Islam and the Ivy: Being Muslim at Harvard


Why social spaces at Harvard can often be inaccessible to practicing Muslim students.

College can be a hard place to be religious. For many, it is the first time away from the communities that first bred and sustained their faith. Surrounded by people of every creed and thought, this faith is now put to test in ways diverse and challenging. To embed yourself within a collegial setting is to mold yourself in ways new and unique; it is to navigate constantly the question of what to hold on to, what to let go.

But this reinvention comes with an important precondition: the ability to participate in the full college experience. Most practicing Muslims at Harvard cannot. The community faces daunting barriers to participation in the full college experience, wrought jointly by a mix of administrative apathy and Ivy League elitism.

The lynchpin of the undergraduate social scene, the final clubs and a scattering of fraternities and sororities, are oftentimes inaccessible to practicing Muslims. There may be the issues with exclusivity and elitism, but much less considered are issues of religious marginalization.

To even be considered for membership through the processes of ‘punch’ or ‘rush’ is to undertake in customs that challenge basic Islamic precepts. “To stand out in punch is to dress in a certain way, and my religion does not allow me to do that,” says junior Nina*. Nina decided to drop out of the ‘punch’ process this past fall after three female final clubs punched her.

The Quran is explicit in its requirement that females ‘lengthen’ their garments, in addition to not revealing any ‘adornments’ or ‘beauty spots’ except what may be ‘normally apparent’ like the face, hair, lower arms or legs. Religious dictates to minimize skin exposure clash with implicit inner club dictates: multiple female club members interviewed on conditions of anonymity said that they look for ‘classy’ ladies. What the term entails, however, isn’t anywhere quite as clear. For one, being ‘classy’ may demand alignment with Western sartorial standards that often include skin exposure.

Or consider the consumption of alcohol, oftentimes central to a final club or Greek life experience. The Quran, on the other hand, is explicit in its prohibition of alcohol.


Multiple sources confirmed that at the Spee Club’s date event last fall, ‘punches’ were given a bottle of champagne each. The Spee may not be the only one: multiple final club members interviewed said that ‘punch’ decisions were based in part on how well potential members could handle alcohol. This is not to say that the clubs coerce punches to drink; but in a selection process oftentimes embedded in alcoholic rituals, Muslim punches are bound to be disadvantaged.

Beyond the induction process is the larger question of how these clubs operate. The male clubs are amongst the only sizeable social spaces on campus that offer well-tended gatherings every weekend. However, entrance into the male clubs is oftentimes contingent on what you wear, unless you happen to know members in the club. Student gatekeepers need to deem you ‘attractive’ enough to pass through.

Among other things, these clubs exist to provide male members access to a steady stream of ‘attractive’ female peers. Once inside, female peers are plied with alcohol. There is an indirect pressure on visitors to ‘hook up’ with club members that demonstrate interest in them, several final club regulars confirmed. This expectation to ‘hook up’ clashes once more with the Islamic tenets against premarital physical intimacy. “Do I really want to be in a space where I am expected to behave in certain ways?” quips junior Helen*.

While these clubs – both male and female – may alienate many Muslim students through their modes of operation, they may also help strengthen their belief in Islam, pushing them to embrace customs that they’d never considered before. Consider Fanny*, a senior at the college: What twenty years of living in a Muslim household with a hijabi mother and a hijabi sister couldn’t produce, the Friday night lines on Mt. Auburn Street did. Fanny embraced the hijab, or the Muslim headscarf, the spring of her junior year.

“Being here has helped me figure out what my place was and what I myself value. My hijab is a way of valuing myself, of protecting myself from physical objectification,” says Fanny*. “It reflects my intellect and other intangible things rather than the physical object many people here would see me as.” Nina and Helen, who both began wearing hijabs in middle and high school respectively, also agree that Harvard reinforced their resolve to wear the hijab. None of them reported having ever faced any kind of pushback at Harvard for wearing the hijab.
This is not to say the clubs do not have any Muslim members. Jackie*, from Manhattan and a member of a female final club, considers herself a Muslim but hesitates to use the term ‘practicing.’ Her father does not know that she wears dresses, drinks or goes out clubbing.

Yet, the sense that she doesn’t completely fit in lingers. “I’m in a final club and there are guys who want to hook up. It is hard for me to explain that I can’t, it can’t just be physical for me,” she says. Jackie, who has had a boyfriend before, says she is still hesitant of premarital sex. This hesitancy, she thinks, springs from her Muslim upbringing.

“My faith is in evolution, and I’m still trying to figure out what it means,” says Jackie.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

Aditya Agrawal ([email protected]) hopes Muslim students will be brought into more discussion of social issues on campus.