Growing up in a traditional immigrant family can be rewarding and challenging for kids born in the United States. Meet a Frisco high school student who’s managing to practice her religious faith and be a regular American teenager.
More Muslims live in Texas than any other state, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. You see that in school hallways across North Texas.
At Liberty High School in suburban Frisco, an American-born teenager has decided to wear a hijab.
Irum Ali wrestled with the decision for months.
“When I was considering starting, there were not many Muslims at my school,” she says. “I felt like people would judge me. So I went through a lot of internal [thoughts as to] whether I should do it or not.”
Irum was at her mosque one night a little more than a year ago when the idea to wear the traditional head scarf crystalized.
“I came home after prayer,” she says. “I was wearing it and I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to take it off. Like I can take it.’ And so that was the day.”
A Symbol Of Modesty
It was Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Irum’s mom, Farida Ali, says she was caught off guard because no one else in the immediate family wears a hijab.
“The thing I was worried about because she was very young when she decided this, and once you start this, you’re not supposed to take off,” Farida Ali says. “So this is the main thinking in my mind — that ‘oh, she’s too young, 16 years old. And I don’t know why she’s doing this.’ I hope she knows about the meaning.”
Ali and her husband, Mir Hammad Ali, were born in Karachi, Pakistan. Mom covers her hair when she visits the Frisco mosque and prays five times a day. Wearing the hijab, she says, is a personal decision.
For Irum, who’s a 17-year-old senior at Liberty, it’s a symbol of modesty. Something she says is undervalued in today’s culture.
“I feel like it’s important because my life has completely changed ever since I started covering my hair,” Irum says. “People will take me more seriously. People listen to what I have to say.”
Still, it can be hard to make a first impression. So she’s found ways to combat that.
“I carry myself in a much different way,” Irum says. “I wasn’t like … a sad person or anything, but just walking down the hall, I wouldn’t smile, I would slouch, I would hold my stuff, I would only talk to the people that I was friends with.”
Just Another Student At School
She’s just another student at Liberty, says Jay Sommers, her teacher.
“She’s another Red Hawk,” Sommers says. “If anything, it’s an advantage to her because it provides her a more worldly view and there are plenty of other students here that wear the hijab and their traditional cultural attire.”
Irum has a sense of humor, too. Not to mention school spirit. Last spring, she showed up at a baseball game as Rocky the Red Hawk, the school’s mascot.
“A lot of people have – I don’t want to say judgments – but ideas that ‘oh you know, she covers her hair, she can’t be a mascot,” Irum says. “’She covers her hair, she won’t put herself out there. She’s timid.’ And I’m really not. I’m really outgoing. I’m really social.”
Sommers asked Irum if being a mascot interfered with her religion.
She told him it didn’t. Irum is used to role playing.
In theater class at Liberty, Irum and her classmates are doing vocal warm-ups for the school production of “Les Miserables.”
Irum’s been in theater since sixth grade. She prefers being behind backstage, working on lighting and props. On this day, she stands in as a factory worker.
About 200,000 Muslims live in North Texas. And the change is easy to see in Frisco. Twenty years ago, not even 1 percent of students were Asian; today, it’s 14 percent. Sommers, Irum’s teacher, says that ethnic mix of students is an advantage in the classroom.
“It’s awesome because I’ve got kids from all over the world in class from China or India, Pakistan, lots of Iranian kids, Russians – they help me teach the content,” Sommers says. “They help me teach the other kids about their cultures.“
‘I’m A Real Muslim’
James Caldwell, the student assistance coordinator at Liberty, says today’s kids seem more open-minded about other cultures. Still, there are challenges.
“We know that some of our kids who are Muslim are bullied for wearing clothes that are not typical of a lot of the kids at their school,” Caldwell says.
Frisco high schools tackle bullying by setting aside half an hour a month for teachers and students to talk about the climate there. Outside school, Irum says, she’s felt the sting of racism. At Liberty, though, she hasn’t been bullied.
At first, some kids didn’t recognize her in a hijab – they were used to seeing her big, curly hair. Now, it’s no big deal.
“I’m like what a regular Muslim is,” Irum says. “I’m a real Muslim and it makes me happy that I can show that – and maybe change some people’s views on Islam.”
In the meantime, she’s focused on just being a senior.
“Oh my gosh, student council is so much fun,” she says. “We do the majority of the planning like homecoming and prom. … We make posters for different games.”
And five months from now, she’ll be walking across the stage — wearing a hijab and carrying a diploma.