MUSLIM AMERICAN WOMEN ON CAMPUS
By Shabana Mir
Univ. of North Carolina. 204 pp. $28
It should come as no surprise that being a Muslim American woman on an American college campus, surrounded by social pressures involving drinking and dating, makes for a complex young-adult experience. What’s surprising is that these conflicts are not much discussed.
Shabana Mir, who teaches global studies and anthropology at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., spent 10 months in Washington during 2002-03. She interviewed 26 Muslim American women at Georgetown and George Washington universities about how their choices concerning dating, alcohol and clothing made them feel around their non-Muslim peers. Each woman had her own way of melding her two modifiers into a “third space” that is “neither stereotypically American, nor stereotypically Muslim.”
One theme of the book is a subtle current of dismay on the part of non-Muslim students, who tended to be misinformed at best and fearful at worst about interacting with Mir’s subjects. Here is the author’s summation of what one young woman experienced after deciding to go to parties where there was drinking but not indulge in it herself: “Though Fatima optimistically assumed that her peers would respond to her compromise and ‘just accept’ her teetotalism, the tolerance proffered by her peers was far shallower than the acceptance they received from Fatima because of the cultural power differential.”
Mir also suggests that, too often, her subjects were put into what she calls “the diversity showcase,” in which they were “interrogated” about their decisions. Mir missed something, however, by not asking the Muslim American women how their religious beliefs informed their decisions. Rather, she focuses on what came after those decisions — that is, how the women tried to fit in with their non-Muslim peers.
The book may leave readers feeling confused about what it is young Muslim American women are seeking or needing from those peers. In any case, the reticence Mir found on both campuses is unfortunate in a university setting, where dialogue and mutual understanding should be the norm.