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
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 UniversityMyth: 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."
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: