Adolescence is a critical and important time to inspire and empower girls and young women from all parts of the globe, as they figure out who they are through a complicated time. Unfortunately some girls are married at a relatively young age, disrupting their education and accomplishing the goals they may have set outside of the feminine ideal. This can become a particular issue for Muslim girls, especially in the context of crises and conflicts resulting in the displacement of adolescent girls and their families. Uprooting one’s life, seeking refuge in a new place and new culture because of crisis or inability to survive in the comfort of one’s home, particularly increases fears of losing one’s culture or heritage. The northeast of Philadelphia has become one space of refuge for many Arab and Muslim refugee families from all over. Fortunately because of that, it also offers many resources and spaces that girls can seek a positive and supportive environment for future ambitions. For example, mosques offer classes and help for anyone in need, plenty of Muslim owned markets, and many married women open their homes as an outlet for women to vent and relax. A support network is formed with these resources where women and girls can learn skills through working at the markets and gain valuable advice from intergenerational exchange. Of course, with the right resources and skills, adolescent females can transform themselves and the communities around them, making them successful young women in America.
As Al-Bustan was invited to meet with Muslim girls at a school in the Northeast, I was eager to join my colleagues to learn more about the girls’ experiences. I hoped that these girls could have a safe space to talk and openly express themselves. As it turns out, several Muslim female students have exuded signs of anxiety due to heightened political rhetoric. Walking into the library, I found a total of 40 Muslim girls patiently waiting for my colleagues and I. I did not know what to expect, especially since all of the girls came from diverse backgrounds. There were Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Moroccan, Pakistani, Afghani, and Uzbekistani students.
As I scoped the library, I instantly noticed how the girls grouped themselves by nationality: the Bangladeshi girls sat together, the Pakistani friends next to each other, separate from the Iraqis and the Palestinians. However, some Arab females sat together regardless of country and I assumed it was because of the comfort of having a shared language, Arabic. My initial feeling was that these females were terrified and silenced, and had no sense of self-expression. It wasn’t until our writing assignment that I realized almost everyone had the same goals they wanted to accomplish: gain an education and pursue a career. I found that these girls faced a double standard and that they feel very limited in what they can feasibly do. For example, I was informed that one girl has an older brother at the school, and he constantly has his eye on her and watches her every move and who she interacts with. She wishes she had the same freedom as her brother. Girls simultaneously expressed the pressures they face outside of their immediate Muslim community at school and the city at large and the concerns they feel about their place in the greater society.
With that being said, the girls in the class are all English language learners and their English is limited. Some arrived to America through “winning” a green card lottery while others immigrated from war or for a better life in general. Many were reluctant to share their struggles and concerns, but after I spoke about an issue I was facing the girls felt they could relate to, they immediately opened up. They wrote and talked about what they miss from their homelands and what values they brought with them to America. Every girl wrote about what they missed: their house, family, and friends – aspects of feeling belonging that everyone seeks and finds comfort in some way. Moving beyond that to more cultural aspects they missed were the athan (call to prayer), the festivities throughout Ramadan – the holy month of fasting), and the Eid holidays, celebrated at the end of Ramadan and a second time after the annual pilgrimage – Hajj. In addition, the values that each girl kept close to their hearts were: performing the 5 daily prayers, reading the Quran, wearing traditional and cultural clothing, decorating their homes the same as they did back home, and speaking in their native tongue. So far, each of the girls expressed a deep interest in meeting again to explore the different ways they experience their Muslim femalehood in the US. If my colleagues and I continue meeting, I want to help amplify these Muslim females’ voices, with all their nuances, within their school and beyond and across the city. I want these girls to know that there are services and programs they can seek for help or just to be involved within the Muslim/Arab community. Each of these young women’s stories and experiences needs to be heard, and their feelings and concerns need to be acknowledged!
-Zahia Mustafa, Program Assistant