From Saturday's Globe and Mail, Saturday, Jun. 06, 2009 04:49AM EDT
Salma Hindy had caramel highlights added to her long, dark hair for the first time yesterday – though because she wears the hijab, they will stay mostly a secret vanity, hidden from public view.
Last night, the 17-year-old honours student, yearbook editor and future engineer, arrived at her prom, concealed by a shapeless tunic, her stylish upswept hair forming a bump under her head scarf. Until, that is, she passed through the closed doors of the banquet hall in Mississauga, Ont., and, under a ceiling of blue and gold balloons, revealed an elegant teenager in a sparkling, black evening gown – the beginning of a night she had imagined since Grade 8.
There was dancing, but no boys – in mixed company, young Muslim women cannot dance or wear revealing clothing. No one was sneaking in alcohol – drinking is strictly forbidden by Islam. And there was no prom Queen: Instead, every graduate wore a tiara.
The “Sister's Prom” has become an annual event among Toronto's Muslim community, and is also a symbol of the balance that defines the lives of modern young women like Ms. Hindy, born and raised in Canada, faithful to Islam. They have ambitions to be doctors, engineers and community leaders, while embracing the rules placed upon them by their religion – no dating, for instance.
At school, they may sit apart from the boys, but they still giggle at Zac Efron on the movie screen and sing along to Three Days Grace in their bedrooms. And, like any teenage girl graduating from high school, they just want to dance at their prom.
As U.S. President Barack Obama's historic speech in Cairo this week underlined, the misconceptions and judgments between Muslims and non-Muslims travel both ways – some Canadians are uneasy with aspects of Islam and, particularly, the role of women.
Ms. Hindy, who is frank and enthusiastic to share her opinion, would be happy to talk to them. Canadian-born, with Egyptian parents, she has woven her Muslim faith smoothly into her North American life. There is only one Salma – she watches Wolverine at the movies, coaches soccer and argues for equal time for the girl's basketball team at her Islamic private school in Mississauga. She is a devout Muslim beneath the hijab, who describes herself as “beautiful fruit” needing protection from “the flies,”
and accepts that at a Western-style prom she'd have to wear a jacket over her dress and sit on the sidelines while everyone else danced.
Ms. Hindy, and her peers interviewed for this story, don't see themselves as conflicted, and insist their friends would say the same. They have been raised, they say, by parents who encouraged them to think like other Canadians and pushed them to succeed, while still honouring Islam.
So they can believe that a women should be modest – refusing, for this story, to be photographed in their prom dresses – while admiring pop stars such as Avril Lavigne and Keri Hilson, who are anything but.
Their parents would “strongly discourage” them from hanging out with boys – at best, Ms. Hindy says she'd have to bring her brother along – but she is adamant that this would also be her choice. “I have my dosage of fun,” she says, “but obviously my parents are more protective.”
They look forward to the day they will be officially courted by men, guided by their families, but free to make their own choice – a custom they argue is more respectful of women then all the drama of the hookups and breakups among their non-Muslim friends.
“There's no real point to the way kids are doing it now,” observed Sarah Kassem, a 17-year-old about to graduate from her public high school in Milton, Ont., who arrived at the prom, also covered, but ready to show off her flowing, halter-style gown. “They are on and off with their boyfriends and girlfriends. They go for a month and they are celebrating.”
Eighteen-year-old Sarah Usmani, who wants to become an oncologist, sounds pretty empowered when asked this week whether she thinks she might be missing out on that most famous of date nights.
“I don't need a boyfriend to have a good time,” she scoffed, and, noting the wild, drunken events that have clouded many a traditional prom, added pointedly: “And my parents won't be freaking out when I am exiting the front door.”
Their reasons for wearing the hijab, usually colour co-ordinated to match their outfits, are thoughtful – gusty even – given the negative reaction it often draws. “I honestly think the hijab is something so beautiful,” said Ms. Hindy, who has been wearing it since she was eight years old and wanted to emulate her older sisters. “I see how women are treated in society – a lot of time like objects. I feel the hijab liberates you from that.”
Ms. Usmani, whose parents were born in Pakistan, wears the hijab only as part of her school uniform, for now. “When I start to wear the scarf,” she said, “I want to do make sure I carry myself properly and do it justice.”
But the hijab, they know, is more than a religious choice – it casts them as ambassadors for Islam, particularly in a society inundated with negative images of what it means to be Muslim. “I guess you can't help yourselves,” sighed Ms. Hindy, “because of what's portrayed in the media.”
In 2007, when Aqsa Parvez, a young Toronto woman, was allegedly killed by her father, in part, for refusing to wear the hijab, Ms. Kassem was bombarded with questions, even from girls she considered friends. “They wanted to know if I was forced to wear it,” she recalled. “If I don't wear it, am I going to be shunned by family?”
The truth is just the opposite: When Ms. Kassem began wearing the head scarf in Grade 10, she felt ready and thought it would clarify to her peers her moral values.
Her father, discouraged her, worried that it would complicate her life, especially on the soccer field. She has experienced the stereotype it carries: While struggling to understand a verse of Shakespeare in class, a new teacher suggested she take a course in English as a second language. “I was born in Saskatchewan,” she said.
In school debates, Ms. Kassem often finds herself defending Islam, arguing forcefully that the atrocities and violence against women is a distortion of the religion.
Bolstered by the example of her older sister, an engineer who made a successful case for a multifaith prayer room at work, Ms. Hindy said there is a way to educate people respectfully. “At work, I would shake a man's hand and speak to him later,” she said, to explain that her religion forbids her from touching a man outside her family. “I wouldn't embarrass him.”
And in many ways, this is what their prom is about – not forced seclusion, but a blending of traditions – a rejection of the extremism Mr. Obama assailed in his speech. At the prom, which was organized by a local Islamic school, every graduate was called on stage to announce her future plans.
They were shown a slideshow of Muslim women who have made a difference. Ms. Hindy performed the dubka , a traditional Lebanese line dance before the crowd of 200, many of them mothers, aunts and sisters. And then, with the meal finished and official entertainment over, the girls – ranging from Grade 8 to high-school graduate – took the stage to dance until late in the evening.
“It's all about being with your friends,” Ms. Kassem said this week, while still hunting her dream dress. “People I think, have a totally wrong impression that we don't party. If anybody came, they'd see we are going to be dancing like crazy.”
I think it's a great alternative for sisters to have their fun in an awesomely modest way.