Two Muslim Teens On Navigating Girlhood And Islamophobia In Their America

Carol Kuruvilla
 An illustration is seen during a commemoration ceremony at the Federal Plaza in Chicago, IL, United States on June 22, 2017 for Nabra Hassanen, who was murdered on her way back to an overnight event at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Fairfax, Virginia.  (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Welcome to ”The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience?” It depends where you look. 

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Along with the growing pains that typically mark the transition from girlhood to adulthood, American Muslim teen girls also face the challenge of dealing with discrimination because of their religion. 

This added layer of vulnerability became apparent during Ramadan this June, when a 17-year-old teen girl named Nabra Hassanen was abducted and killed while walking near her Virginia mosque. The tragedy hit close to home for many young Muslim girls. Like their peers around the country, Hassanen and her friends had left their mosque to eat suhoor, a pre-dawn Ramadan meal, at a fast food restaurant. The joyful nature of that treasured Ramadan ritual was shattered that Sunday morning in Virginia ― and the effects were felt across the country. 

Hundreds of miles away, in Florissant, Missouri, 17-year-old Salsabel Fares learned about Hassanen’s death through her friends and from her parents ― and not through social media, where she typically gets her news.

The murder stunned her. She told HuffPost she nearly broke out in tears when she heard about it.

“I was so incredibly upset,” she said. “It just scared me reading it. Because of my religion, I fear for my safety and I fear for my life.”

Salsabel Fares is a 17-year-old from Florissant, Missouri.

In Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Arshia Hussain, another 17-year-old Muslim girl, echoed Fares’ words. 

“That could have happened to any of us, to any Muslim girl,” Arshia told HuffPost. “There are so many Muslim girls thinking that it could have happened to them.” 

Though separated from Nabra’s community and from each other by distance, these two teen girls deeply felt the impact of her death. Their reactions to the tragedy in Virginia highlight how similar the experience of being Muslim in America can be, even in far-flung places.

But the miles can matter ― the place a family calls home can have an incredible impact a teen girl’s outlook on life and sense of self. A large population of American Muslims in a certain neighborhood can inspire a sense of community and confidence. On the other hand, being one of the only Muslim girls in your school who wears the hijab can mean learning to develop a thick skin. 

Arshia Hussain is a 17-year-old from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

Arshia and Salsabel both spoke to HuffPost about things that worried them, like doing well in school and getting into a good college. They also spoke about ways they’re making waves in their own communities ― by organizing a diversity presentation for school faculty, or sitting down for the pledge as a political stance. 

Read on to hear more about how these young teens experience America.

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HuffPost: Are there a lot of Muslims in your town? Are there a lot in your school? 

Arshia (Minnesota): The Muslim population is growing. We haven’t had a masjid here, but we are trying to get one. We have Friday prayers in our local community center. I see more and more people at Friday prayers. It’s very small and quiet, but definitely growing.

I went to a private Islamic school until high school. I grew up with Muslims and learned alongside Muslims. When I went into mainstream public school, that was a big change for me. [At the Islamic school,] everyone in your community looks like you, and does the same things as you. But in [public school] you’ll see more different types of religions. I realized I don’t know as many Muslims as I thought I did. But it was okay. You’ll always find a place for you in society. The high school setting is not that hard to fit into. Freshman year, I didn’t know anybody who was Muslim, but I’d see a Muslim girl with hijab on, and draw near them and be their friend.

Salsabel (Missouri): I live in the North County. I moved here from Philadelphia when I was 12. The northern part of St. Louis is really diverse. We have a lot of Muslims, more than in the West County. The more west you go, the less you see diversity and the less you see Muslims. Here, where I live, I’m really grateful. I go to a school where 27 languages are spoken. I don’t feel outcasted at school and when I go to the store and stuff like that I don’t feel that terrified. But I definitely do get stares. No matter where you go, people give you that dirty stare.

Fares said that many of her non-Muslim friends stick up for her. But some don't know much about her religion.  (Mohammad Fares)

Do you feel the teachers and faculty at your school support your religious identity?

Arshia (Minnesota): I never had a teacher that has hated me for being a Muslim or gotten into an argument or problem with a teacher because of that. Most teachers just care about work ethic, whether or not you’re a good student, whether you’re here to learn and get good grades.

Salsabel (Missouri): Oh yeah, [the teachers support me]. I mean there’s obviously a lot of teachers that you get that vibe from them and they stay away from you. 

They’re definitely really open-minded, which is really good, but some teachers aren’t as open-minded.

 

Do you think your non-Muslim classmates understand your faith? Do you think they’d be willing to stick up for you, if you needed it?

Arshia (Minnesota): My classmates and friends are of all different backgrounds honestly. There are other Muslims who wear hijab in my school, too. Most of my friends that I know, I can trust them and they support me. They’ve been there for me. There was this one situation where this girl [at my school] said something like, “Arshia’s so political.” And she said it in an annoyed tone. And my friend said back to her, “She has a reason to, she’s a Muslim girl, you don’t know what she’s been through and all her struggles.” That friend really supported me and has been there for me.

When I was new to the district and school, people were really curious. They’d ask me questions and I’d give them solid answers to help them understand my religion more and why I hold my religion so close. They were more like, “I heard about this, but I don’t know about it, can you tell me?” and then I’d tell them. It’s mostly questions about my hijab and who can see my hair. Occasionally, I’d get the oppressed Muslim question and then I’d say, “Do I look oppressed to you?”

Salsabel (Missouri): So many of my non-Muslim friends stick up for me. They see racism happening outside of school and they speak to me about it and talk to me about their frustrations.

I have a lot of non-Muslim peers that don’t know anything about my religion, who just know that I’m Muslim. Some even think I’m Christian, but I wear a headscarf. We’re in 2017, you’d expect them to know.

Around Christmas time, I was saying that I like Christmas, even though I don’t celebrate it. And [another student] said, “What do you mean you don’t celebrate it? I thought you did celebrate it.” And I said, “What are you talking about, can you not tell?” He was just really uneducated. And he said, “I just thought you celebrated Easter and everything else.” And that’s not true.

Arshia Hussain said she feels safe and welcome in her neighborhood in Minnesota.

When did you start wearing hijab? What was that transition like? 

Arshia (Minnesota): I was required to wear a hijab in middle school [at my old Islamic school]. They had it as a uniform. I didn’t start wearing it outside of school until seventh grade. My mom does it and most of the Muslims around me do it. It came naturally to me, that this is something I should do. I was already wearing it at school, so I thought I might as well start wearing it everywhere.

Salsabel (Missouri): It’s not the same for every family. Every girl is raised differently and some families are more lenient. I grew up in a more strict and more conservative tradition because that’s how my parents grew up. In my family [all the women] wear hijab. I grew up knowing that I’d have to wear it when I finally become an adult.

When I first wore the hijab in Philadelphia, it was really easy for me because literally everyone wore it there. When I came to St. Louis, mostly none of the Muslim girls wear it. Imagine moving to some place where you don’t know anyone or how anyone is going to react. It was hard, I’m not going to lie. 

 

Do you ever worry about your security while you’re outside your home? Have you ever felt harassed or threatened because of your faith?

Arshia (Minnesota): No. The way my parents raised me, I’m a really strong person and passionate about things that are a part of me. I’m usually like, this is who I am, this is what I do. You’re going to have to conform to me. I know most people feel really nervous about security post 9/11. I was literally one year old. [Even after Nabra Hassanen’s death], I still have a sense of strength within me and I feel that if anything happens to me, I’d rather die as a martyr. I would sacrifice for my religion.

Salsabel (Missouri): When I leave for school, my mom always makes me read a prayer, just to be safe. But I definitely do fear for my safety, I’m not going to lie. Especially when I go out to the white neighborhoods in St. Louis. I get a lot of really direct stares. I’m so used to it, I get so many stares. I can’t blame it on them because some people just weren’t raised that way, they weren’t taught that.

One time, I was at the mall [in the less diverse part of St. Louis] and just parking and this guy was walking in front of me and giving me the scariest stare. It was terrifying. I called my mom and asked if I should come home. You just don’t know how they feel.

But I know that people always stand up for me. After Trump became president, I’ve seen so much support for the community. My teachers at school were like, “I’m here for you, you shouldn’t feel like you don’t belong here.” There was support from everyone on social media, people around me. It makes me feel better. Of course I’m still scared for the world, but I know that I have people that will stand up for me.

Nabra Hassanen's name appears in chalk at a vigil at on June 21 near Reston, Virginia. (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

How did the news of Nabra Hassanen’s death affect your community, if at all? 

Arshia (Minnesota): When I first heard about it, I honestly felt really uneasy and upset. I felt betrayed because it wasn’t filed as a hate crime. She was only 17. That could have happened to any of us, to any Muslim girl. There are so many Muslim girls thinking that it could have happened to them. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to my sisters.

I think I have a pretty strong attitude, but that whole weekend shook the Muslim community. The leaders [at the mosque] talked about how we really have to watch out for our sisters or daughters because it could have literally happened to any of us. [My parents have asked us to] text them wherever we’re going, just to be careful. They were saying we don’t want to sound like helicopter parents, we just need to know that you’re safe and that we know where you are. I was okay with it because they’re my parents and they love me and they want me to be safe. I don’t mind. I’m not going to any place that’s unsafe, I know my boundaries and what would be a safe situation for me.

Salsabel (Missouri): When I read the story, I was so incredibly upset. It just scared me reading it.  Because of my religion, I fear for my safety and I fear for my life. I felt for her family. I would never want any family to ever feel that way. She did nothing wrong and she was killed. She was killed because she was wearing a hijab. It blows my mind. I was close to crying when I went home and I was like, “Mom I can’t believe this happened.” It blows my mind. I didn’t read about it through it trending on Twitter, I heard about it from fellow Muslim friends, from parents. 

Definitely around my mosque, we’re more protective. I remember that the incident was during Ramadan, the holy month of the year. We would go to the mosque every night. My dad would tell us don’t go anymore, because he feared for our safety. At the mosque, I remember we would lock our doors if we saw a stranger outside during break time or during dinner. If they saw a stranger that they haven’t seen before, they really take caution. During Ramadan, they called the police after they saw a random guy there. They didn’t know what’s going to happen, it was just to be safe.

 

How often do teens talk about politics at school? What are those conversations like?

Arshia (Minnesota): Politics has always been my passion and something I really enjoy talking about. It just comes up in conversations, given how people see me. They see me as the girl who is going to talk politics, and people talk politics with me. When you see injustice happening all the time, you just feel a certain way and you feel like you have to do something about it. That’s why I fell into politics. I can’t physically change laws, I can’t go and be the president, but at least I’m talking about it … Because of what’s happening to the black community, I usually end up having conversations about Black Lives Matter and how what they’re doing is not evil or disruptive, that what they’re doing is with a purpose. I’ve gone to protests for Black Lives Matter before.

I started to sit for the pledge [at school] this year, because I thought if I can’t go to a protest during the day because of schedule conflicts, at least people know I’m supporting the movement. They might say it’s un-American to be sitting down for the pledge, but fighting for what I believe in is the most American [thing I can do] … [What I’m saying with the protest is that] liberty and justice for all is clearly not happening right now.

Salsabel (Missouri): We definitely do that. I’m always the person who opens up those topics, to be honest. I don’t think I’m very political, but I like to keep up. Before Trump became president, I debated all the time about Hillary versus Trump. I know a lot of people in my classes who support Trump and would get into arguments with them.

Me and my other fellow Muslim friends created a group called All Around The World and went to speak to the principal. And we did a presentation in front of the whole faculty. Just to spread awareness [about Islam and diversity] and tell them, maybe you should speak more about it in classrooms. The teachers have influence on students and if they take just five minutes out of their lesson and maybe speak about it. It’s hard to teachers to do that during class, but just bring awareness to it and let them know it’s not true.

To be honest, [the presentation] didn’t make a difference. We tried, but it didn’t make a difference because we still get racism in school. People are still ignorant. We did our best and that’s all we can do.

Salsabel poses with her family. (Mohammad Fares)

What are some challenges you think teenage American Muslims have to face these days?

Arshia (Minnesota):The one thing I’ve struggled with is praying five times a day, which is mandatory. You should be doing it. But a lot of people’s agendas and schedules, things like galas and sports games, they go through that prayer time and it’s harder to move around that prayer time when you’re conforming to other people’s schedules.

Another challenge is just college, ACT prep. The same thing as any other kid. Just getting ready for life. I think there are also a lot of kids who are insecure or are nervous. They just want to be accepted and always have that need. That could be a struggle. I think the top thing going through people’s minds is getting into a college that makes parents proud.

Salsabel (Missouri): A big one [challenge] would probably be praying. You know how we’re supposed to pray five times a day? No Muslim teenager will tell you that they pray five times a day. I try to pray all of them, but I still struggle sometimes. You should have time to pray, but I’m pretty sure a lot of my friends struggle, including me.

Another struggle for sure is wearing the hijab for us females, as soon as you hit high school. In middle school, the family starts asking, “When do you want to wear it?” The more they ask, it puts a lot of pressure on a girl. Because what if a girl doesn’t want to wear it. What does she do?

Another challenge in general is just fitting in. Any teenager, they just want to fit in. We’re scared of being judged. No matter what you do, you will be judged. I feel like no matter where you go, what school, you will feel judged at some point. No one is ever pleased with what you do.

 

Do you think it’s harder or easier to be a Muslim in your state than in other places?

Arshia (Minnesota): I think it’s easier here because Minnesota is a fairly liberal state compared to down south. Not to stereotype, but [I think it’s easier than living in a] red state. I feel pretty safe and pretty welcome in my city.

Salsabel (Missouri): Living in the East Coast is easier. It’s definitely harder here, especially with me being a hijabi. Everyone knows Muslims in Philadelphia. No one judged others for being Muslim. They weren’t racist. Everyone knew who we are and don’t believe we’re violent.

But here in Missouri, it’s obviously a Republican state, so it’s not surprising [that it’s different]. Here, I’ve dealt with so much, not just from white people, but a lot of different races here that are just ignorant about our religion. It kind of makes me miss Philly because of how safe I felt there. 

Where I grew up, all the Muslim girls wear hijabs. There aren’t as many hijabis here. The Arab Muslims aren’t as strict as where I grew up. My Muslim friends who aren’t covered don’t deal with the same things I deal with. It’s just that, as soon as someone sees me, they know who I am. That’s probably why [my friends] are scared to cover.

 

What’s your favorite thing about living in your town?

Arshia (Minnesota): Brooklyn Park is right on the Mississippi River, which flows through my backyard. It runs through Brooklyn Park. I like the serenity of looking out on the water, the greenery. It makes you feel really close to nature. I like the hikes. Minnesota is really nature-y. People here like to go fishing, water skiing, hiking. [For college, I might go to California], but I would be fine with being in Minnesota. It’s a really nice state and not a bad place to live.

Salsabel (Missouri): It’s the diversity. I love it here. There’s so much diversity here [in my town], so many different religions and ethnicities here. I probably feel that way because I grew up among so much diversity that when I find diversity I want to stick to that. In my school, I feel very comfortable and welcomed. And I don’t want to leave that.

Salsabel (center) said she loves how diverse her community in Missouri is. (Mohammad Fares)

 

Are you thinking about going to college? If so, what are you most excited about? What are you most nervous about?

Arshia (Minnesota): Yes! The career I’m trying to pursue is a Ph.D. in Sociology. I think teaching is a really important career. My dream is to also become a comedian. It’s just a hobby I’d start in college. Multiple people have told me that I’m witty and quick, and that I could be a comedian.

I’m excited about [potentially going to college in] the West Coast because there’s more sun there and it’s freezing in Minnesota. But moving away from my family [will be hard]. I’m really a family person and I really like hanging out with my family. I can’t imagine leaving them after being with them for 17 years. That’s every kids’ thing, though. You learn.

Salsabel (Missouri): You could say I’m a studious person. I care about my education a lot. It’s a really big priority in my life. I’m still looking at colleges. I want to go into law school. I don’t know for what exactly, so I’d do pre-law for undergrad and then go to law school hopefully. I’m excited about getting a career and honestly, I’ve always wanted to have a high school graduation. I’ve been looking forward to that for so long, since middle school.

I’m nervous too. I see stories of hijabis being attacked on college campuses. College campuses aren’t as strict as high school campuses. Everyone is on their own at college and independent. I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I mean, I’m ready to be independent, I’m not ready for how people are going to see me in college. Hopefully, they’ll take me in.

 

What do you think adults get wrong about teen culture or being a teen today? 

Arshia (Minnesota): I think a lot of people think teenagers are lazy and that’s their only attribute. That’s the only thing about them. A lot of teens I know are active and smart, they’re changing the world and want to be better. I don’t think most teens are lazy and sit around watching Netflix.

Salsabel (Missouri): They think we only care about our friends and we only care about social media and hanging out. But for me personally, that’s not true. We care about more things. I care about my education. 

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.