Unruly Mobility: Muslim Youth Come of Age
In today’s “post-9/11” world, narratives about Muslim youth frequently engender the category “Muslim” and by proxy Muslims everywhere as suspicious, dangerous, and/or submissive. These narratives are constructed and circulate midst ongoing military conflicts within Muslim-majority countries and the interdependent “global war on terrorism.” In the US, Pakistani-origin Muslim college youth experience the domestic front of the Global War on Terror including law enforcement infiltrating their mosques and college campuses as well as the targeted surveillance of Muslim residents. In Pakistan, one frontline for the US-led GWOT, youth between 15 and 29 years-old constitute the largest and fastest growing population group. About this demographic, one DC-based think tank asked: “Will Pakistan’s youth be a boom or bust for its democracy?” For both Pakistani and American social commentators, educators, and policymakers, youth are seen as the hope for the future, tasked with “improving the nation” as well as disparaged and condemned when their choices and trajectories are seen as deviating from this task.
Despite these narratives and the political, media, and social institutions that maintain and perpetuate them, Pakistani-origin Muslim youth are unsurprisingly like many other youth populations in how they aspire for their futures through educational aspirations, economic success, and personal and spiritual development. However, unlike other youth, Muslim youth are positioned within multiple regimes of mobility where the same markers of difference—ethnicity, gender, race—that are desirable in particular moments, such as when applying for scholarships, can be seen as undesirable elsewhere, such as when journeying abroad. As youth travel between home, university, and work, between family and friends, between cities, towns, and ancestral villages, between the US and Pakistan, they are socialized into these regimes of mobility and become proficient in how to manage external expectations with personal aspirations. Since the turn of the century, Muslim youth have been simultaneously restrained by the structural limitations imposed by contrasting regimes of mobility originating in imperial formations vis a vis GWOT and the discourses on how “diversity” is desired (or not) in higher education. These restrictions are demonstrated through the roles they are expected to conform to such as the good (im)migrant/good student/good Muslim. Simultaneously youth engage in creative strategies to counter these restrictive processes, in the form of expectations and norms. Unruly Mobility examines how the category of “Muslim youth” is shifting and being redefined in this contested terrain such that we have unexpected, headstrong, and disruptive forms of mobility that challenge scholarship on migration, Islam, and youth. By closely following young people as they move through and beyond higher education, this ethnography shows how these processes unfold for Pakistani-origin Muslim youth as they “come of age” in the contemporary global moment.
This research was supported by the Zwicker Fellowship for South Asian Research, the Dissertation Research Fellowship at Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Critical Writing Teaching Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ethnographic film: Everyday lives of undocumented Muslim youth
Over the last two years, I have been collaborating with a young Muslim comedian in New York City. Following the devastating 2012 report about the extensive NYPD monitoring program of Muslim Student Associations in three states, Muslim youth were originally reticent to agree to a film project. Several years later, it seemed Sadiq (pseudonym), one of my original research participants, became a performer and used the stage to share stories about what it’s like for him to be a brown, Muslim man in New York City. As a filmmaker, I am excited to have such an engaging storyteller as a collaborator. On stage, Saad presents himself as a young man, like many others, looking for jobs, experiencing racism, and dating in the city. What isn’t visible on stage is that aside from his legal status, Sadiq used to give sermons at mosques, or that he is putting himself through college as a waiter and bartender. This ethnographic film project juxtaposes Sadiq publicly processing his mobility, or lack thereof, with his everyday, off-stage life. The film project also deepens my larger research focus on questions about migration, Muslim youth identity, and fashioning oneself as an entrepreneurial project for personal and professional success. Given the rising trends of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and the ongoing war on terror, I draw on the ethnographic method and theories of intersectionality to filmically represent Sadiq’s lived experiences ethically, with empathy, and a critical understanding of power that deepens anthropological knowledge about the condition of being human, structural inequities that undocumented youth face, and the adjacent possibilities for individual and collective agency and resistance.
The Anthropology of Roti
Over the last few years, I have been researching “roti”, a round flatbread that originated in the Indian subcontinent made from stoneground wheat flour, traditionally known as atta, and mixed with water to create dough. Roti is often a central food item in many South Asian households, but it has taken journeys beyond South Asia through the diaspora. I’ve found that “roti” functions as resource for reinforcing desi domesticity, femininity, and the reproduction of heteronormative patriarchy. I look forward to sharing this work as it develops.
camra is an interdisciplinary collective of researchers and educators committed to participatory, experimental media-making. I worked with camra at Penn. In 2016, I was the Festival Director for the Screening Scholarship Media Festival organized around the theme of "Race, Media, and Social Justice." As a group, we engaged in projects and workshops that use multimodal representation to push knowledge production in new directions. We developed productive partnerships with community organizations and scholars. We organized supportive spaces for creating and showcasing new work, such as our annual Media Festival and other events. In 2014, my work was featured at the Ethnographic Terminalia at the American Anthropological Association Meeting in Washington D.C. I continue to participate in camra activities as an alumni. Please learn more camrapenn.org.
Led by Dr. Deborah Thomas, Dr. John L. Jackson Jr., and Junior Gabo Wedderburn, BAD FRIDAY focuses on a community of Rastafarians in western Jamaica who annually commemorate the 1963 Coral Gardens "incident," a moment just after independence when the Jamaican government rounded up, jailed and tortured hundreds of Rastafarians. It chronicles the history of violence in Jamaica through the eyes of its most iconic community, and shows how people use their recollections of past traumas to imagine new possibilities for a collective future. More info @ badfridaythemovie.com