The Prom without Boys:  Muslim teenagers remake an American rite of passage

Anju Mary Paul

Posted Apr 2, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Prom without Boys:  Muslim teenagers remake an American rite of passage

by Anju Mary Paul

The first time Sahar Zawam understood that being Muslim could make a dent in her social life was when she realized she wouldn’t be able to attend her high school prom.

That particularly American rite of passage was off-limits to the Egyptian-American student at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, since Islam forbids its female followers from removing their headscarves or wearing revealing clothes in front of men other than family members.

Lots of Muslim girls at Midwood High, which has a large Pakistani and Arab population, had the same problem. But rather than break the dictates of their religion for the sake of a party, two Midwood seniors decided to organize a prom exclusively for Muslim girls.

Abitssam Moflehi, a Yemeni-American, and Farrah Abuzahria, a Palestinian-American, had heard about Islamic proms being held in Dearborn, Michigan. Why not in Brooklyn, they asked themselves.

They rented a small hall and sold tickets to Muslim girls they knew, for $15 each. They promoted the event at other area schools, and in mosques and youth centers. Word got around fast. Almost 80 girls showed up to that first prom.

Zawam organized the prom the following year.

“The girls were unbelievable!” she recalled. “You know, before they get inside the hall, they still have to wear the hijab. So these girls walk in with their black hijabs, they walk in, and they were like whoosh!” Sahar mimes a girl dramatically pulling apart the edges of her all-concealing, black drapes to reveal the dazzling gown she is wearing inside. It was like these girls had never had a party in their whole lives.”

This year Zawam’s younger sister Salwa is in charge. Salwa hopes attendance will double. “We’re going to have to find a bigger hall,” she says.

A Sanely-Priced Prom

Financial factors were another prom issue for these girls, who are mostly from working class backgrounds.

“The [prom] at Midwood High School, you had to pay $125 for the ticket because they took them to the Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan,” Zawam explained. “Girls were spending $400 for their dress, not to mention $100 for the nails and makeup and hair. And the limos! $150 for the limos. I had girlfriends [spending] over $1500.”

Zawam and her sisters decided to inject a dose of financial sanity. They spent less than $150 each for their dresses and accessories, and kept the ticket price at $15. For less than $200, the girls had a night to remember.

Who Are You?

The girls nearest the door were checking out the newcomers. For a few seconds, there was a pause as each tried to recognize another, without the usual scarves they wear in school. Then realization dawned and the screaming and hugging started.

Girls who saw each other only once a year at the prom reunited like estranged Bollywood lovers. One girl who had moved away to Boston returned just to attend the prom. A girl from upstate New York who found out about it during a mosque camp two days before had convinced her father to drive her three hours here so she could attend. Two girls attending a Palestinian baby shower next door, hearing the commotion, switched parties.

They were Pakistanis, Egyptians, Sudanese, Yemenis, Palestinians, Kosovars, Bangladeshis, Turks, and Afghanis. They were Puerto Ricans, and African-Americans who had converted to Islam. The entire female Muslim world was represented, wearing every color imaginable (though pink seemed to be the hot favorite).

Outside in the lobby, Nureen Abuzahria watched the door. A hefty Palestinian mother of five with a thick Brooklyn accent, she was making sure that only those who were supposed to be there got in. Three of her daughters were there.

Muslim parents have a reputation of being very protective of their daughters, but Nureen enthusiastically supported the party.

“This party is something to let off steam,” she said. “The girls do here what they can’t anywhere else. Instead of going into the bedroom and dancing in front of the mirror, they can dance here.”

Other parents were warier. Some refused to let their daughters attend. A few others dropped by the hall unannounced, to make sure that there were no boys around.

The prom started with a prayer. Then, after dinner and a graduation ceremony for the seniors, the real partying began. A pile of discarded shoes - sandals, slippers, and heels - formed quickly in a corner of the hall. Stylized dos were pulled back into simple ponytails. Fancy shawls and jackets were cast aside. Make-up was washed away by perspiration as the girls shook, wiggled, and boogied non-stop.

“Each one shows their cultural dance,” Nureen Abuzahria explained. “But guess which dance they all know? The American dancing! The hip-hop! Usher comes on and they all know what to do! It joins them together. God bless America!”

By eleven it was time to wrap up. The girls’ once-a-year Cinderella night was over, and it would be back to wearing hijabs the next day.

Originally published by NYU Livewire