Broadcast: November 1, 2004
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. Muslims everywhere are in the middle of Ramadan. The holy month is a time for special prayers. It also means no food or drink from sunrise until sunset each day. Today we explore what it is like, especially for girls, to be young and Muslim in America.
Jesmin Saikh is a student at a public high school in Rockville, Maryland. There are more than two thousand students at Magruder High School. About twenty of them are members of the Muslim Student Association.
Most of these young people were born in the United States. But their parents came from other countries, like India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan.
The students say more people began to ask them questions about Islam after the terrorist attacks on the United States in two thousand one. But the teenagers say they have not been treated badly because of what happened.
For Ramadan, the Muslim students gave candy to all the teachers at the school. Tied to the candy was a piece of paper with facts about the observance.
It is easy to tell that Jesmin is Muslim. A hijab cloth covers her hair. Jesmin says it is easier to follow Muslim rules about boys and girls when she wears hijab. These rules limit social relationships between girls and boys. Jesmin and another student, Sherine Heshmat, say the scarf lets boys know that they do not go on dates.
In some schools, religious rules about dress can sometimes conflict with administrative rules. For example, schools might want students only to wear hats outdoors. Or some kinds of head coverings might be banned because they can represent a sign of membership in a gang.
An eleven-year-old Muslim girl faced these sorts of rules at her school in the state of Oklahoma. She was told not to wear her scarf because schools in her city ban all head coverings for boys and girls.
Her family brought action in court. They said the school was treating her unfairly because of her religion. The court agreed. Now school officials must permit students to wear religious head coverings.
Atena Asiaii goes to high school in a small town in Pennsylvania. She wants to become a doctor. She, too, wears hijab. Atena wrote about herself for a new American magazine for Muslim women, called Azizah. Azizah is the Arabic word for strong and dear.
Atena says she likes people to ask questions about Islam. She found the students at her school, in her words, "simply uninformed." One girl asked if she had ever seen her own hair. Another girl pulled the cloth off Atena's head. But Atena's friends explained that the girl who did that liked to play tricks on everyone, not just Muslim girls.
Asma Gull Hasan is twenty-nine years old and works as a lawyer in San Francisco, California. Her parents are from Pakistan, but she grew up in the state of Colorado. She has written two books, "American Muslim" and "Why I Am a Muslim." She is also a public speaker.
Asma Hasan wears hijab only when she prays at a mosque. She believes Muslim women and girls should wear clothes that do not show too much skin. But she agrees that it can be difficult to resist popular culture.
Asma Hasan has a Web site where girls can ask questions. Some ask about problems they may be having as Muslims in American society. Others ask about personal relationships, or how to deal with their parents.
The questions are answered by a group of older Muslim women. They often tell young people to try to understand the differences between growing up here and growing up in their parents’ country.
The Web site is asmahasan.com.
Another young Muslim woman from California is Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine. Her parents are from Montenegro. She is the author of a book called "Before the Wedding: One-hundred-fifty Questions for Muslims to Ask Before Getting Married."
Munira Ezzeldine says she began to study her religion seriously only after she became a university student. Now she is a mother who wears hijab and works with organizations of young Muslim girls.
She says she tries to help girls understand that their parents want to protect them. She urges them to have parties at their own homes, so their parents will know their friends.
Munira Ezzeldine says teenage girls who wear hijabs like boys just as much as girls who do not cover their hair. So she says it is a good thing there are more places where Muslim girls can talk about these issues.
She lives in Irvine, California. She says there are four high schools just in her city that now have Muslim student associations.
For the first time, the national president of the Muslim Student Association is female. Hadia Mubarak is also the first president born in the United States. Her parents are from Syria; she grew up in Florida.
In a story for Azizah magazine, Hadia Mubarak wrote that she sometimes felt she did not belong in America or in Syria. But, as a university student, she met Muslims from many other countries. She wrote that she started to feel good about being an American Muslim.
Now she will lead an organization of Muslim young people that has more members born inside the United States than outside.
Jabbir Khan is a Muslim boy who goes to Magruder High School in Maryland.
Recently, he sat in a circle of boys and girls and talked about being Muslim. Jabbir says boys and girls would not be sitting together in his parents’ country, Bangladesh. But he says following his religion helps him do the right thing when he is with other young people.
For example, Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol. Usman Khan, another boy in the circle, says he is sometimes offered alcohol at parties. The legal drinking age in the United States is twenty-one. Usman says no one asks questions if you say no because of your religion.
High school proms are a tradition in the United States. A prom is a special dance where boys and girls celebrate the completion of high school. At a school in California last year, Muslim girls organized their own prom, without any boys. They took off their scarves and wore the same long, pretty dresses that other girls wear to proms.
On the other side of the country, in Maryland, Jesmin Saikh says she does not plan to attend her high school prom. She says she would rather go to dinner or a party after the prom with her friends.
Another student, Aisha Jamal, does not think a separate dance for girls is a good idea. She says it would only make the differences seem greater between students who are Muslim and those who are not.
Aisha is a little rebellious. Recently she decided to stop covering her hair. She says one reason is that she found it difficult to play sports. She says the scarf made her very hot when she played basketball.
But Aisha says she also believes it is easier to say what she thinks when she is not wearing hijab. She explains that she was once defending a friend who was arguing with another girl. She says the other girl called Aisha a terrorist because of her hijab.
Jesmin says people have thought similar things about her, because she is Muslim and wears hijab. She agrees that it is often difficult to explain Islam to other people. But when she goes back to India, where her parents were born, Jesmin says she feels defensive about America. She says she does not like to hear insults against Americans.
Young Muslims in America are finding more ways to explain Islam to other Americans. In the town of Herndon, Virginia, children from a Muslim school visited a public school to explain Ramadan. They shared foods that their families eat at night during the month of fasting.
The Muslim Student Association is organizing events called “fast-a-thons.” On some days, the association asks Muslim and non-Muslim students to give the money they would spend on food to community groups.
There is also a Muslim Inter-Scholastic Tournament, or MIST. This is for Islamic organizations in American high schools, though students of any religion can compete. The areas are knowledge, arts, skills and community service.
This event gives Muslim young people a chance to think about who they are and what they believe. It also gives them a chance to think about their identity in America and how they relate to other Americans.
Our program was written by Karen Leggett. Jill Moss was our producer and Bob Doughty was our recording engineer. This is Steve Ember.
And this is Faith Lapidus. Listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.