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Understanding unique privacy concerns for Muslim-American women can improve digital design

"Aunties, Strangers, and the FBI: Online Privacy Concerns and Experiences of Muslim-American Women. UMSI Researchers, Tanisha Afnan, Yixin Zou, Mustafa Naseem, Florian Schaub." UMSI Research in a magnifying glass graphic.

Wednesday, 09/28/2022

Muslim-American women face unique privacy risks in the United States. They sit at the intersection of many different marginal identities, including religious affiliation, gender, immigration status and race. In addition, Muslim communities generally in the U.S. have been historically subjected to targeted surveillance, and continue to experience prejudice and discrimination today. 

A new study led by University of Michigan School of Information researchers — Tanisha Afnan, Yixin Zou, Mustafa Naseem and Florian Schaub, along with their colleague Maryam Mustafa at Lahore University of Management Sciences — uncovers how these intersectional identities add and expand on privacy concerns in our increasingly digital world. 

Various stereotypes for Muslim women increase stresses on privacy both inside and out of their communities. “Privacy in Islam is often linked to gendered ideals of modesty, which can encourage the social surveillance of Muslim-American women within their own communities to ensure such ideals are being upheld,” says Tanisha Afnan, UMSI doctoral student and lead author of the study.  “All these factors can come together in compounding ways and ultimately pose unique privacy risks to Muslim-American women.”

The researchers wanted to understand how Muslim-American women perceive digital privacy risks.They conducted 21 semi-structured interviews to uncover the privacy concerns and harms for Muslim women. 

“Though we mostly spoke with young, professional women, we had a good amount of ethnic diversity and it was very interesting to see common themes emerge,” says Afnan. “I really wanted to capture detailed, personal accounts of the different privacy concerns, behaviors and attitudes held by my participants.”

Afnan says they found privacy concerns across three themes: being broadly Muslim-American, more specifically Muslim-American women, and as a result of individual practices of their religion. There were general privacy concerns about being a Muslim-American, including facing Islamophobia on social media. Participants also expressed concerns about targeted surveillance by the U.S. government or military, and how safe their data and information really was. 

“Participants also shared countermeasures they had adopted as a result of these unique concerns, such as censoring words like 'bomb' or 'terrorism' from their online presences due to widely held concerns of government/military surveillance,” explains Afnan.

But there were privacy concerns that came as a result of being Muslim-American women more specifically, says Afnan. She notes that Muslim women expressed concerns about facing reputational harm from posting something online that violated gendered sociocultural norms-- like a photo of themselves drinking at a bar.

Participants also worried about privacy harms and risks they felt were related to their individual practices of Islam, such as veiling choices. “For example, participants who choose to wear a hijab have additional concerns about sharing photos of themselves online in which they are unveiled,” says Afnan. 

The team’s findings have important implications for researchers, policymakers and technologists who work on privacy design. “Understanding how the intersection of multiple identities can give rise to unique privacy concerns and needs, many of which are unmet,” Afnan says. She notes that it is critical to talk with groups that have identity-specific needs to fully understand the gaps in design. 

“Recognizing where privacy misalignments exist  in these more nuanced, community-centered ways will allow us to evolve how we design for privacy,” she says, adding that their work can be helpful for any minoritized community with unique privacy concerns related to intersectional identities. “Our findings lay a pathway for exploring and understanding the needs of other multiple-minority status populations.”

— Sarah Derouin, UMSI public relations specialist


Read more about UMSI researchers Tanisha Afnan, Yixin Zou, Mustafa Naseem, and Florian Schaub

Read their paper “Aunties, Strangers, and the FBI: Online Privacy Concerns and Experiences of Muslim-American Women.”