The trail-blazing Muslim teens
In London’s Hyde Park this summer, a horde of hijab-wearing teenage girls mobbed the latest YouTube sensation, Muslim-American Adam Saleh. Famous for his video pranks on unsuspecting New Yorkers, he was mobbed by adoring fans who ripped off his hat, posed for selfies and ultimately forced him to escape to safety inside a police car.
Whatever your opinions about such high jinks, one thing is clear: Muslim teenage girls are not behaving how we expect them to. In the spectrum from conformist to rebel, they are challenging global assumptions about what it means to be a young Muslim female today.
Self-identifying as Muslim and holding a fierce pride in their Islamic faith, Muslim teenage girls believe they have every right to embrace the opportunities the world offers. They are not content to shut up and accept their lot. While social pressure to adhere to stereotypes of submissiveness and obedience often plague them, they prefer to take matters into their own hands and their faith plays a strong role in this. How they interpret their faith, of course, determines how they determine their choices.
This year, the world was confounded by educated, middle class Muslim teenage girls running away from home to join ISIL. Why were girls joining up? The global assumption is that Muslim girls are oppressed, so the idea that they might determine their own choices, even if they are particularly horrific and misguided, is incomprehensible.
Girls fleeing western countries were a particular enigma, with commentators puzzled by the abandonment of “liberation” from Islam, instead migrating into it. They were blind to the fact that it is the very climate of hatred that they have created in countries constantly portraying Muslim women as submissive and oppressed women, which pushes them to a cause which promulgates that core identity.
Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Prize. The world’s best known Muslim female teenager, she is a far cry from the wannabe jihadist wives of ISIL or the adoring hijab-wearing teen fans of Adam Saleh. Her stance promoting education, while expressing her inspiration from her Muslim faith, challenges global assumptions. She’s controversial and many Pakistanis and Muslims see her as a puppet of the West. But the bottom line is that this girl is not quiet, submissive and accepting of her lot. Society is challenged by teenage girls who break convention.
When Muslim teenage girls challenge stereotypes, instead of giving them the encouragement all teenagers deserve, they are too often shouted down. At the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Zahra Lari represented the UAE in ice skating. What an achievement. Yet she was criticised for what she wore instead of being encouraged for pushing boundaries and highlighting that Muslim girls should pursue their ambitions.
The juxtaposition of the ordinary with the smashing of assumptions means that these Muslim female teenage phenomena will pave the way for a new kind of powerful Muslim women’s agenda. Watch out world, here come the Muslim teen girls.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk