Dispelling Myths About Hijab, Daily Prayers, and Other Practicalities of Muslim Life on Campus

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Monday, January 24th, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Earlier today we posted about Islamophobia and how Muslims are viewed in America.  But when we asked you what you wanted to know from Muslims students, it turned out you also have some more practical concerns about observing Islam on campus.

Muslim myths

Many colleges, even those with smaller Muslim populations have a Muslim student association, which facilitates activities for Muslim students and can help advocate for any special needs Muslim students may have, like dietary and prayer requirements.

Every college campus is different of course. Some have large Muslim populations, some have smaller ones. Some have very active Muslim student associations, some don’t.  There’s no guarantee of exactly what you’ll find at any given school. But you are guaranteed some basic rights, as listed by the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

So let’s talk about some of the myths surrounding what Muslims students can and cannot do in the U.S. …

Dispelling the myths

Myth: I won’t be allowed to wear hijab or other religious attire

There is no ban on wearing hijab, or any other religious attire, on campus.

In one recent case, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences created controversy when it instituted an identification rule barring “any head covering that obscures a student’s face … either on campus or at clinical sites.” CAIR stepped in to oppose the rule, and it was eventually amended to allow veils worn for religious reasons.

Myth: I won’t be able to go to daily prayers

The degree of accommodations you will find for daily prayers may depend on the school, but here’s what Meena Malik, a sophomore at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) had to say:

Especially on my campus, it’s been pretty easy because we have a huge group of students that are very concerned. In terms of the five daily prayers, we have three congregational prayers together on campus every day. And if you can’t make it because you have class, there’s an area that we always use to pray, you can always just drop by during class and make your prayer really quick it you don’t want to pray on random places around the campus.

In terms of professors and other students, they’re very respectful of the different things that you have to do as a Muslim. You can go to a professor and say, ‘I have to pray. I know we have class but is it okay if I step out for 10 minutes?’ and most of the time they’re fine.

I prayed during one of my finals last year ‘cause the time was coming and the time was really short for that prayer, so I was like, ‘Well I can’t miss it.’ So they let me pray in the hall during my final, in the middle of it.

Umer Sultan, who goes to Eastern Michigan University, added, “As far as prayer is concerned I have found high schools and colleges and universities very accommodating. Very very much accommodating. I don’t think I have had any problem regarding that issue.”

Prayer at George Mason University

Myth: I won’t be able to eat anything

Yusra Altiraifi, a student at George Mason University, took me around her cafeteria to show me an Indian restaurant that serves halal food, and a number of other restaurants that provide vegetarian options.

Other students said schools may not provide halal food, but they do offer a lot of vegetarian and vegan foods that Muslim students can eat. According to Meena, “There has been a huge movement towards vegetarian and vegan, so in general, if you’re okay with eating vegetarian food, then there’s a lot of options for Muslim students.”

Umer added:

As far as food is concerned, you can’t really expect having halal food. The thing is, there is a difference among Muslims as well, that they can eat the meat of McDonalds or not. So I don’t eat the meat of McDonalds and KFC and fast food, but other Muslims do. So for them it’s not a big problem – they can drive to McDonalds and eat.

For me, I can’t go to McDonalds and get a meat burger. I have to find vegetable food or any food without meat. So for me that’s where the issue is, but that’s not a big problem. I can make food at home and bring it with me, or I can go to a shop and just get vegetable food. So it’s not really a big problem, you just have to find a way out.

Being a Muslim among non-Muslims

Despite these accommodations, some have noted that practicing Islam in a non-Muslim country is very different from practicing in a Muslim-majority country.

One family wrote of the Muslim exchange students they have hosted in the U.S.:

It is an incredible culture shift for a Muslim girl to come from a conservative culture to the United States as an exchange student. Her new environment is constantly testing her faith and who she is as a woman.

Muslim girls may come from a culture where they have rarely been in contact with a male who was not a relative. They have probably only attended all-girl schools. Stress occurs as the girls make decisions as to how much Western dress they are going to adopt while on exchange. Depending upon the school, the hijab may act as a barrier between the girl and her classmates and cause social stress.

igotitcovered.org adds that if you’re hoping to avoid intermingling, it will be nearly impossible.

According to Meena, the most difficult part of being a Muslim on campus is that many aspects of the “typical” American college life are against her religion:

In terms of fitting in with everyone else, being a Muslim there’s a bunch of things you can’t do. So you can’t drink, you can’t really go to parties, you can’t go to dances, you can’t date, you can’t do all of these things. So it puts you in an impossible situation almost. Because you’re like, “how can I fit in with everyone else but still abide by the rules that are set by my faith?” And if you don’t have other Muslim students who have alternatives to hanging out, it becomes a little more hard to be accepted in general.

But Meena also said that at UC Irvine she has found a large community of other Muslims.  As a result, she said, she is more comfortable with her Muslim identity now that she is in college than she ever was before:

In high school it was difficult and it was isolating, mostly because there wasn’t a strong presence on my campus of other Muslim students. I think that statement holds true whether you’re in high school or college or even in grad school.

The one reason I feel like I’m in a good place now is because of the MSU [Muslim Student Union] on my campus. There’s 150 active members, which is a lot.

It’s not just hanging out and not going to parties. It’s working on projects and having classes to learn about your faith. So in terms of that it’s been such a blessing for me to find a group of students who are really active and really like-minded and really willing to go out and do a lot of things to help the community and help themselves.

Yusra told me that being a Muslim in America is certainly more difficult than being a Muslim in a Muslim-majority country, but that she’s glad to be in a diverse environment that exposes her to different cultures and challenges her beliefs.

Watch the conversation Yusra and I had when I visited her at GMU:

4 Responses to “Dispelling Myths About Hijab, Daily Prayers, and Other Practicalities of Muslim Life on Campus”

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  3. Larry says:

    I imagine it is hard for Muslim students from muslim countries that do not have religious freedom or even tolerance as part of their normal society to understand that here in the US, we DO respect your right to practice your religion even if we do not agree with it. They must be boggled by the freedom that we have to actually CONVERT to or from Islam/Judaism/Christianity/paganism, or what have you, without any legal repercussions. America’s universities all have sizeable Jewish populations, and many of the Jewish students have analagous issues that they have had to learn to deal with, such as obtaining kosher food, having off on sabbaths and holy days, and wearing yarmulkes. Not always have they been met with acceptance, but all Americans know that it is our right to practice our religion, and it is your right to practice yours.

  4. Homayoon Taheryar says:

    In my personal opinion and as I read here in this topic taught and views of our Muslim brothers and sisters studying in states about the range of freedom of their Islamic practices, all problems discussed here are mostly concerned with our Muslim sisters than it’s been with Muslim brothers. In my point of view, One should realize that whenever any non-US students no matter from which religion he/she is, plan to study or continue to study in States must first of all read about cultural environment, accommodation, rules and regulations and most of all should have well understanding about majority-enforced religion practicing by its people. After know all these info, then have to have an overall evaluation and real judgement of his personal, cultural, social, religious and overall adaptability of her/himself for a big socio-cultural change, then plan accordingly weather to study in US or Not. Every country in this world have its constitution, laws, rules and regulations for every aspects of social, cultural, economic…etc life …for its people and United States is also a country which have all of those laws and regulations. So, you my Muslim brother and Sister! Despite, you know a country doesn’t change or amends its law for any particular religions, minority then it is long far to change or bring any amendments in their laws for a group of foreign students. As far as I understand from your comments and views which are your everyday life experiment in US, it has brought Muslims lots of freedom that Muslim countries don’t bring to non-Islamic visitors in their homeland (If someone disagree give me a real example). I imagine every citizens of any country in the world knows about US and are very interested to visit US weather for study or other purposes but be realistic with yourself when you wish to study, visit or live in US, then if you try to bring changes more than it is accepted or put in effect by its government concerning regulations and laws, then it might impossible and will raise problems instead solving a problem for individuals and for all other co-religion or foreigners.

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