Two young American-Iraqi schoolgirl sisters have founded an organisation to promote more Muslim characters in YA fiction. Mena and Zena Nasiri, who are 14 and 15 respectively, began Girls of the Crescent (GoC) in April last year and have already gathered nearly 200 book donations for local school libraries in their native Michigan through various fund raisers, book fairs and food drives, as well as contributions from friends and neighbours.
They established the organisation after they failed to find titles on Muslim women for a school project. Mena, who is 14, said: “We had to research and make a presentation 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.”
When Mena read The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which features characters with which she identifies, she said it had a life-affirming effect. “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.”
Donations to the charity are managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Rochester in upstate New York. Speaking jointly, the girls say the aim of GoC is “to put books [featuring Muslim characters] in every classroom in all 13 elementary schools in our school district. Our long term goal is to spread this worldwide and impact people all over the world! We hope to spread our initiative and bring diversity in literature to schools and libraries in every country so young girls like us can see themselves represented”.
The pair are also writing a book about 50 inspirational Muslim women who achieved “amazing things in the world”. They explain: “We hope that it’ll show Muslim girls what Muslim women can do, and that it will provide them with strong role models and heroes.”
The girls’ parents are from Iraq but Mena and Zena were both born in the US. Diversity in publishing is a big issue in both the US and the UK at present. What difference do they think it would make if more Muslim women worked in publishing?
“Having more Muslim women in publishing would help increase diversity in the field, and also likely increase the amount of diverse characters in books. This is very important because young Muslim girls would see characters like themselves and would also have good role models in publishing to look up to! If Muslim women are passionate about publishing and writing, they shouldn’t feel afraid to do what they love and instead follow their passion and accomplish great things.”
Which Muslim women do the girls admire? “One of our biggest role models is Alia Muhammad Baker, a Muslim women who saved thousands of books from burning. When there was word that people would burn down the library of Basra in Iraq, which is where she worked, Alia risked her own safety and reputation and smuggled books out of the library. She managed to get over 30,000 books out of the library and to safety before the library burned down. She is really inspirational to us because she really cared about the knowledge in the books and was a brave and influential Muslim woman.
“We also look up to Ilhan Omar, a refugee from Somalia who overcame many hardships and has now been one of the first Muslim women to ever be elected into the United States Congress. Her family struggled a lot when moving to the United Stated but Ilhan Omar was always determined to make a change in the world. She ended up making huge waves in the movement to more diversity, representation, and acceptance. We look up to her for her intelligence, courage, and strength in the face of adversity.”
The sisters are still young and have to fit in their Crescent campaign around school work and other after-school activities. How do they manage: “It is really difficult because we have a lot of homework, after school activities, clubs, and hobbies, but we love to work on our non-profit so we always make time for it. We always leave time at the end of the day and on weekends to answer emails and order books, and even though it seems like a lot, with good time management skills we are able to find room for our non-profit.”
Do either of them want to work in publishing later in life ? “Both of us are more geared towards science, but we are in the process of writing our own book and editing it, and we hope to get it published soon.”