My university days were played out pre-Facebook and therefore documented only in photographs possessed by very few and viewed only by a chosen few. Life was certainly very social but not broadcast via any form of media. I had what was once called a ‘private life’, locked away for the most part in memories and nostalgic reminiscing. For this I am eternally grateful, not least because university was the setting for a formative transition from adolescence to adulthood. It was the exciting and fragile launchpad for a journey negotiating an evolving sense of self. It is here that I began to come to terms with what it meant to me to be a second-generation British-Pakistani Muslim woman. I became enamoured with postmodern concepts seductively espoused by Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, fancying myself to be the embodiment of hybridity, occupying a third space, having no home yet many homes, an outsider within. I devoured postcolonial literature and theory and made it my story. Identity and race politics offered me an enticing narrative I could call my own.
Then 9/11 happened. Identity politics became complicated by perceived religiosity. Suddenly no other aspect of my comfortably fragmented Self mattered more than my religious identity. Islamophobia was not born, it had always existed, but it was now the ultra-definition of Otherness. Race became transcended by religion but I knew a world when this had not been so ominously so. A recent conversation with a young British-Arab Muslim woman, about to begin her undergraduate studies in London, reminded me I was fortunate to remember life before my faith came to vehemently symbolise the antithesis of Western civilisation. She had been listening to a radio talk show and had been deeply upset by the anti-Muslim sentiment of the callers and the host. She confided how overwhelmed she felt by the level of antipathy towards Muslims and the media sensationalism that twisted every small news item into a diatribe against Islam. A devout and earnest eighteen-year-old, her existential struggle to reconcile the essentialising and racist stereotypes with her own reality of the Islam she grew up with – unremarkable, peaceful and beautiful – was distressing to witness.
It is such negotiations of identity and formation of self that Shabana Mir unpacks in her riveting book. She combines reportage and ethnographic analysis to bring the diverse spectrum of American Muslim female experience on college campuses in Washington DC to life. She is at pains to illustrate the heterogeneity of the Muslim women in her study. They diverge in ethnicity, religiosity and social background. They are united only by the fact that they self-identify as Muslim, were raised in the US, and are negotiating the perilous path of identity in a shared space, namely two college campuses in the capital.
Mir interrogates the formation of identity at this crucial period in any young person’s life by focussing on the social lives of these women. Through in-depth interviews, casual conversations and off-the-cuff remarks, we are invited to peer into the intimate thoughts of the participants as if we are ‘friending’ them on Facebook – viewing their comments, likes, photos and posts. The insight into lives actually lived in the shadow of 9/11 is both mesmerising and troubling. The anxieties of young adults, struggling to emerge unscathed from searing scrutiny not only by non-Muslims but also by fellow Muslims, can at times be unsettling. Mir’s use of first-person excerpts from conversations and interviews provide a platform for rarely heard voices that serve to shatter reductive stereotypes and subvert mainstream preconceptions of that most fetishised subject – the Muslim woman.
What makes Mir’s book unique is the blistering honesty with which the participants lay bare their lived realities. Buoyed by a tacit understanding of confidentiality, and undoubtedly secure in their trust of the writer, we become privy to the most personal of conversations. The reader is encouraged to sit back, get comfortable and witness, as if a fly on the wall, a gossipy conversation during a girls’ night in, or a Facebook messenger exchange or a WhatsApp dialogue. The fiercely contested terrain of female Muslim agency is brought to life in these passages; and young Muslim women, so often discussed, analysed and upon whom so much is projected, are allowed to speak with their own voices and be heard. The sense of intimacy is compounded by Mir’s decision to focus on the twenty-six participants’ social lives and how they navigate the pitfalls and opportunities that characterise campus life. Muslim women have often been associated with concepts of shame and family honour, so it is perhaps intriguing that Mir should focus her research on the most private aspects of an individual’s life: sex, alcohol and fashion.
No doubt some Muslims will see these as ‘controversial’ issues; and argue that Mir is deliberately focussing on the frivolous and titillating in a lame effort to be sensational. I would argue otherwise. These are significant social tropes that are fundamental to the construction of identity. How we navigate social dilemmas locates us in the perceptions of others. All young Muslims are faced with the choice to drink alcohol or not to drink alcohol and whether or not to occupy spaces in which alcohol is distributed and consumed. These choices reflect how we define ourselves in terms of the religious framework that underpins our lives. It is this that Mir explores tenderly, devoid of the reductionist tone of a tabloid gossip expose.
The burden of double scrutiny is one that contextualises the experiences of the American Muslim female undergraduates featured in the book, although it has to be said that empirical studies of immigrant communities often point to the same conclusion. In such cases the subject is acutely aware of the normative expectations projected upon them by fellow Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Mir is right to focus on these contested spaces because they dominate social discourse during a crucial period in a young Muslim woman’s life. It is likely she is living away from home for the first time, free of parental constraints and watchful eyes of conservative relatives. Thrust into unfamiliar, perhaps thrilling situations, she is able to make choices that were previously unavailable to her. Mir resists caricaturing her in the language of the satirical ‘Catholic girl’ who stereotypically drinks, parties and enjoys sexual freedom to excess once she is released from her religious shackles. Instead, the participants employ varying shifts in power that inform their actions. These powers are the consequences of the double scrutiny that the participants feel keenly and are indicative of the diversity and sophistication of their approaches. Mir invokes Homi Bhabha but applies the idea of the ‘third space’ that he championed in a measured tone: ‘this third space demonstrates the incompleteness of hegemony, as marginal individuals use the cultural resources at their disposal – including Orientalist discourse, dominant majority practices, stereotypes, and slurs – to perform and to reinvent identities, and to represent communities, ideologies and themselves.’
I was never an undergraduate in the US but such quandaries resonate with my own university adventures here in the UK. I remained resolutely teetotal but was surrounded by copious amounts of alcohol at the parties, gigs and clubs I frequented. Hence my relief that the pitfalls of Facebook were not yet invented, paving the way for inevitable misrepresentation and reputation car crash. I wore my religion on my sleeve and let it be known to anyone who was listening that I did not drink, did not have boyfriends, and definitely did not wear fashionable garments that exposed my flesh ‘because I am a Muslim’. My university friends were respectful, interested and at the same time quite unfazed. I now wonder whether it was because we occupied a sub-culture of our own that defined itself outside the mainstream. We were the indie/rock kids into our own alternative music and fashion, the Other to the rugby lads and hockey-playing girls who represented bland, conformist cultural hegemony. I am definitely not cool now but back then I was a cool Muslim. I don’t recall feeling the tension articulated by Heather, a white, upper-class, research participant, who ‘acted drunk’ yet never gave a reason for why she did not consume alcohol, eventually feeling marginal to what she perceived to be an alcohol-dominated social world. Amira also went to bars and parties where everyone around her was drinking and made a point of saying she did not drink, in as genial and non-judgemental way as possible. Yet she never explained the reason why, to such an extent that her non-Muslim peers did not even realise that she was teetotal or that she was a Muslim. Other participants made a point of steering clear of spaces where alcohol was consumed altogether. It struck me, and is noted by Mir, that the Muslim women in her study made conscious or unconscious attempts to behave as inoffensively as possible, almost in an attempt to assuage the dominant narrative of the blood-thirsty, terrorist Muslim or oppressed, submissive woman. As Mir explains:
In the social spaces of campus, my research participants commonly passed as ‘normal’ and covered Muslim identities. But often, too, they countered normalised discourses about Muslims and projected identities tailored to challenge common stereotypes. ‘Spoiled’ but not broken, they constructed identities in new combinations, keenly aware of the gaze that fixed and curbed them. My participants became objects to themselves when they met the ‘Muslim Woman’ in their peers’ heads and internalized this image but this objectification created possibilities of agency against symbolic violence. The possibility of agency is in fact catalyzed from the mix of conflicting Orientalist stereotypes that cast Muslim women as objects of fear and objects of pity, as sexual objects and virginally chaste: this repetition and doubling, these contradictions, betray the weakness in Orientalism, and they engender the possibilities for stereotyped persons to transcend inscribed identities. Thus Muslim women become not mere victims of cultural processes but participants in them, ‘active appropriators’ of majority discourses and practices ‘who reproduce existing structures only through struggle, contestation and a partial penetration of these structures.’
You may agree or disagree with these women, but you have to acknowledge they are anything but submissive objects of fear and pity. I see them as rather cool; and eminently sensible and aware of the wider issues. As Amber points out, ‘no matter how much you try to live in this moment, we have to think about what’s happened in the broader context’.
Mir’s conclusions are not particularly original. But then reality too is often unsurprising. Muslim female identity, Mir says, is a construction, a negotiation of competing influences and agencies that are in constant flux. There is no essential Muslim identity that can be projected onto a homogenous swathe of people because there is no such thing as a typical Muslim. Plurality of self-identification and an individual’s unique navigation through life are the only typical Muslim experience. Or in the words of Somali-born, basketball player, Intisar, being a young Muslim woman is ‘not an agenda, you know, every day in the morning you wake up and say, OK, now I’m going to pray and I’m going to play basketball! It’s contradictory, but it’s just life, we just go through it’.