Battling to see ourselves in books

 (Courtesy of Zena and Mena Nasiri)

(Courtesy of Zena and Mena Nasiri)

Teen sisters Mena and Zena always found one thing missing from their libraries: books about Muslim girls.

We are Mena and Zena, two Muslim girls living in Michigan. We have loved reading our whole lives, checking out book after book at our local public library. Despite the fact English is our second language, we caught on quickly and were reading chapter books by kindergarten. Books have provided us with information, fun, adventure, humor and understanding. But one thing was missing from all of the books that we read. We never saw ourselves represented.

When reading picture books, we never saw characters that looked like us. When reading chapter books, we would never read about characters with our names. When reading novels, we never felt personally connected to the characters we were reading about.

 (Courtesy of Zena and Mena Nasiri)

(Courtesy of Zena and Mena Nasiri)

In fourth grade, our teachers assigned a project to research someone we looked up to. We both went to our public library with female Muslim women in mind who were huge role models to us — but we couldn’t find any books about them. We began to realize that the shortage of books about Muslim girls was a problem across all genres.

In fact, the first time we saw ourselves represented was this year when we read “The Lines We Cross” by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The feeling that we experienced when reading about characters like us was indescribable and we were astonished that we never experienced it before. Books have an immense impact on how children behave, socialize and see themselves in the world. If young kids didn’t see themselves represented, there is a certain feeling of not belonging or not fitting in.

Books have provided us with information, fun, adventure, humor and understanding. But one thing was missing from all of the books that we read. We never saw ourselves represented.
— Zena and Mena Nasiri

We knew that we had to address this problem and help Muslim girls like us. We decided to start our own non-profit organization, Girls of the Crescent. The purpose of Girls of the Crescent is to collect books with female Muslim main characters through donations and then gift them to school media centers and libraries around the community. We compiled a list of books that include strong Muslim female protagonists, ranging from elementary grade books to young adult and adult fiction. People are always surprised to see how long the list of books is because most of them are not included in our local library or school collections. We are hoping to provide awareness for these books that are so important for diversity.

 (Courtesy of Zena and Mena Nasiri)

(Courtesy of Zena and Mena Nasiri)

A few of our favorites from this list are “The Lines We Cross,” “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 and the Istanbul Intrigue” by Melati Lum and “Ms. Marvel” by G. Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat.

We started off in our schools, talking to our school parent-teacher associations and asking them for donations. Through this approach, we managed to collect almost 200 books that have been added to the library collections of 21 schools in our district. We receive money donations from neighbors, friends, and other organizations. Even authors have been donating copies of their own books with female Muslim main characters to Girls of the Crescent. As a result, we have donated books to libraries around our community. This school year we hope to get our books in other schools around the community and present our endeavour to mosques.

Word is spreading about our organization and we have been featured in outlets like Channel 4 WDIV News and Amy Poehler's Smart Girls. To manage donations, we established a fund within the Community Foundation of Greater Rochester, a federally approved 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. To help other people find out about Girls of the Crescent, we created our own website and profiles on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. We use #muslimgirlsread2 to share about our work.

In our spare time, we are writing a book of our own about 50 great Muslim women who have achieved inspirational things and hope to publish it soon. Through our work, we want to help Muslim girls feel included and to spread awareness about the importance of representation and diversity in books.


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about the author

14-year-old Mena and 15-year-old Zena are sisters from Michigan. Through their organisation Girls of the Crescent, they are working to ensure that other Muslim girls see themselves represented in books.