Muslim-American Women in the United States: What is Considered Muslim Enough?
Islamic communities within the United States are perceived as one and the same. Since the events of 9/11, comparative studies emphasize Muslim identified individuals as members of an “emerging collective identity” (Sirin et al., 2008, p. 261). However, identifying Muslims as members of a collective group ignores diversity within the Islamic religion. In light of the literature (Jeldtoft, 2011; Jensen, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007; Sirin et al,. 2008), institutionalized religious practices (e.g., wearing the Hijab for women and religious beard or hats for men) are viewed by non-Muslims as universal markers of a Muslim religious identity. Moreover, there are gender differences within the Islamic religion making orthodox women more identifiable by out-group or non-Muslims, via their choice to wear the Hijab (to cover their heads). The majority of research rooted in discriminatory attitudes towards women perceived, based on the Hijab, to be Muslim in the United States, focuses on an out-group (non-Muslim identifying) perspective (Elashi, Mills, & Grant, 2010; Jeldtoft, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007; Sirin et al., 2008). Out-group discrimination of Muslim women underscores a collective identity assuming homogeneity within the Islamic religion. There is a dearth of research focusing on how Muslim women in the United States define their faith within their own community, and how discrimination occurs within-group (Elashi et al., 2010). Viewing discrimination solely from an out-group perspective, neglects the range of subjective interpretations of being ‘Muslim enough’ in American Islamic communities. To address the literature gap, the present review will examine how female Muslim identity is constructed in the United States.
Muslim-American women face the challenge of reconciling different aspects of their identities. It is important to recognize categories of one’s identity (i.e., gender or race) are not mutually exclusive, and intersectionality underscores that multidimensional nature of identity (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991). Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) coined the term intersectionality to encompass how the interplay between one’s race and gender changes one’s experience. Therefore, Understanding a Muslim-American woman’s identity, involves understanding the intersection of her gender, religion, and in most cases her race. Sirin and Fine (2007) discuss how a “hyphenated self” (p.152), can be used to understand how one’s identity can be “at once joined, and separated, by history, the present socio-political climate,” (p.152) etc., especially during global conflict. Muslim-American women’s identities therefore have become hyphenated in the aftermath of 9/11 in the United States. How much a Muslim woman chooses to identify with her faith is subjective. However, perceptions of Muslim women differ depending on how visibly religious they appear by both in-group and out-group members.
Institutionalized Islamic standards for women dictate dress, behavior, and with whom a woman can socialize. Additionally, religiosity is linked to commonly Islamic associated practices, such as wearing the Hijab. Wearing the Hijab acts as a “clear [and] visual” (Droogsma, 2007, p. 296) identity marker for Muslim women adhering to Islamic standards in the United States, therefore women without the Hijab are not overtly expected to carry out the same values (Sirin & Fine, 2007). Wearing the Hijab is a choice in the United States as it is not a Muslim country. The element of choice is important to consider when examining how Muslim-American women establish their identities within their communities. Muslim women are often viewed as “submissive” (Abu-Ali & Reisen, 1999, p. 185) in Western stereotypes. Moreover, Muslim women who do not cover are generally overlooked because they are not considered “representative Muslims” (Jeldtoft, 2011, p.1140) and sometimes think of themselves as “bad Muslim[s]” (Sirin & Fine, p. 159). Muslim-American women’s tendencies to internalize expectations associated with wearing the Hijab or not cause different conflicts, both internally and throughout their communities. Muslim-American women struggle with what it means to be Muslim enough within their own communities in relation to overt markers of their religious identities. Whether a Muslim woman believes she is meeting traditional standards, and how other Muslim women perceive she is meeting such standards is important to how the female Muslim identity is developed in the United States (Jeldtoft, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007). An examination of within-group differences is important in accurately account for the different ways women in Islamic communities define their faith.
Having a better understanding of the variation amongst Muslim-American women is important in exploring the ways in which discrimination occurs within Muslim communities. Muslim-American women face “political intersectionality” (Crenshaw, 1991, p.1251-1252) because there are two or more conflicting politically associated facets of their identities. A Muslim woman is subordinated through both her gender and her religion in the United States, and in most cases her ethnicity or race. Members of Islamic communities come from different ethnic backgrounds, making visual markers of religiosity through the Hijab an additional explicit variation in an intersectionality of Muslim-American woman (Crenshaw, 1991; Sirin & Fine, 2007). Categorically three levels of identity (i.e., gender, religion, and race or ethnicity) apply to Muslim-American women who are either explicitly religious or not. The affect each level of their identity has on how a Muslim-American woman experiences “lived Islam” (Jeldtoft, 2011, p.1140) is subjective. Lived Islam refers to the way religious practice or non-practice is incorporated into one’s life. All Muslim-American women do not practice Islam in the same manner; however practicing Islam is commonly viewed as a homogenous practice. On one hand, women not visibly practicing (e.g. wearing the Hijab) are assumed to not be practicing Islam by women who veil (Droogsma, 2007). On the other hand, some Muslim women view veiling or wearing Hijab to be moving backward to a more oppressive lifestyle (Jelen, 2011). However, an overarching theme for all Muslim-American women in the literature is that religiosity is more than an ideological stance – it is a state of being that encompasses one’s entire identity.
For Muslim-American women, being religious is something they need to prove to others, whether it is out-group members or other in-group members. Sirin and Katsiaficas (2011) found Muslim women are more likely than Muslim men to “fight back against stereotypes, discrimination and ignorance” (p.1540). Muslim women in the United States do not only feel they need to fight back to out-group members. Even within Islamic communities, individuals describe actively practicing Islam, and showing to others they practice is necessary to avoid being separated as a bad Muslim for lack of practice, whatever that practice may be (Jeldtoft, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007). The identity of a Muslim woman in the United States is constructed in different ways for women who wear Hijab in comparison to those who do not. Muslim-American women who do not wear Hijab express concerns about being considered Muslim enough, though it is not explicitly addressed in the literature. Current research concerning Muslim-American youth and emerging adults explores the meaning behind having hyphenated selves, without further differentiating individuals carrying the same hyphenated identity (Sirin & Fine, 2007). Muslim-American women have different approaches for reconciling the facets of their identities. Though two women have the same hyphenated self on paper, they do not necessarily deal with how they are perceived by society and one another in the same way. Since individuals “connect sometimes conflicting domains [to create] a hyphenated self,” (Katsiaficas, Futch, Fine, & Sirin, 2011, p. 121), further examining differences within the connected domains could be very useful to better accounting for individual differences. Gaining a thorough understanding of how an individual defines a domain of their hyphenated identity (e.g. Muslim), could be useful in understanding the way within-group differences lead to within-group discrimination. The literature suggests a degree of judgment between Muslim-American women in their communities.
While the literature suggests a certain degree of judgment between Muslim American women within their communities, not all Muslim-American women judge each other. It is important to understand that Muslim women in the United States who consider themselves to be practicing, did not always practice. In some instances, women who were raised in homes that were deemed “non-practicing” or “minimally religious,” began to cover themselves as adult women (Droogsma, 2007, p. 300; The New York Times, 2010, p. 1). How Muslim American Women develop their identities in a culture where they are the minority therefore is different for each individual. Such a process speaks to the existing degree of variation between Muslim American women mentioned earlier, and the need to gain a better understanding of their identity development process. Though Muslim American women are identified in the same manner, most reports do not suggest that they wish to be viewed through a collective identity, as they see themselves as individuals. For instance a Muslim American Woman named Hebah Ahmed, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fits this description. She did not grow up in a home that she deemed religious and previously viewed covering oneself in the name of God to be “suffocating” (NYT, 2010, p.1). Though she grew up Americanized to some extent, her father made sure he raised her with a sense of pride for the Muslim portion of her identity. Today she is completely covered from head to toe. While some question and judge her, she notes that “she is not a Muslim Everywoman” and it is not something she wants to be (NYT, 2010, p. 1). The individuality Hebah demonstrates is not captured in the literature examining how Muslim she is in the context of the United States.
Scholars suggest that the belief that organized religion and strict practice as the only legitimate religious forms of Islam divides the Muslim American community (Droogsma, 2007; Jeldtoft, 2011; Jensen, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007). Such an approach does not fully assess the spectrum of variation among Muslims, especially in the Western world. While Muslim-American women face the same intersections of religion and gender, the response to the intersection is different for a woman who wears the Hijab as compared to not. Many Muslim American women who do not actively show their faith through wearing Hijab want to be viewed as serious Muslims within their community by other women. Some women believe, “being Muslim is not about what you do,” rather it is about the decisions one makes throughout their life that lives up to their internal sentiment of being “pure Muslim inside” (Jeldtoft, 2011, p. 1142; Sirin & Fine; p. 158).
Current literature does not account for the full extent of perceived discrimination Muslim-American Women feel within their own communities. Such discrimination includes covered Muslim women’s view of uncovered Muslim women and vice versa. Jeldtoft (2011) attempts to begin the conversation about non-institutionalized types of religiosity, such as not wearing Hijab, and how scholars do not readily examine them because they are not deemed “relevant” (p. 1137). In a country where Islam is a minority religion, it is imperative that individuals considered unconventional in their practice of Islam do not go unnoticed. By overlooking individuals perceived as unconventionally practicing Islam, American scholars invalidate the religiosity of women who choose to follow Islam in ways that make sense for them individually and stigmatize the right to a unique construct of ideological and ethnic identity.
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