Growing Up in America: Indiana Muslim girls discuss their lives and aspirations

By wael | April 24, 2010

From Indiana’s, August 30. 2007

SOUTH BEND — In terms of academics, Serene Ibrahim, 20, resembles other college students. She has set her sights on a major, nursing, taking inspiration from her aunt, a nurse, and her favorite TV shows, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “ER.” She also plans on graduating after finishing four years of studies, in 2009, from Indiana University South Bend.

Serene, however, has never attended a typical college party, and probably never will.

But that’s all right with her.

Serene’s faith, Islam, prohibits dancing with someone of the opposite sex and drinking, so she finds other ways to have fun with her non-Muslim friends.

“We go to the movies, we go out to eat, we go shopping, and sometimes I go out of town” to visit friends in Chicago, Serene says.

Muslim girls growing up in America, like Serene, may face unique challenges in keeping their social life in rhythm with their religious standards, but some local Muslim girls say their lifestyles are more similar to their non-Muslim American counterparts than many people think.

In the wake of a recent Pew Research Center Study that shows Muslim Americans are largely “assimilated” and “happy with their lives,” five Muslim girls living in South Bend reveal they are no exception.

No strangers to fun

Serene, who moved to the States from Palestine when she was 2, spent most of her time with non-Muslim friends while growing up because South Bend has a relatively small population of Muslims. Faith, however, was always a dominating factor in shaping her social life, in knowing where to draw the line, such as declining college party invitations. As a child, neither Serene nor her younger sisters, Nadia and Heba, were allowed to attend sleepover parties, not as a result of religious restrictions, but because of cultural traditions. Their parents were simply leery about leaving them at the house of a family they had met only in passing, or not at all.

“I stay late, but I don’t sleep over,” says Heba, who, at 12, is in the thick of the sleepover birthday party trend. Sitting next to her on the couch of their home, Nadia, 15, says, “Even though we live in America, to (our parents) we still live in their country. …

“We have to respect that they’re our parents.”

Although Heba didn’t have a sleepover party for her birthday, she asked her Muslim and non-Muslim friends to join in an evening of fun.

“She invited a lot of her American friends over, and they all showed up,” Nadia says. “And we all did Arabic dancing” (essentially belly dancing). “They learned, and they got up and danced with us.”

Although Heba held a party with Muslims and non-Muslim girls alike, usually the Ibrahims split their time between non-Muslim and Muslim friends.

Nadia and Heba don’t see their Muslim friends often during the school year because both have classes on Friday afternoon, the time of congregation for mosque-goers. During the school year, most of their time is spent with their non-Muslim friends, whom they see every day. During the summer, when they are free to visit the mosque more often, they hang out with Muslim girls.

And, “when (Muslim) girls get together, we open our mouths and let everything loose,” Nadia says.

School, movies and fashion are the primary topics of conversation. And although these teenage girls don’t talk much about boys and relationships, they do dwell on their favorite actors, such as Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp, stars of the blockbuster hit “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Nadia says she and her Muslim friends don’t talk about relationships because dating is not seen as acceptable social behavior within Islam.

“Muslims are commanded to lower their gazes and have modesty — all these things to avoid social and family problems in our life,” says Imam Mohammad Sirajuddin of the Islamic Society of Michiana in South Bend.

“(Dating) leads to social problems — unwanted pregnancy — and (teenagers) cannot focus on education.” Serene says that, instead, the engagement period is reserved for a couple to get to know each other. Depending on the family, engaged couples can go out alone, or chaperoned, and call each other on the phone. If the couple find they are incompatible, they can end the engagement, which does not break any religious laws.

And just as many Muslim girls have found ways to look for their soul partners without having to date, likewise they have found ways to enjoy a night of dancing without visiting the club scene, which may entail mixing with the opposite sex, drinking alcohol and wearing revealing clothes.

Instead, at an all-girls party, girls let loose and strut their stuff.

“When I go to an all-girls party, I wear a jilbab (a gownlike traditional Arab dress) over my clothes,” Serene says. “I wear, like, a short skirt and a tank top or tight pants, and I still do my hair under the hijab” (the Islamic head scarf).

And not only do girls get stylish for the occasion, but they have fun dancing to Arabic music and chatting, laughing and joking with their friends.

Space in faith for soccer

Although expectations of modesty rule out wearing revealing clothes for Muslim girls, they can participate in sports in connection with school and during their leisure time with friends.

Abida Coric, 16, a Bosnian who moved to South Bend when she was 7, spends much of her time immersing herself in soccer, her favorite sport.

Abida, a junior at John Adams High, will be a “floater,” playing on both the junior varsity and varsity soccer teams this fall. She is an avid fan of international soccer, especially Brazil’s national team.

“(Soccer’s) kind of a family thing,” Abida says. “It’s from our country (Bosnia). We watch it and we play it.”

Abida enjoys more than just the thrill of soccer, though.

“It’s more fun than just ordinary practice,” she says. “Before a big game … we have dinner at one of the players’ houses, where we eat spaghetti or pasta or lasagna, and we just spend time together.”

Abida is allowed to wear the soccer uniform because the shorts extend to her knees and she wears her jersey and shorts relatively loosely.

When she starts wearing the hijab — which she plans on doing once she’s ready for the questions, stares and wardrobe changes — Abida will have to wear a soccer uniform with some modifications: full sleeves and long pants.

When exactly she’ll wear the hijab, Abida hasn’t yet decided. It’s a decision, however, that each Muslim woman makes on her own. It isn’t imposed on her by others.

Abida adds that her faith encourages her to strive hard to do well in whatever she does.

“Being a Muslim doesn’t stop you from being the person you are or who you want to become,” she says.

What about being an exotic dancer?

Ah, there are certain things Muslims can’t do … but by no means does Islam discourage girls from playing sports.

Part of the Potter fan club

With their story lines set among witches, wizards and evil dark lords, the Harry Potter books rank among favorites for Sairah Chaudhry, 13. Even though some Muslim scholars warn that children should not read the popular series because they might become fascinated with dark magic or witchcraft, Sairah’s parents are OK with their daughter reading J.K. Rowling’s series.

“They know I know it’s not real, and they know I like to read,” Sairah says.

Sairah did not attend any Harry Potter events the night of the final installment’s release, but when she finally got her hands on the highly coveted book, she finished it in three days.

“It was really, really good,” she says. “It’s the best so far.” Sairah is essentially a bookworm, having read the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine and “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series by Lemony Snicket.

Of course, Sairah still cherishes reading the Quran and knows about 20 chapters by heart. During the summer, she goes to the mosque to help teach Islam’s sacred book.

“I would go there and listen to the smaller kids read the Quran for me,” she says. “I check for (pronunciation) mistakes. I help the imam teach.”

Ambitious dreams

While their social lives may not run completely parallel to their non-Muslim counterparts’, Muslim girls see no conflict between adhering to their religious beliefs and joining the work force.

In fact, the South Bend Muslim girls in this story have ambitious goals.

Nadia says she would like to be a pharmacist one day, and a beautician on the side, since she loves to stay atop the latest makeup and hair trends.

Working hard to realize her dream, Nadia participates in the Notre Dame Educational Talent Search, a program designed to help low-income students, or children whose parents do not have a four-year college degree, prepare for higher education.

Meanwhile, Nadia nurtures her “beautician” side and keeps up with fashion trends by reading People magazine.

And yes, she would like to marry someday and have a family, but Nadia believes that will happen when God plans it.

“I personally think that when I get older, whatever happens. It all comes from God.”

Abida dreams of becoming a pediatrician. Right now, her mission in life is to return to Bosnia.

Not only does she not see religion as restricting her desires and aspirations, she sees her faith as encouraging her to pursue her dream of reaching out to people.

“In our old country, the kids were very sick (during the war). They weren’t really taken care of,” she says.

“So I always had a dream of helping them when I grew up.”

One Response to “Growing Up in America: Indiana Muslim girls discuss their lives and aspirations”

  1. Meryem Says:
    September 9th, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Salam-alaikom .
    Today is the last day of Ramadan. 🙂


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