University of Wisconsin–Madison

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH BLOG SERIES #6 – Muslim American women in college: Hypervisible identities, invisible experiences

Guest contribution from Alexandra Pasqualone, Laela Arman, Rozan Deeb, Maleeha Chughtai, Khushbakhat Siddiqui, Brian Vivona, and Matthew Wolfgram

Female Muslim American college students in the United States, while attempting to navigate the standard demands of college life, are also confronted by bias, discrimination, and misconceptions that stem from global, domestic, and even localized understandings of Islam and Muslims where Islamophobia and anti-Muslim nationalism have shaped their daily experiences on American campuses.[1] The political context of the post-September 11th, 2001 “War on Terror,” and more recent Muslim travel ban initiated under the Trump administration, have escalated Islamophobic nationalist sentiment, as anthropologist Shabana Mir (2009) has described, entailing “a campaign of harassment and intimidation was let loose upon Muslims in the United States….”[2]

In this context of Islamophobic nationalism, the hypervisible religiosity of Muslim women who veil on college campuses in the United States is associated with heightened experiences of discrimination, othering, and stigmatization. The head covering is called a hijab and a Muslim woman who wear this covering are known as hijabi. Hijabis are targets of hypervisible scrutiny on campus. This scrutiny of female students’ gendered religious identity happens through calling-out, questioning, and gazing directed at them by their peers on campus. At the same time, in order to evade such scrutiny and to fulfil family care work obligations, students minimize their presence and pattern of engagement on campus. This process of religious minoritization on campus produces an ironic consequence; the more hypervisible become their gendered religious identities, simultaneously, the more invisible become their institutional experiences.

In this blog, we discuss consequences of this hostile political climate for Muslim American women college students, specifically we discuss how their identities are impacted by simultaneous experiences of hypervisibility and invisibility on campus. Following feminist and critical race theories[3] we consider this paradoxical hypervisibility/invisibility-making effect of religious minoritization to be central to the experience of being a Muslim American woman in college in the United States. Unfortunately, the multiple minoritization of Muslim American college students are escalating during the COVID pandemic, as female students struggle to manage increased family care responsibilities and other pressures.

This finding is based on a college student-engaged Participatory Action Research (PAR), in which four female Muslim American college students (Arman, Chughtai, Deeb, & Siddiqui) and their research mentors (Pasqualone, Vivona, & Wolfgram) interviewed 3 male and 18 female Muslim American college students at Metropolis State College (pseudonym MSC). MSC is a diverse, urban, regional public comprehensive university in a major midwestern city, which serves a majority of first-generation college students, immigrants, and students who transferred from community colleges in the city. The interviews shed light on how Muslim American students experience college in the United States.[4]

The hypervisibility of Muslim American women’s religious identity on campus

Generally, the students that we interviewed for this study reported that the MSC campus was a relatively safe and welcoming environment, and they especially appreciated the diversity of the student population on campus and the dedicated and talented teachers; some students even reported receiving complements on their hijab which was appreciated. However, this generally welcoming and inclusive environment was not always the case. For Muslim American women who wear a hijab, the hypervisibility of their religion on campus leads to heightened attention and scrutiny of both their gender and religious identity. Veiled Muslim women, specifically, are targeted due to their “loud identities” where they are often recognized first by their clothing[5]. As Mrayan and Saleh have explained, “Veiled female students are easily identified as Muslim and are more susceptible to prejudices, discrimination, and having to confront stereotyping.”[6] Students sometimes struggle to negotiate their religious identity on campus, as conflicts arise when trying to balance university expectations with Muslim values.[7]

Many of the students in our sample associated wearing the hijab with “portraying modesty,” as one student explained, which they believed to be a central virtue of their Muslim faith. In our sample of 18 female students at MSC, 10 wear a hijab on campus, 5 did not, and 3 formally wore a hijab but stopped doing so because of bulling and harassment directed at their gendered, Muslim identity. Of the three men in our sample, only one wears a long beard, a traditional and common identity maker of traditional masculine piety.

The students in our sample reported such experiences of harassment and violence occurring in the communities surrounding MSC. Hijabis in our sample have occasionally experienced verbal harassment such being called-out as “terrorist” or threats of physical violence such as men threatening to pull off a hijab, in the communities surrounding MSC. Kinza, for example, described the persistent calling-out in the common spaces of her high school by white male peers: “What’s up with the curtain drapes on your head;” “Do you wash the thing on your head or do you just wear it dirty every single day?;” “Are you carrying a bomb under there?” Another student, Alisa, stopped wearing her hijab after repeated harassment in the community resulted in a dramatic event at the gas station, when a group of men told her “take that thing off,” and gesturing and threating to douse her in gasoline and set her on fire.

Thankfully, the students in our sample did not report instances of harassment and violence on campus, and they generally reported feeling that MSC was a diverse and welcoming place. On the MSC campus, however, Muslim American students in our sample reported feeling scrutinized by their peer’s extended gazing and persistent questioning about the gendering of their Muslim identity. The students explain the feeling of hyperawareness of being watched on campus, and express frustration with the extra-attention and a desire to “just blend in”; as Noor explained,

I feel like sometimes it could get a bit, I don’t know, you just kind of want to blend in. You don’t want to stick out. You just want to be like any other person. And sometimes when you do like labs and you have stuff in your hands, and your hijab is kind of getting in the way.

Persistent questioning about the hijab is another common experience on campus, as Kinza explained:

Yeah, I’ve had situations where a lot of people were like –oh, so you guys never show your hair right? Not even at home, right? And I was like, no, that’s not how our religion works. We can take off our hijab when we go home; we don’t shower with our hijab on. It’s just telling people that they have that wrong impression or that wrong understanding.

Despite these challenges experienced by female Muslim students on campus, the interviews with students point to some sources of the solidarity and support on campus. For example, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) is a student organization at MSC that provides support from Muslim American students, and provides cultural programing on campus regarding Muslim culture and religion to help de-stigmatize their religious identity on campus. For example, the Hijab Challenge[8] is an event that takes place at MSC during “Herstory month” (in March) where women of all backgrounds participate and show solidarity with hijabis. The MSA sets up tables in a common area on campus to educate passersby about the hijab, have conversations, try on a hijab, and see if they are willing to take on the challenge of wearing it for a day. Afterward, participants keep their hijab and share lunch together while they discuss their experiences of wearing the hijab on campus (see photo of MSA members and participants in the Hijab Challenge).

The institutional invisibility of Muslim American women’s experiences on campus

On account of the gendered and hypervisible scrutiny of Muslim American identity on campus, the female Muslim American students who we interviewed for this study tended to have a fairly limited pattern of engagement on the MSC campus—coming to campus for classes and then returning home without participating in extracurricular activities.  In response to hypervisiblity, they contract the spatial domains on campus that they inhabit, in effect, making less visible their presence and experiences on campus. The students tended not to join campus clubs, access career advising, or participate in extra-curricular activities. For some students, socioeconomic factors may play a role in this limited pattern of engagement. Rose, for example, is a full-time student who works to pay her tuition and other expenses, supports her family, and as a consequence, lacks time to socialize and participate in on-campus events or organizations:

So, I don’t really stay on campus. I just go to my class and I get out. Again, I’m like, I go from work to school and then home because I’m so tired. I don’t really stay at the campus unless like, I need to be there for like group projects or something… I mean, I wish I kind of start like communicating with more people because I don’t I really don’t know anyone in university in MSC except like…I met a few girls from the, from some of my classes. I know like maybe three girls over there and that’s about it.

Female students also reported limiting their involvement on campus because of their families’ concerns for their safety, especially concerns over students wearing the hijab and participating in events after dark. And still others reported extensive family care obligations contracted their engagement on campus. In fact, for many of the students we interviewed, the MSA was their only form of extracurricular campus engagement.

Similar to other Americans, the COVD pandemic has caused both a further restriction of patterns of movement for Muslim American women in our study, as well as increased family care responsibilities; and the female students in our study have noted the challenges they have encountered such as loss of employment, trouble with or pausing academic pursuits, and struggles they faced with their physical and mental health.

To read about the experiences of one Muslim college female dealing with the challenges of COVID, click here .

Conclusions

Drawing on the PAR study at an urban midwestern public college, this blog documents some of the experiences of hijabi women on college campuses, in the context of the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. We highlight the paradoxical process of religious minoritization on campus, which involves the simultaneous hypervisibility of gendered religious identity combined with the increased invisibility of their experiences on campus. In addition to the diminished wellbeing entailed by this minoritization, the disengagement of students from campus may have serious academic consequences from students, as they avoid forms of engagement such as High Impact Practices[1] that are associated with positive academic outcomes. The evidence is that such students will continue to struggle as the family care and other responsibilities escalate during the pandemic.

 

[1] Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities; Mir, S. & Sarroub, L.  (2019). “Islamophobia in U.S. Education.” In Irene Zempi and Imran Awan, eds., Key Readings in Islamophobia. London: Routledge; Rangoonwala, F. I., Sy, S. R., & Epinoza, R. K. (2011). Muslim identity, dress code adherence and college adjustment among American Muslim women. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs31(2), 231-241.

[2] Mir, S. (2009). Not too “college‐like,” not too normal: American Muslim undergraduate women’s gendered discourses. Anthropology & Education Quarterly40(3), 237-256.

[3] Mowatt, R. A., French, B. H., & Malebranche, D. A. (2013). Black/female/body hypervisibility and invisibility: A Black feminist augmentation of feminist leisure research. Journal of Leisure Research, 45(5), 644-660; Krusemark, S. (2012). The campus as stage: A qualitative study of the hypervisibility and invisibility of African American female identity in the built campus environment. Journal of Research on Women and Gender, 4, 25-51.

[4] Arman, L., Benbow, R., Chughtai, M., Deeb, R., Fitzgerald, I., Lee, L., Lewis, D, Moua, P., Pasqualone, A., Thao, A., Toms, O., Siddiqui, K., Smolarek, B., Vang, M., Vivona, B., Wolfgram, M., Xiong, O., Xiong, P., Xiong, Y., & Yang, L. (2020). Engaging college students of color in higher education policy studies and advocacy: Preliminary results from three college student-led community-based participatory action research studies. Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions. http://ccwt.wceruw.org/research/researchbriefs.html

[5] Mir, S. (2011). ‘Just to make sure people know I was born here’: Muslim women constructing American selves. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(4), 547-563; Muedini, F. (2009). Muslim American college youth: Attitudes and responses five years after 9/11. The Muslim World99(1), 39-59; Hossain, K. (2017). Islamophobia: What Teachers Can Do to Reduce It in the Classroom. Multicultural Education, 25(1), 35–40.

[6] Mrayan, S. A., & Saleh, A. (2016). Not without their Hijab: Being a Muslim female student at a mid-southern university. RISE, 5(3), 244-267.

[7] Mir, S. (2014). Muslim American women on campus: Undergraduate social life and identity. UNC Press Books; Stubbs, B., & Sallee, M. (2013). Muslim, Too: Navigating Multiple Identities at an American University. Equity & Excellence in Education, 46(4), 451–467. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/10.1080/10665684.2013.838129.

[8] See https://worldhijabday.com/our-story/

 

Please contact Matthew Wolfgram, Assistant Director of CCWT at mswolfgram@wisc.edu, for comments or questions about this post. 

 

 

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