Michigan Sisters Empowering Muslim Girls Through Books

Teens Mena and Zena Nasiri started Girls of the Crescent to donate books with female Muslim main characters to local school districts, libraries, and mosques.

The first grader approached librarian Kathleen Bateman clutching Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush's Incredible Journey.

“She looks like me, Mrs. Bateman,” the student said of the young girl on the book’s cover.

“I said, ‘I think she does,’” Bateman says. “She hugged me and said ‘Thank you so much.’ I said, ‘Honey, I can’t take credit for this.’”

While Bateman has been adding more diversity to her collection in the five years since arriving at Hamlin Elementary School in Rochester Hills, MI, this particular book was part of a donation from Mena and Zena Nasiri.

The Nasiri sisters—10th grader Zena, who is 16, and 9th grader Mena, 14—are founders of Girls of the Crescent, a nonprofit that donates books with female Muslim main characters to school districts, libraries, and mosques. The goal is to increase diversity and representation in those libraries, as well as to bring awareness to the lack of these titles currently in the collections.

A local book donation project that blossomed into a nonprofit with a global long-term goal, Girls of the Crescent has donated more than 500 books to the 21 schools in the Rochester Hills district, as well as local mosques and public libraries. The organization has received more than $4,000 in donations. For Bateman and her colleagues, the additions are meaningful.

“The library is supposed to be the heart of the school, and how can I be the heart of the school if my books don’t reflect my kids?” says Bateman. “I was so impressed with what the girls have started, how hard they’re working. It’s so inspirational. It’s a really great reflection of the community I work in. They do so many wonderful things here. These girls are obviously a product of that and their wonderful parents. Their mom must be amazing.”


Zena, left, and Mena Nasiri

The fourth grade assignment

Mena and Zena’s mother, Deyar, is an integral part of this story.

“Our mom is a very, very strong Muslim woman,” says Zena. “She supports us throughout everything. She has to drive us to everything because neither of us can drive. She helps us with all the legal work we aren’t really good at. She’s just always there with us.”

Growing up, Mena and Zena’s mother told them stories about accomplished Muslim women. When a fourth grade assignment asked students to research someone they admired, their mom had recommendations. Zena chose Sabiha Gökçen, the world’s first female fighter pilot, and went to her public library to learn more. Unfortunately, there was no information on Gökçen, so Zena did her project on Marie Curie instead.

A year later, Mena was in fourth grade and her first choice was Fatima al-Fihri, founder of the world’s first university and the oldest library in the world, both in Morocco. When she too came up empty handed, she researched Clara Barton.

Despite the disappointment, they didn’t think much of it. Then last year, both read The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The novel tells the story of a Muslim teen girl who is a refugee from Afghanistan living in Australia. When her family moves to a new town, she meets a boy from a family that is part of an anti-refugee group. It was the first time the girls had read a book with a Muslim girl as a main character.

“We didn’t really realize it before that, but we hadn’t seen characters like ourselves,” says Mena.

They also realized they wanted to give other Muslim girls that experience—but at a much younger age. Once again, their mother was a guiding force.

“We came up with the idea, but she told us we could do it and we could make a difference even if we didn’t feel like we could,” says Zena.


Getting started

The plan was for a book drive to donate to all 21 schools in the district, but they did more than just collect donations and buy what they could. Mena and Zena gave a presentation to the Rochester Hills Parent Teachers Association Board, asking each school’s PTA to donate $150 to its library media center to buy books from a list Mena and Zena curated. While most are by female Muslim authors, not all are own voices titles. The girls said they found good representation in books written by non-Muslims as well. And they did their research.

“We looked at reviews and different ages and what they were about, we read a few to make sure representation was positive,” says Mena of the list. “A lot of people were like, ‘How are you going to do this, because there aren’t that many books?’ But we had a lot in the beginning so now we keep adding whenever we hear of some more. Our list keeps growing.”

Bateman was impressed.

“They were titles that I would have pulled myself, things I recognized as being acceptable, good for my age level,” says Bateman. “They took that responsibility very seriously. As we know, there are great books out there and there are some, well….”

The original drive was a success, and the girls received a lot of positive feedback. At the encouragement of their mom and her friend, they applied for nonprofit status during their spring break last school year, and now the mission continues.

Mena and Zena contacted Bateman again this year wanting to donate to Hamlin’s classroom libraries as well as to the school’s main library.

“They showed up with the books, one for every classroom, including our autistic classrooms, as well as one for the library,” she says. “They’re so sweet and so genuinely kind. To see two girls take it upon themselves to make an impact and watch it grow, as educators it’s just the thing we dream of seeing—kids taking that initiative and stepping in when they see change needing to be made. It’s just a beautiful thing.”

Bateman made a point of telling Zena and Mena about her fourth grade student who had asked for a book with a Pakistani girl and how happy she was that now, thanks to them, the library had books for the “Yasmin” series with a Pakistani girl main character.

“We love being able to make that kind of an impact,” says Zena.

The sisters are starting to see the ripple effect of their work as well.

“A lot of my friends have been asking how to start a nonprofit, because they’ve been getting ideas,” says Zena, who also noted how supportive friends have been of the project.

Mena had a friend talk to her, as well.

“She was reading The Lines We Cross for a school project, and she isn’t Muslim, but she said it really provided her with a different perspective,” Mena says. “So our project is impacting not just Muslim people, it’s giving other people a different perspective and viewpoint on a different culture.”


Becoming authors

After receiving media coverage, librarians in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor reached out to request donations, so while the teens keep a local focus, they have already started to branch out and move toward their long-term goal. 

“In the future, we really hope to reach as far as possible, different states and different countries,” says Mena.

When they do, they might have their own book to donate as well. Their booklist may be growing, but it is heavy on fiction.

“It ties back from the fourth grade thing, when we were specifically looking for biographies,” says Zena. “Only a few on our list are biographies.”

So they decided, once again, to solve the problem themselves. The two are working on a book that is a collection of biographies of 50 inspirational Muslim women from different fields, including pilots, scientists, athletes, musicians, writers. Of course, Sabiha Gökçen and Fatima al-Fihri—the women the girls wanted to learn about in fourth grade—are in there.

“We wanted to compile the things we were looking for when we were younger,” says Zena. “It’s really cool. The things these women did were so inspirational, we want to spread that. “

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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Jennifer Bowen

What a great story, way to go Mena and Zena! Small typo - in the blue recommended titles box the author's name is Farugi, the correct spelling is Faruqi .

Posted : Mar 27, 2019 08:06



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