This article is based on a study of American Muslim undergraduate women’s identity construction via gendered behavior in university spaces. I conducted the study in 2002-03 at two private East Coast universities. My research questions centered upon the religious, ethnic, gender, and cultural/racial identities of American Muslim female undergraduates. I was also interested in the nature of pluralism at American college campuses; I believed that an interesting test of this pluralism would be to see how hospitable it was to the development of American Muslim women’s identities.
Introduction to the Framework
The research literature is poor in terms of ethnographic data on religious minority students, especially Muslim students, and my dissertation research attempts to contribute to filling this gap.1 Conrad Cherry et al.2 claim that diversity of practice and choice characterizes student religious practice on campus. My own dissertation research shows that this “diversity” of choice is really divided between core/dominant and periphery/marginal practices, with minority (e.g., Muslim) practices falling into the latter category. The “pluralism” of campus life is, in my view, a flawed pluralism, one in which students have the “choice” to be marginalized by their own minority practices. Qualitative research such as mine demonstrates how marginal perspectives are silenced in spaces of higher education as well as how dominant discourses are “inscribed” upon people, thereby limiting them to the choice of complying, resisting, or both.3
University campuses employ a great deal of rhetoric about diversity and establish administrative structures to represent student diversity. However, peer culture rather than the rhetoric in official documents exercises the most powerful normative influence upon students. The analysis of everyday rituals of peer culture on campus helps us examine the “cultural center and margins” in campus culture.4 In this article, I examine the gendered rituals of dating and other cross-gender interaction on campus and how they place Muslim female undergraduates in cultural centers and/or in cultural margins.
Like Dorothy Holland et al.’s delineations of individuals,5 in my depictions of American Muslim women’s cross-gender interaction I acknowledge both the dominant majority’s power over the individual and the individual’s agency. Though people’s ability for self-objectification plays into “their domination by social relations of power,” it also allows for “possibilities for (partial) liberation from these forces.”6 As we see in this article, the possibilities are not unlimited and “the constraints are overpowering, yet not hermetically sealed.”7 Thus, I also examine the constraints upon American Muslim female students’ gendered identity construction, as they “[use] the cultural resources available, in response to the subject positions afforded [them] in the present.”8 These women work within a limited range of cultural resources and subject positions, attempting to come up with new “Muslim” and “ethnic” responses in order to stretch the range of these positions into American-Muslim and American-Pakistani (etc.) positions. However, they also often adapt to the same limited range of possibilities by adopting majority practices and/or concealing their minority practices.
Harvey Sacks’ concept of learning to do “being ordinary” sheds light on American Muslim women’s responses to dominant norms and practices.9 “Being ordinary” shows “that a person is not simply ‘ordinary’ but is always working at achieving this identity.”10 Our identities, rather than being inherent, are developed through interaction with others.11 In a White-majority North American context, this means that others’ negative estimation of Muslim ethnic and hybrid identities can obstruct Muslim women’s agency of identity construction, which leads to ambivalence, contradiction, desire, and disavowal vis-à-vis identity backgrounds.12 My research participants, aware of being by default not ordinary, worked constantly to be ordinary, “covering up stigma and avoiding social breaches,” working to “pass” as ordinary,13 using “disidentifiers” to establish themselves as “normal”14 or to “pass.”15 While “ordinary” and accepted normative cultural patterns often go unquestioned, if we investigate “the strategies of the stigmatized,” we are able to uncover “not only the routines that we all use unconsciously each day, but also every life’s inevitable existential compromise.”16
I also draw inspiration from notions of “third space” and hybridity in post-colonial studies and cultural studies. In this body of scholarship, dominant discourses maintain a symbolic order between the “normal” and the “deviant.” Homi Bhabha shows how power is incomplete and how hybrid strategies fracture the power of the dominant so that efforts to silence the “other” are never complete.17 American Muslim undergraduate women engage in identity construction within cultural circumstances of inequality, but are constantly engaged in attempts to rewrite peer culture and fracture the power of the dominant majority youth culture. They create a “third space” in which they can produce “discourses as sites of resistance and negotiation.”18