She used interviews she conducted with 13 women from each university as the “raw data” for her book; these interviews were not survey-based but rather repeated one-on-one interactions. Each woman identified herself as Muslim, although with varying degrees of religiosity; the women, together, hailed from diverse racial backgrounds, ethnicities, and sects, including converted Muslims. In that sense, they were “representative of East coast Muslim populations,” Dr. Mir said.
Dr. Mir emphasized that her approach was anthropological as opposed to theological and she focused mainly on how these Muslim American women dealt with stigma on the one hand and cultural assimilation on the other. After all, she explained, “Muslims are getting to know America and America is getting to know Muslims.”
Although there are some who want to label Muslims as “terrorists,” while others trumpet that Muslims are “peaceful people,” neither of the essentialized, one-dimensional (bad v. good) identities are workable and are both harmful, according to Dr. Mir. Indeed, there is a huge range of types and levels of Muslim Americans that cannot be pigeonholed so simplistically.
Dr. Mir explored the popular idea, “you can do whatever you want at college,” by examining people who are not so free. She gave the example of Intisar, a Somali Muslim who came to the States when she was five years old. Intisar was defined by her appearance and felt alienated until she began playing basketball and became really good at it; basketball became her primary identifier, which played down all the others. However, once she became a teenager, her mother forced her to stop playing basketball. At college, Intisar took up basketball once again as an elective, but then eventually gave it up, feeling conflicted as a committed Muslim.
When Dr. Mir began analyzing her data after the research was completed, three key themes emerged in terms of the cultural pressures the students felt on campus: alcohol, dating, and fashion. The women felt the influence of these factors even if they were not actively involved themselves. They felt stigmatized through the lack of camaraderie when they chose not to participate in the campus culture, and hence found integration to be very difficult.
Dr. Mir’s insightful talk was followed by a Question and Answer session during which the audience asked her many things, ranging from the role of MSA at college to the difference between high school and college cultures. Regarding MSA, Dr. Mir said that even though it was recognized as a place of comfort by many women, it was not necessarily a refuge for everyone. “Most of these girls were residents. The tension is harder at college because of the freedom. High school is different because they are minors and have parental controls,” Dr. Mir remarked.
The audience was very appreciative of the depth of Dr. Mir’s research and her willingness to acknowledge the many shades of Muslim that make up the larger community. Many people stayed after the talk to engage with Dr. Mir and benefit from her extensive data-driven experience.