Muslim countries and Western communities restrict them to the private sphere and restrict their clothing, speech and activities.
My data indicates the symbolic importance of the headscarf for Muslim women in the U.S. When I started the study, eighteen of my participants did not wear the headscarf and eighteen wore it regularly. When I completed it, one had abandoned it with strong feelings of rejection for the practice. She remained a practicing Muslim, though some Muslims perceived her differently. Two participants started wearing the headscarf by the time I completed the study, and another has started to do so. Not surprisingly, the headscarf is a continuing theme of considerable importance in the interview data. Everyone has an opinion on the headscarf and on clothing in general. Most of the participants have fairly clear principles on the clothing they approve of and choose to wear. They also have arguments for those who disagree with them. There are a number of women who feel that the “hijabis” have certain negative characteristics, and that the issue of clothing and the headscarf is over-emphasized. The headscarf and other aspects of clothing are seen as representative in different ways of Muslim women to non-Muslims and to Muslim men and other Muslim women. Particular types of clothing are seen as preventing (and therefore protecting or obstructing) women from activities such as going to clubs, dating, and drinking, but also as rendering their task of “representation” for their religious community more difficult.
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