In Central Ohio, Muslim girls can face a difficult journey, as the recent case of New Albany teen Fathima Rifqa Bary reveals. Nada Naiyer shows how she navigates those bumpy waters.
On a Wednesday evening in early September, teens head past a police officer sitting behind a sliding glass window at a drug-treatment center on 11th Avenue. Nada Naiyer, a 17-year-old girl from Hilliard Davidson High School, arrives with a few friends for this meeting of Youth to Youth, an anti-drug group threatened by drastic budget cuts.
The goal of this gathering is of the highly improbable kind: Create compelling videos, send them to the Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres talk shows and hope for a miracle. Staff member Jaime Urban directs the filming, and take after take of "Save Youth to Youth" shout-outs begin.
Each one is more deafening than the last, as the raucous teens, driven by the chance for fame on national television, comply with each directorial command. Nada is not hard to spot among the more than 60 teens, as she alone wears a hijab, the traditional Islamic headscarf considered a sign of modesty.
The room grows stuffy. Teens begin to sweat. Yet Urban directs the crowd ever closer together. Nada ends up sandwiched between two brawny boys, the top of her head barely visible. Cheryl Campbell, a youth services coordinator, sits on a chair at the perimeter of the room and notices Nada. Gushing, she says, "I love Nada, she's like the nicest girl I've ever met." She pauses while watching Nada's head pop up above the crowd as she yells along. "She's really good at finding her comfort zone," Campbell says. "She's also good about not asking for special accommodation."
The observation seems odd, at first, but then prescient. There's a suggestion to film a dance scene for the "Ellen DeGeneres Show," an imitation of the host's well-known shtick with guests. An adult organizer, a voluptuous woman in tight jeans and gold sandals, begins to move seductively. A girl jumps to the center, throwing her body into a handstand, her shirt falling revealingly to her face. As she lands back on her feet, she adjusts her shirt with a laugh. Girls bump hips; guys break out in suggestive hip thrusts and repetitious booty shaking.
Nada is unflappable, her body rigid as a mannequin, except when she claps along half-heartedly. Eventually, she sits on a chair, out of the camera's view.
Dancing is strictly forbidden in Islam, according to some interpretations. It is a belief Nada, a devout Muslim, adheres to without reservation. As editor of a teen newsletter published by her mosque, she ran a story that characterized proms as a fruitless purchase, "a night of perceived 'enjoyment,' which, in actuality, compromises one's [religion]."
Nada is tall, with flawless, light-brown skin. She carries herself with a confident stride, yet is immensely approachable, exuding sweetness and smiling almost constantly. Nada lives less than a minute's walk from the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, the largest Muslim gathering place in the region. She is one of the millions of Muslims living in the United States (estimates range from 2.5 million to seven million), and one of the estimated 60,000 Muslims residing in Central Ohio. The local community once was a small group of college students who attended a mosque near the Ohio State campus in the early 1980s; now, another 14 mosques have opened throughout the city, attended by immigrant families, many now raising U.S.-born Muslim children.
This burgeoning group enjoys not just religious freedom, but also economic prosperity. It was one of the more salient points President Barack Obama made in June during a historic speech in Cairo, Egypt, aimed at easing tensions between the U.S. and the Muslim world: American Muslims enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average.
"Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion," he said. "That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America."
And just the same, Islam is part of Columbus. Syrian immigrant Nabih Tarazi, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Columbus and a professor of mathematics at Franklin University, says the growth of the community has raised the profile of Muslims in Columbus. "In the '80s, you might see two or three women in town with a headscarf. Now they are all over. They are at Meijer, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. You go to the park and see them all over. It's a completely different kind of presence today," he says.
Nada's parents are part of the
65 percent of adult Muslims in the U.S. who were born elsewhere, many in traditional, non-Westernized societies. As with all immigrant groups throughout American history, the second generation represents a transitional experience, forced by geographic circumstance to navigate unfamiliar social mores, a youth culture often radically different than that experienced by their parents.
Tarazi frequently counsels families struggling with this transition. One of the more intractable challenges is whether young women should live by themselves if not married. "I'm seeing now children leaving home and living by herself. It is unheard of in the Arab and Muslim world, but here it happens frequently," Tarazi says. "The parents, in general, need to realize this is a new situation, a new reality, and some of the norms they have and were born with and raised with on these norms can no longer apply the way they want them to be applied."
For Muslim youth, creating a hyphenated identity in an open culture with seemingly infinite choices can be a difficult journey. For Muslim-American girls, this path presents a particularly complex set of issues-as revealed in the recent case of New Albany teen Fathima Rifqa Bary. A media firestorm ensued after the runaway 17-year-old, who reported she feared for her life after her family learned she had converted to Christianity, sought refuge in the home of a Florida preacher and his wife. (Her family denies her allegations.) Beyond the legal wrangling, the case revealed deep fissures and tensions below the surface of the Christian and Muslim communities in Central Ohio-at least as evidenced by the caustic comments about Muslims posted on the Dispatch's website and in fringe blogs. Within the broader national context, Americans see Muslims as facing more discrimination inside the U.S. than other major religious groups, a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported, with only gays and lesbians viewed as dealing with more discrimination.
Nada's life story is radically different than Bary's. Arguably, the girls occupy opposite ends of the continuum of the female Muslim experience in America. Nada says she never has questioned her faith and attends mosque as many as three times a week; she began fasting during Ramadan in the first grade and just five years later committed to wearing the hijab at all times in public. She does not date, have close male friends or attend school dances. She says she spends time with many close friends who are Christian and is eager to experience American youth culture, but she does so at a prudent distance. She considers "Grey's Anatomy" her favorite show, but there's no cable in the house, cellphone in her backpack or plans for the senior prom. Her devotion, obedience and deference to her parents and Muslim faith seem unshakeable. Nada is not Bary.
And yet, just the same, Nada and her experience as a second-generation Muslim growing up in America is not representative of all Muslim girls being raised in America by immigrant parents, either. One person is never the whole story.
For Nada, any clash between the two cultures, whenever it may occur, is taken in stride. Asked about how she fits into American culture and stays true to her values, Nada simply says, "I don't find it very difficult. I just sort of float into it. . . . There's always someone to talk to, especially in larger group settings."
Indeed, this is exactly what Nada does at that Youth to Youth meeting in early September.
When the interminable filming ends, the dancing grinds on with a game of "Ride That Pony." Two circles form, with guys on the inside and girls on the outside, creating a whirlwind of bodies. A deafening chant fills the room.
Here we go. . . . Ride that pony, ride around that big fat pony, here we go ride that pony. . . . This is how we do it. The circling stops. Boys pick out a girl to dance with.
Front to front to front, my baby. And it's a 180-degree turn. Butts touch, some grinding jean to jean. Back to back to back, my baby. And a quarter turn for a hip-to-hip bump. Side to side to side, my baby. To the deafening climax: This is how we do it!
Nada stands rod straight as part of the circle, spared a pairing thanks to a high girl-to-boy ratio. On the fourth round, a bulky teenage boy aggressively bumps up against a petite girl in snug, bright-pink athletic shorts, knocking her into Nada, who breaks the girl's fall. Nada's eyes dart back and forth. She exits the circle.
"I'm tired," she says to a visitor.
"Come on, come on," mouths the girl in pink shorts to Nada, pleading with her to rejoin the whirling circle. Nada smiles demurely and shakes her head. She begins rubbing one thumb over the other in her clasped hands.
Nada lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in the affluent Silverton Farms suburban development in Hilliard. Her house has a light-colored stone façade, a two-story entranceway and a three-car garage. The home is grand without being ostentatious. On this day, Nada's 13-year-old brother, Muhammad, opens the door to greet a visitor. Nada bounds down the stairway, sporting a loose ponytail, with wisps of hair framing her bare face. Barefoot, she's wearing jeans and a nondescript yellow T-shirt.
Talkative and engaging, she discusses her studies while sitting in the front room of the home. In mid sentence, she stops, and with a polite excuse, takes off upstairs. She returns wearing a black zip-up fleece and her dark hair is covered with a white scarf, ornamental trim framing her forehead. She straightens the scarf as she sits.
The doorbell rings a few minutes later. It is Harun Moos, dressed in a white cap and a long flowing white robe. An imam, he's visiting from his home in Cape Town, South Africa. It's his first time in the U.S., having arrived a few days before Ramadan began in late August. He will leave in time to celebrate Eid, a feast marking the end of the month-long fast. When Moos sits in the front room, Nada grows quiet, deferential almost.
Nada's father, Jamal, in a knee-length traditional Islamic shirt and matching loose-fitting gray pants, is eager to share the highlights and successes of the Muslim community with his visitor. Gregarious and charismatic, he talks about the mosque being designated a voting center in the last election and the outreach program that allows visitors to learn about Islam. He beams when discussing how the Noor Islamic Cultural Center has a "good relationship" with the city of Hilliard. (In the Bary case, her Florida attorney said that Noor had terrorist ties and was the subject of an FBI probe, an allegation the center's leaders strongly deny. The FBI also denied any investigation.)
Jamal, from India, came to the U.S. in 1985 as a student studying civil engineering at Ohio State University. He now works as an environmental scientist with the Ohio EPA and volunteers as a chaplain at the juvenile detention center in Franklin County.
He discusses how much the local community has grown. "There's a lot of votes," he says. "Votes that can tip the balance in a close election."
Nada's mother, Tahseen Naiyer, in a fashionable red headscarf with black circles, is in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. It is the second evening of Ramadan, a holy month in Islam in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. The family gathers around a small rectangular kitchen table loaded with food. No one has eaten since before dawn, not even a sip of water.
Jamal checks his watch and consults with Moos; they decide the sun has, in fact, set. It is 8:18 pm. Fresh dates in a small glass bowl are passed. There is a black bean salad with cilantro and onions, as well as a casserole dish lined with round balls of fried chickpeas drizzled with yogurt sauce and a plate piled high with a fried mix of breading and spinach. And there's a bowl of hummus. Nada's mother almost apologetically says, "This is just the appetizer."
Indeed, there is more food, but prayer comes first. In the family room, the visiting imam leads the prayer. All face Mecca, which, coincidentally, is the same direction as a large, flat-screen television.
For the uninitiated, observing Muslims in prayer can be disconcerting and impressive at the same time: the sheer physicality of it, the rhythm, the discipline, the uniformity. And Moos's voice is harmonic and undeniably beautiful. The melody lilts high into the cavernous room, echoing off bare white walls.
Allahu Akbar. . . .
And then silence, except for a clock ticking above the refrigerator, cars zooming along nearby Wilcox Road and the fountain gurgling in a small pond behind the house.
Allahu Akbar. . . .
Prayers finish and the family returns to the kitchen. On the counter the main meal is laid out-yellow rice, baked chicken, lamb stew, cucumbers and carrots. Muhammad pours mango juice into glasses dutifully.
After dinner, Nada heads upstairs to her bedroom. It is austere. There are no posters on the walls, but a medium-size old TV is in the corner. "There's only three stations," she explains without a hint of regret. No cable. No MTV.
When did she start wearing the hijab?
"In sixth grade."
"I thought it was time."
Then she's ready to go to the mosque. As Nada begins to walk there, she explains the neighborhood's diversity: a few American natives and several Muslims from Syria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries. (The Hilliard school district does not collect data on the faith of its students, says diversity coordinator Janet Monseur-Durr. But she says the system has changed from 98 percent of European descent in the early 1990s to
82 percent today, with African-Americans and Asians, including Pakistani and Indian students, as the top two minority groups.)
At mosque, Nada will pray yet again, this time with the women and children, who are sequestered upstairs in a separate room. Moos's haunting voice can be heard. A small girl, no higher than her mother's elbow, is dressed in pink, including a matching, delicately embroidered headscarf. The prayers stretch on for a long time before it's time to leave.
As Nada heads home, the mosque shines brightly, contrasting starkly against the black sky and the line of suburban housetops on the horizon. Later, a car with four teenage girls zooms by. Windows down. Music blaring. Highlighted blond hair flying everywhere. The girls, with their tan, bare shoulders, sing with abandon. It's hard to imagine Nada driving in her black Honda around Hilliard with her friends this carefree.
Tahseen grew up in a different world than her daughter. She says there was no peer pressure. All her friends talked about the same things, believed the same things, ate the same food. In halting English she says, referring to Nada, "Whatever our jokes, she cannot understand our jokes."
She's talking about when she gets together with her Pakistani friends here and with family back home, as she has done with Nada three times, including two months this past summer. Despite Nada's fluency in Urdu, her mother's native language, the conversations between Tahseen and Tahseen's friends aren't entirely accessible to her. There is a gulf, as there is when Tahseen tries to follow Nada and her friends.
Tahseen then meanders to other topics-education, career and Nada's impressive educational ambitions and her own degrees. She earned a B.S. in microbiology and biochemistry, a master's in physiology and was six months into a PhD program in Karachi, Pakistan, before she arrived in the U.S. in 1992 to marry Jamal, her second cousin, in an arranged marriage.
It's easy to imagine her as a professor or a researcher in a lab. Yet, she says flatly, "I came here and got married and had kids and I didn't do anything. I spent 15 years at home. I didn't do anything, only raise the kids. When they start to go to middle school I start to go to work."
In 2005, she began to work as a full-time teaching assistant in the preschool program at Zenith Academy, a charter school in the Northland neighborhood filled mostly with Somali students. "The kids, I like it," she says.
For Nada, shaping a future is an entirely different proposition. The opportunities are immense. And the expectations radically different. Like her mother, Nada is an exceptional student. As a senior this school year, every class is advanced placement. Her GPA tops 4.3 on a 4.0 scale. She talks about becoming an engineer. Her extracurricular activities don't involve sports-not for any religious reason, she says, she simply didn't get the athlete gene. Instead, Nada is involved in a litany of clubs and social service groups, including Key Club and the March of Dimes. She's spent the last two summers working as an intern, extracting DNA at a research laboratory. She's been a Girl Scout since kindergarten and earned her silver award by organizing a reading center during a parent-teacher conference evening at school two years ago. She's now working toward her gold award by racking up more volunteer hours. Nada also regularly volunteers at two hospitals, Dublin and Riverside, averaging 16 hours a month since her freshman year.
It's a typical schedule for an overachieving teenager. Yet there are limitations. She doesn't go to dances. She doesn't attend parties. It's a life dominated by practical, wholesome activities.
When Tahseen is asked how she sees her daughter's life unfolding, she says,
"I want her to be a good citizen, a good human being and a good Muslim, too, and
get a good education and help the community well."
She adds, "College, yeah."
Out of state?
"I prefer home," she says, pausing for a moment. "It's hard for me, but if she wants, I would let her."
At 9 pm on Sept. 19, the day before Eid, women with children in strollers and toddlers in tow descend on the basement activity room of the Noor center. There's tea, bottled water and baskets full of small bags of peanut M&Ms and mini Snickers bars. A woman unloads a case of headscarves, piling her colorful offerings on a table to sell. It's Chaand Raat-literally translated as "moon night," a celebration common in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
A girl, probably younger than 10 and wearing a striking black and white headscarf, sits at a table handing out tickets for the women. They act like numbers at a deli counter, to bring some order to the main focus of the evening: the application of henna tattoos on the women's hands. It is a festive gesture in preparation for Eid, a day with endless visits with friends and sumptuous meals that for Nada will conclude with a party at Magic Mountain with go-cart rides.
Tahseen and another woman at the mosque have organized the event to give the younger girls a taste of home. Tahseen clearly is happy. She greets friends with hugs and kisses on their cheeks.
A few women make designs on paper with henna. When Nada arrives, she is almost immediately roped into showing off her skills with the dark, reddish herb that she learned two years ago during a visit to Karachi. She looks perfectly at home amid this intimate gathering of women. And her mother frequently glances at her warmly.
Nada concentrates on slowly squeezing the viscous henna from a plastic tube onto the outstretched arms of a woman in a flowing maroon dress. Patiently, she creates a beautiful flower on the back of the woman's hands and arm, one small dot or line at a time. n
Mya Frazier is a freelance writer.
This story appeared in the November 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.