Blog: A city walk in the future

28 May, 2018

From 11 to 13 October 2017, the international research conference Religious Minorities’ Self-Representations: Claims of Difference and Sameness in the Politics of Belonging was hosted by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. The aim of this conference was to explore how dominant perceptions of specific religious minorities feed into the ways in which these minorities represent themselves and/or their religion. In a series of blog posts, different conference participants write about their research. In this blog, Amani Hassani explores how young Muslims represent themselves through city spaces.

A city walk in the future: A Muslim woman’s representation of her social mobility

Author: Amani Hassani, PhD Candidate, Concordia University, Montreal

When I met 21-year-old Khadija in Copenhagen on an autumn day in 2013, she was in her first year of university and hopeful about her future. Though she is of Middle-Eastern descent, Khadija has lived most of her life in a suburb North West of Copenhagen. In this blog-post, I present her case as an example from my ethnographic research on young Muslims living in Copenhagen, Denmark. This research was part of a larger comparative transatlantic ethnography comparing Muslim young adults in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Montreal, Canada. I utilized spatial tours as a method to explore my participants’ relationship to ‘their city’ and the use of spaces to represent their social position.

Khadija’s tour stood out from my data because of her ability to explore her future through the city. Both in her tour and our 3-hour long interview, Khadija spoke largely about her social position and her self -identification in relation to the existing negative stereotypes of Muslims and immigrants in Denmark. This segment of the Danish population is often represented as socially and economically disadvantaged. Perhaps in defiance to this stereotype, Khadija pointed out being a university student who hung out with an affluent crowd and went to trendy upscale cafes and restaurants.

Walking through the city

She started her tour in a popular café at the edge of the recently gentrified part of Nørrebro (a district near downtown Copenhagen). This part of Nørrebro is trendy, in contrast to the socially deprived image that part of town usually evokes. Truth is, Nørrebro is anything but affluent, and that is its charm; it’s the hub of youth subculture representing both leftist and minority cultural trends, attractive to bohemian artistic culture along with the working-class immigrant and marginalized citizens of Copenhagen.

As I walked with Khadija through the city, she demonstrated an acute awareness of the existing stereotypes of young Muslims. It reflected the spaces and areas she took me to – words were unnecessary. And it is in these choices of spatial representation that socially mobile young Muslims demonstrate their agency and ability to challenge negative stereotypes.

In contrast to that ‘downtrodden’ Nørrebro -stereotype, Khadija associated more with the classy part of downtown Copenhagen. This was the next stop on our tour. Khadija’s self-perception became more vivid as we walked towards Nyhavn, a popular district in downtown Copenhagen known for its cafés and restaurants along the old Copenhagen harbour. As we were walking among the crowds of people, she presented her love for high-culture: ballet, jazz and the theatre. The message of this part of the tour was clear: Inner-city Muslim youth can enjoy global high culture like anyone else. A ballet ad-poster in an open square in downtown Copenhagen provided Khadija an opportunity to discretely position herself within the class of affluence; a lifestyle choice that was hindered only by her lack of funds to afford it. Khadija then showed me three other sites on her tour that she identified with her ‘imagined’ self; the Royal Theatre, the Opera House and Hotel D’Angleterre (one of the most exclusive hotels in Denmark). She was not intimately familiar with any of these sites; she had never been inside any of them. And yet, they were all significant, for they symbolised the comfortable lifestyle Khadija aspired to. Khadija was a first-year university student with good employment prospects when she graduated. So, she already planned her 25th birthday dinner at Hotel D’Angleterre. This wasn’t unrealistic; by then she would have graduated, making good money without any dependants.

According to the Muslim stereotypes in Denmark, Khadija was just another hijabi young woman of a marginalized population group. But that’s not how she saw herself, and she made sure to challenge this representation in her narrative. Khadija did not think of herself as marginalized; she did not see her social mobility as a vague distant hope. Success – rising the social ladder – was merely a matter of time.

Spatial narratives of the future

The city became a canvas to display her future– a sort of futuristic spatial biography, her prospective roads carved through the city ahead of her. Khadija’s spatial account demonstrates the potential for self-representation through spaces to become significant in the construction of subjectivity. To Khadija, these spaces of Danish high culture and middleclass markers served to represent her aspirations. They represented Khadija’s hope for social mobility, a goal she was well underway of achieving with a university degree that would eventually realise her dreams of financial comfort. With this futuristic spatial narrative, Khadija’s tour displays the theoretical potential in investigating the temporal future through movements. Khadija’s aspirations may be challenged in the future; she may struggle to find a well-paying job after university or dislike the opera. But those are just details; what was on display was Khadija’s expectation of social mobility. This future was so close, so tangible, that by depicting these spaces as potentially ‘hers’, she cemented her agency (i.e. her capacity for action) in making it happen.

Khadija allowed me to discover the potential in spatial narratives as representations of temporality. The study of time has been a longstanding challenge for ethnographers; how do we observe and explore people’s meaning of time? When I designed this research project and included the method of touring cities with my interlocutors, I never expected I would be conducting an ethnography of time. It wasn’t my choice: my participants took my idea of city tours and transformed it into a time machine. They used the city to tell their story of time. Khadija’s tour was a great example of that. Her dreams are familiar to most struggling young students. Khadija’s story of time was one of hope; a bright future in stark contrast to one’s current, struggling social position.