An annual graduation reception in Arizona honoring sisters graduating high school level or above gives Muslimahs a prom-like outlet and inspires younger generations to reach for the educational stars.
Tonight, I attended an extraordinary event. It is an annual event here in the Valley, in fact, this year was the 15th annual Al-Muminah Graduation Reception, so it has become a part of our social landscape.
Routine can become a veil that dulls our senses to the beauty of the landscapes we live with, until Grace intervenes and something catches our eye–golden sunlight painting a ridge, a bird soaring–and the veil is lifted momentarily and we let Beauty in.
Sharing the table with the keynote speaker, Tayyibah Taylor from Azizah Magazine, I imagined seeing the event through her eyes. “You’re creating American Muslim culture here. These are the traditions that construct our identity” she had told us the night before.
The Al-Muminah Graduation Reception honors all graduates from high school and up. The event is sisters-only, ages 8 and up, and the dress is formal. There is a program honoring the graduates, everyone eats dinner together, and an after party follows where shoes are kicked off and we dance the night away to a playlist that is put together with the help of ticket holders. This year, in keeping with the 15th year, the theme was a Quincenera.
To open the program, we all stood and took an oath of sisterhood that included not taking pictures so people don’t have to worry about shots of them in spaghetti straps and plunging decollete showing up on facebook. The graduates, of every age and ethnicity imaginable, were escorted into the hall by elder women and introduced. A Quincenera waltz was performed. During the program, the graduates are presented with a certificate and a gift, while their accomplishments are read as well as their plans for the future. Representatives make speeches, advice is given for those coming up behind. It is a celebration of these women’s accomplishments, and truly inspiring.
In a state that has extremely low educational rankings, high teen pregnancy rates, and soaring high school drop out rates, the impact that this display of talent, drive, focus, intellect and ambition has on the young girls in the audience can’t be understated.
How it must be for the children to watch these amazing young women, gorgeously clad in their formal gowns, hearing their lists of accomplishments and the boldness of their future plans… what a beautiful testament that anything is possible. To see the proof standing in front of you. Not proof flown in- though that certainly has its inspirational potential- but proof in the annoying friend of your big sister, proof in your former teacher, proof in those that you’ve known all your life with their frailties and foibles. Women in general often downplay their accomplishments if they mention them at all. To hear all that someone has been involved in brings a new respect for each other to the surface. Flesh and blood reminders of the capacity of ordinary human beings.
In this place, surrounded by love and support, celebrated and honored, these girls, these women, bloomed. Their perfume sweet and heavy in the air, radiated, permeated, elevated us all to a place of movement and bliss, unity and power, strength and individuality. As women, as Americans, as Muslims, as humans. How appropriate that its beginnings were in the garden of someone’s home.
I feel truly blessed to be a part of this. For many communities around the country, such an event is almost unimaginable.
It started in the backyard of the founding members of the Al-Muminah youth group 15 years ago and has grown into an event that now calls for reserving entire pavilions at conference centers and hotels. Tickets sell out every year; it is THE social event. The prom atmosphere works the girls into a frenzy over dresses and shoes, manicures and hair-dos.
There have been the naysayers that cluck their tongues over these elaborate displays, but I think they are either missing–or denying–something very essential to our sociology and psychology. Whether hijabi or not, these girls cloak their beauty and sexuality in a culture that pounds us all with images that say that a woman’s worth lies solely in her sex appeal. Though I disapprove of that message for a variety of reasons, it has an undeniable effect on girls’ self-esteem whether they participate in perpetuating those messages or not. Women want to be beautiful. They want to feel beautiful. They want to be seen as beautiful. This event celebrates that, and allows everyone a safe place to express that side of themselves.
The American tradition of prom is problematic for many Muslim families. It is problematic for many non-Muslim American families as well. The prom itself is a school event, which means it is supervised and drug and alcohol free, but its what happens before and after prom that scares any parent who worries about their child’s ability to withstand temptation and adhere to the values they’ve been taught. Growing up, I knew parents that hired chefs to cook gourmet meals before the prom; presenting their kids with a glamorous (and free) alternative to eating out. Others threw after-parties at their homes to keep their children and their friends under their wing in a supervised environment. Increasingly, students go to prom in same-sex groups rather than with a date, and this certainly makes prom attendance more feasible for Muslims.
Even so, the Al-Muminah Graduation Reception provides an alternative to school proms that is completely worry free. Its girls-only. The music is screened. Its inter-generational. The girls can wear the dress they want without the worry of sending the wrong signals to some hapless boy. Most importantly, boys aren’t there to mess anything up or act like goof-balls.
Proms are for girls. Boys don’t like dressing up and eating fancy finger foods. Every prom is dampened by boys that don’t want to be there, clashing with girls’ expectations of what should be; a bull in the china shop of her fantasies. Here, the girls can enjoy themselves fully, wrapped in the downy envelope of their mutual admiration for each other and aligned expectations for the evening.
And what happens when girls are given that space is a magnificent thing to behold indeed.
(Photo Source: Reallifemuslimgirl.tumblr.com)
Jacqueline Freeman-Ennaffah is the president of the American Muslim Women’s Association of Arizona, a Women’s Studies instructor at Mesa Community College, and a presenter on domestic violence at local masjids.