When sisters Mena and Zena Nasiri, both avid teen readers, noticed a dearth of YA books featuring Muslim females like themselves, they took steps to remedy this gap in representation. The Michigan residents have founded Girls of the Crescent, with the mission of collecting and distributing recent books that spotlight strong Muslim heroines to schools and libraries. The sisters are gathering donations through various fundraisers, including book fairs and food drives, and individual contributions from friends, neighbors, and authors donating their own books. To date, the Nasiris have gathered nearly 200 book donations for the library collections of 21 schools in their district. They have also donated more than 100 books to various public libraries and other school districts, in addition to encouraging librarians to purchase recommended titles for their patrons.
Though they launched the organization last April, the Nasiris have long been aware of the need for greater representation of Muslim girls in literature. Fourteen-year-old Mena told PW, “Back in fourth grade, we were given a school project where we had to research and present about a person we looked up to. We went to our local public library with some Muslim women in mind who were big role models to us, but we couldn’t find any books about them. Later, we began to realize the same thing occurred in other genres, that there was a shortage of books about Muslim girls.” Mena spoke of the transformative effect of later reading The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah. “The feeling that we had when reading about characters like us was indescribable, and we were astonished that we had never experienced it before. This is what made us start Girls of the Crescent.”
Zena, who is 15, talked about the power of literature to shape public and private perceptions. “Books have an immense impact on how children behave, socialize, and see themselves in the world,” she said, “and if young people don’t see themselves represented, there is a certain sense of not belonging.” She believes that their book donations “can mean so much for Muslim kids by providing them with a sense of acceptance and inclusion that they may not see portrayed in the media. In addition, a lot of people are not exposed to diversity, and schools and books with representation can provide that exposure.” Either way, she said, “these books are able to shape people’s perspectives by providing a new point of view. We hope that by increasing [the amount of] diverse books and by spreading positive messages about Muslim girls, we can create a more accepting and respectful community.”
The girls maintain a growing list of more than 150 titles that feature strong Muslim female protagonists, ranging from children’s books to YA and adult fiction. They primarily discover new books by consulting various websites dedicated to female Muslim stories, and by soliciting recommendations. “We make sure to look at reviews of the books, and we are trying to read many on our list to check their accuracy and information,” Zena said. In addition to The Lines We Cross, some of their recent favorites include Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan, The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter, Ayesha Dean: The Istanbul Intrigue by Melati Lum, and Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat.
All donations are handled by the Community Foundation of Greater Rochester, an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit with which Girls of the Crescent works. Mena said, “We started off in our schools, talking to our PTAs and asking them for donations. Right now, we are doing a fundraiser for money to buy more books; our goal is to raise $2,500. We want to extend our reach regarding the donations we receive and those that we personally make to schools and libraries, so that we can impact as many people as possible.”
On the publicity front, Girls of the Crescent has been spotlighted by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls initiative and the Malala Fund, among other outlets. The organization is also active on social media, using the hashtag #muslimgirlsreadtoo.
The Nasiri sisters are not the only young readers to take up the mission of championing literacy and diversity. At the age of 11, New Jersey native Marley Dias founded the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign in an effort to promote books starring girls of color. Dias has far exceeded her thousand-book goal, collecting more than 11,000 children’s books with black female protagonists; she wrote about her mission in her debut book, Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You!
So far, Mena and Zena say that their main challenge has been balancing schoolwork with running a nonprofit. (They are currently the sole members of Girls of the Crescent, receiving help from their mother.) Mena said, “Being busy teenagers with after-school activities, homework, studying, and other hobbies, we have to really make sure to manage our time. Despite the commitment, it is a great feeling to prove common stereotypes wrong and show people what Muslims and women can do.”
The sisters said they have been buoyed by the feedback from the children’s book community. “We are so grateful to have the support of friends, neighbors, librarians, teachers, and authors. People are excited about diversity, and when they hear about our organization, they are always encouraging. Knowing that girls like us will feel empowered and strong because of our actions helps us keep going and work harder.”
For more information on Girls of the Crescent, click here.