By: Sr. Raja El-Mazini*
It is often said that one of the most difficult and important times in a person’s life is when one makes the transition from a child to an adult-also known as the teenage years. This transitional stage in a person’s life is crucial because in it one must define him/herself, and struggle to establish one’s identity while trying to be accepted by friends. It is hard enough being a teenager, but being a Muslim teenager in a Western society proves to be increasingly challenging.
Many teens struggle with fitting in while holding on to their cultural and religious values. Some deem it impossible but the girls from the Muslim Girls Youth Halaqa make it clear that it is not. “It’s possible but really, really hard”, says 18 year old Yesim Ozarahman, a member of this halaqa. When asked about which aspect of their lives makes it harder to fit into society the majority of the girls answered that it was the hijab. Any Muslim girl can sympathize with this whether she wears hijbab or not. “ When people look at you, the first thing they notice is your hijab, not your face,” said 12 year old Zenab Moustarzak. “ It’s not a bad thing of course, but like once they see the hijab they think you’re some extremist or oppressed girl,” she added. Unfortunately, this is a harsh reality that is often experienced by most Muslim women living in societies in which opinions and judgements are formed on the basis of people’s appearances. The positive aspect to this is that this is a form of Dawaa, as the hijab serves as a great conversational topic and sparks interest in the religion. However, it is hard to walk down the halls of school or in the mall knowing that the terms “oppressed” and “terrorist” are floating in people’s minds.
Among the challenges that Muslim girls encounter, identity crisis is very popular. Many girls separate their Muslim identity from their personal one; at home these teenagers can be devout Muslims but out of the home these girls adopt a more Western identity. While some girls work hard to disassociate both identities, some just want both to be recognized. “Sometimes I want to be known as that smart, sweet, talented Muslim girl instead of just that Muslim girl,” stated Yesim Ozkahrahman. These girls admit that these identities should not be separated as they can be incorporated. Obviously, being Muslim transcends all national, cultural and personal identities, but it is possible to blend them all. Rather than just being known as “that Muslim girl”, one can be “that smart/intelligent/etc. Muslim girl”. These identities do not have to be independent from each other; instead our morals and values should be derived from our religion.
Girls should not feel the need to bury the “Muslim” aspect of their lives and all the morals that come with it and instead portray an identity that is more accepted. As long as one realizes that being Muslim comes before any other label, then they should be satisfied that they possess a personality that is more than worthy enough of respect and value.
“The next hardest thing would probably be trying to maintain your culture while also slightly adapting to the Western culture,” says Amal Labib, another faithful member of this halaqa group. “It’s normal for girls to have go to dances or have opposite gender relationships, and if you don’t you’re considered old fashioned,” she adds. While not all Westerners attend dances or have these relationships, it is often the norm for one to be saturated with these types of teenage experiences. The girls made it clear that they know that these things are prohibited in Islam and understand the dangers that are associated with them, but find it hard to explain this to their peers and classmates. Explanations always have to be offered and despite their logic, understanding is not always reciprocated.
It is evident that all the challenges that the youth sisters face stem from being accepted and being comfortable in society. Girls do not want to necessarily blend into their surroundings or “fit in”, but rather be given respect and equal opportunity. The hijab and certain rules and regulations are forms of guidance rather than obstacles. Living in the Western society, these aspects of our religion may seem like obstacles only because of how they are perceived by the people around us and the culture that they are engulfed in. These aspects do certainly make life a little harder, but in the end we will see that they give structure to our lives and lead us down a path that has only the best destination.
* Sr. Raja El-Mazini is a high school student and a member of the editorial board of Manitoba Muslim Magazine.