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It’s like doing SMS to Allah. Identity Work and Feelings of Belonging in the City

In the 80s, research on youths with immigrant background generally concluded that these youth were caught in a ‘betwich and between’ situation, often ‘lost’ between their respectively origin- and resident country. More recent research argues that immigrant youths have found their own way by developing a more open ended, negotiable and contextualised identity (ala Hall 1992) -often referred to as being cosmopolitan. Taking a critical standpoint to the latter, this research will argue that so-called ‘flexi-identities’ are not equally available for all groups living in Berlin.

Muslim young females are facing limitations in their identification processes in everyday life, partly as a result of the public political debate on the headscarf and the general growing islamophobia. Research questions posed are; what roles do the urban context, religion, gender and migration background play in Muslim females’ identity construction? How do young Muslim women today identify and create a space for themselves in Berlin? To what extent are their identities multiple, flexible and situational in their life-strategies sought in an urban context? This will be empirically sought answered by conducting fieldwork among ‘Muslimische Jugend’ (MJ) in Berlin, a multi-national, German-speaking Muslim Youth Organisation, whose females’ members are between fifteen and thirty year old.

This study conceives identity to be the mechanism through which we locate ourselves in relation to the social world (Jenkins 1996). Identities are created through social interaction and in power games. Any identity (be it individual, political, communal, ethnic or national) is shaped by recognition, non-recognition or mis-recognition of the ‘others’ (Taylor 1994). “Dialog” or encounters with strangers in city life is characterised among other by its anonymity, which can be used for outplaying different roles in different contexts. In addition, because physical contacts are close while social contact are distant in cities, there is a tendency in urban life to respond to visual cues (Hannerz 1980), including ethnicity, class, occupation, age, or sex. The qualities attributed on the stranger by interpreting the cues varies among societies and, I would argue, within the same societies the meaning can vary in time – and is often politically dependent.

An urban ‘acteur’ might render an objective difference socially inconsequential (though not necessarily eliminate it). It will be discussed how this is less straightforward for Muslim females. Apparently, this group’s identification processes are in some contexts strongly influenced by the categorisation process from above. It is possible that identity construction is more fixed in public spaces, where the females have contact with members of the majority group, than in more private spaces. The research anticipates that the anonymity of the city is, perhaps paradoxically, making self-representation in certain situations less open for these women.

At the same time, minority youths make use of specific forms of identity work, based on social interaction among youths within alternative communities of belonging at hand in the ‘plural city’. The research will explore these female’s tactics or strategies (Michel de Certeau 1984 and Gupta and Fergusson 1997) to create their own space(s), challenging the meanings of, and developing different ‘resistance rituals’. In this identity work or identity politics, they position themselves to the pedant culture defined by the “powerful few” (or by the majority?) who largely determine life places.

My research so far suggests that anonymity of the city, together with the public focus on the headscarf, contribute to make the headscarf part of both external and internal definition processes of Muslim young women in Berlin. It is plausible that the headscarf today functions as a stigma, making it more difficult to choose among roles in different contexts for Muslim women wearing the headscarf in this moment of time.

Yet, Berlin bestows also its inhabitants with multiple potential life spaces or Lebensraum. The Muslim youth group in question is one empirical example of minorities who, on the basis on some common features, here their religion and gender, join together and create a life space. This space, I argue, can be understood as part of their life-strategy or life tactic in the city

Lebenslauf / Curriculum Vitae

Trans-Atlantic Graduate Research Program Berlin – New York
DFG Fellow     

Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, France
Doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology

Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, France
’Cycle International d’Etudes Politiques’

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK
Master in ‘European Politics and Policy’

University of Bergen, Norway
Cand. mag -degree (1997). Basic and intermediary studies in History, Information Science and Social Anthropology



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