Originally published in The Austin American-Statesman, May 14, 2006.
The Prom Without Boys
Muslim teenagers remake an American rite of passage
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 problematic for the Egyptian American student at Midwood High School in Brooklyn. Some Muslims believe that Islam forbids its female followers to remove their headscarves or wear 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, 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 came 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. They walk in, and they were like whoosh!” Sahar mimed a girl whipping open her black robe to reveal the dazzling gown she is wearing underneath. “It was like these girls had never had a party in their whole lives.”
Financial factors were another prom issue for these girls, who are mostly from working class backgrounds. Many of their non-Musliim classmates spent upward of $1,000 for prom expenses.
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.
Zawam’s younger sister Salwa took charge of the prom this year. As the girls entered the rented hall, there was a pause as each tried to recognize the other, without the usual scarves they wear in school. Then the screaming and hugging started.
There were Pakistanis, Egyptians, Sudanese, Yemenis, Palestinians, Kosovars, Bangladeshis, Turks and Afghanis. There were Puerto Ricans and African Americans who had converted to Islam. The entire female Muslim world was represented, wearing every color imaginable.
Outside the party, 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.
“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.”
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. Fancy shawls and jackets were cast aside. Make-up was washed away by perspiration as the girls shook, wiggled and boogied nonstop.
“Each one shows their cultural dance,” Nureen Abuzahria said. “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 11 p.m., 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.