Council on Anthropology and Education
Oral Presentation Session
This study is grounded on theories of belonging (Abu el Haj 2015) and hypervisibility (Gordon 1997) to explore the ways Muslim-American youth respond to and exercise agency in relation to their experiences with their sense of belonging to the university. Through the use of interviews and participant observation at a public university in California, this work examines how sense of belonging represents a dimension of broader societal outcomes such as social inclusion, social cohesion, social capital, and nationhood (Abu El Haj 2007). Participants claimed to feel low levels of belonging to the institution due to being unrecognized and having their Muslim identity objectified. Particularly, the female students described more markedly distinct experiences towards belonging to the university, due to some wearing the hijab. In response to these experiences, participants described how they found institutional allies in gaining the needed recognition and resources to build semi-autonomous spaces within the institution to be “unapologetically Muslim.” In these spaces, participants forge a new potential for belonging based on seeing “traditional” religious practices and “modernity” as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In doing so, they redefine and recreate the limitations of membership to the imagined community of the institution to fit their own needs and to achieve recognition. This study demonstrates the importance of recognizing students’ active role in evolving discourses and practices of belonging to restructure the barriers denying them membership to the larger community.