Utah's first Muslim Girl Scout troop gives members a place to gain confidence, make friends with similar values and rack up the badges
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Other adolescent girls might have cowered when they noticed the stares in their school hallways. Aisha Hassan decided to embrace them. "That's right, look at me," she remembers thinking, throwing her arms out and flashing a big, bright smile - befitting the movie star she pretended she was.
But even Aisha, a now-17-year-old Somalian who immigrated to Utah by way of Pakistan five years ago, has had her insecure moments. No way around it, she's different. Her culture, religion, skin color and - not least of all - the way she dresses set her apart. Being Murray High School's only Muslim girl who wears "hijab," the traditional head covering, can take a toll.
"Sometimes you need others to help you," she says. "Others to tell you they feel the same way."
That support has now cropped up in, of all places, an American tradition: the Girl Scouts of the USA. Troop No. 496, about 30 members strong, is Utah's first Muslim Girl Scout troop. Officially launched this past fall, the group accommodates Seniors, like Aisha, all the way down to Brownies. Some are immigrants, others American-born. And though their roots reach out to places as far-flung as Bangladesh, Iraq, Laos and Egypt, their common faith brings them together.
"We are living out our little adventure," says troop leader Shazia Faizi, who hopes the experience will empower the girls. "I want them to have confidence in their religion, confidence in themselves as women."
It's their first official meeting since before the holy month of Ramadan, and the girls gather in a circle to recite the Girl Scout pledge. But before they do this, they must first recognize something higher.
"All praise is for Allah alone, Lord of this world, Master of the day of judgment," Ayesha Khan, 8, begins in Arabic, reciting from memory the first chapter of the Quran.
Then together, with the three middle fingers of their right hands raised, they recite: "On my honor, I will try to serve Allah and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law."
Some know each other from Sunday school or from the Iqra Academy of Utah, a private, parochial school in West Valley City. But for members scattered throughout the Salt Lake Valley's public schools, Girl Scout meetings act as a grounding mechanism. The troop, endorsed by the Greater Salt Lake Islamic Society, offers a venue where they can learn from and fortify each other, maintain their values and enjoy the opportunities and activities offered by an American institution.
"We incorporate Islam into our troop meetings, and we get to meet new Muslim people," Hanna Omar, 13, explains. "And you get to do everything others get to do, so it's just as much fun for us as it is for anyone else."
Although the national organization does not keep track of troops based on religion, a quick search online shows that Troop No. 496 is part of a trend. Groups like it are taking hold across the nation, in states as various as Michigan, Virginia, California and Oklahoma. In fact, a second troop, reserved for Seniors, also has formed locally. And Muslim Scouting isn't just for girls. The Boy Scouts of America report 112 troops, including one in Utah, that are chartered to Muslim schools or mosques.
Hanna, whose parents are Palestinian and Greek, just started "to cover," or wear "hijab," this year. She sits with the older troop members, as they meet in the Girl Scouts of Utah offices, and talks about the transition. People who didn't know her were, at first, "freaked out to talk to me," she laughs. The others, who understand too well, laugh with her.
"But my friends are, like, kickin'. They're awesome. They get it," adds Hanna, who sports Converse high tops bearing American stars and stripes.
Across the room, Brownies giggle, write or draw in their journals about the Eid Festival, and dutifully recite a "dua," or prayer, before eating their Little Debbie snack cakes. Some of them tug on their Brownie sashes, making sure their new badges - one for the day camp they attended, another for a presentation to the Girl Scout board - are visible to visitors.
As a recent service project, the troop gathered donated items for Katrina evacuees and Somalian refugees. Today they'll select fabrics for the fashion show they plan to put on, which will highlight tunics, skirts and head coverings made by troop members. Faizi, the group's leader, hopes by forming this new community, the girls will grow up with a network of friends they can talk to and with models to follow.
"I was lucky because I had cousins my age to talk to," she says.
As the Juniors scrapbook, the older girls flip through a book called Express It, a Girl Scout workbook meant to prompt discussion. They make up typical "soap operas" played out in school, rank the "top 10" challenges facing teens today, and - of course - turn to talk about boys.
"Do you feel left out?" Faizi asks them.
"Yeah, I do. A lot of my friends have boyfriends," says Amna Sial, 17. "Islam doesn't stop you from liking someone."
Instead of fussing over appearances and worrying about crushes, however, these girls want and say they earn respect. By guarding their faith, Faizi says they are freed up to focus on more important matters - their studies, their aspirations, the types of women they hope to be. "Hijab," she explains, is the tangible reminder.
"I want them to feel that it's part of their skin," Faizi says.
But sometimes girls just need to act like girls, to let down their hair and bounce around in fuzzy slippers.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the troop had a pajama party - replete with makeup, curling irons and a table spilling over with junk food.
Aisha, her "hijab" off, strokes and admires her long hair in a hand-held mirror, even as she says what she holds to be true: "Beauty is not everything. . . . What matters is how you are from the inside." Along with her plaid flannel pajama bottoms, she wears a bright T-shirt. Across the front, it reads: "Heart Breaker."
A boom-box blares music from a favorite Bollywood film. Khadija Nawaz, 8, doesn't miss a beat as she re-enacts the dance steps from the movie. Older girls, many wearing body glitter on their arms and cheeks, whirl around her.
Not everyone in the troop, it turns out, is Muslim. Among those wearing gobs of lip gloss are Sadie Fell, 6, and her older sister Mariah, 11, members of the LDS Church.
Their aunt, Evangelynn Al-Daraji - who converted to Islam and has two daughters involved with the Girl Scout troop - says her nieces take part because the values taught are good ones and the experience exposes them to new cultures and traditions. And if they pick up a few Arabic words, no harm there.
For three hours, the large room they've reserved at Sugar House's Sprague Library is a flurry of girlish activity: pink pajamas, purple pillows and freshly painted fingernails.
But as the evening wanes and the girls begin to clean up, they remember who they are. They put on "hijab," step onto blankets - laid out to face Mecca - and bow down for evening prayers. Even Sadie, the 6-year-old Mormon, dons a blue "hijab" that's far too big for her little face. Peering up at her 11-year-old cousin, Talitha, Sadie moves her lips with a mischievous grin, pretending she, too, knows verses from the Quran.
The room empties, and Aisha waits in the hallway for her siblings. She has stepped into a long skirt, which covers her pajama bottoms. Her "hijab" now hides the "Heart Breaker" T-shirt and her newly coifed, luxurious hair.
Stepping back into the outside world, this is the young woman she is and everything she wants to be.
Contact Jessica Ravitz at jravitz@ sltrib.com or 801-257-8776. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.