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The Muslim Teen Experience: Leadership Program – Part 1


By: Sarah S.

This is part one of a long reflection on an experience I had last year.

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The Muslim Teen Experience: Leadership Program- Part 1
Last year, as a high school sophomore, I applied to a prestigious teen leadership program with six other hijabis from my class. (Why yes, I attend an Islamic high school.) The program selects 50 promising teens and “makes leaders out of them”, by exposing them to issues facing teens and American society today over a period of 3 months every year. A couple of past graduates from my school had been accepted before and I had heard the program was very good. We ambitious ladies all filled out the lengthy applications and received formal letters inviting us to come for interviews at the organization’s office later on that month.

I showed up at around 8 AM, extremely early and shivering in the cold of the morning outside the building downtown. I was definitely nervous, having never really been formally interviewed in a non-Muslim environment before. Also, I was rather skeptical about my chances of being chosen because, I mean, come on, there were 6 hijabis applying! I figured for the sake of diversity they might choose 2 of us, but more than that? They could only pick 25 girls anyways, and what were our chances considering the amount of applications they received?

However, the interview went well, apart from the gauche the expected handshake generally causes. The two most important things I realized after the interview were:

1) What they were looking for from “us” — a sense of cultural diversity and interreligious collaboration for the community.
2) That this was a HUGE da’wah opportunity. Or, at the very least, if we were accepted, we could impact these people to understanding what Muslims “really stood for”.

I was beginning to look forward to this.

A couple of weeks later, 5 of us received acceptance letters. I was amazed. How did that happen? I wondered, and then just thought, rather foolishly, Alhamdulillah I wasn’t going to be alone. We were invited to the formal orientation with our parents at 6 PM in a conference center. The orientation would make us miss Maghrib salah, my parents worried. At the conference center, we discovered an empty room to pray in, one by one, and while my dad was praying, in walked a security guard. Typical.

The orientation was very formal. Guys were in suits and girls wore dresses (albeit short “semiformal”), and there was an atmosphere of excited nervousness. I identified the rest of my friends easily from the crowd – hijab is a real easy way to stand out – and we all immediately got together.To fight the uncomfortable experience of feeling out of place and not knowing anyone, we sat at the same table. The five of us were rather noticeable all sitting together, and received a fair amount of looks from the rest of the parents at the orientation.

During the orientation, they separated the teens from their parents for an icebreaker. We were led into a separate room and there we were, 5 hijabis all together in the corner again. The icebreaker worked like this: one person began a giant “coil” of people. The first person stood in the middle of the room and said “I like _______”. Whoever else also liked ________, would go up and join hands with the first person, and then say what they liked. It was a very creative icebreaker, but at the time all that was on my mind was “Ya Allaahh, what if I end up between two guys!?” I whispered this to one of the hijabis next to me who proceeded to giggle at me. That was not comforting at all. I then looked around the room, and realized how we must have looked to everyone. There’s the “hijabi” ghetto in the corner. That’s exactly how it looked, and this was an icebreaker, which meant we were supposed to get to know new people. I became frustrated with my friends and their giggling, partly because none of us had gone up yet and the line was near ending. As soon as the next girl joined the coil, I went up and took my chance. “I like spelling!” said I, and prayed fervently there was some nerdy girl who would come up and hold my hand. Thankfully a kind young woman who happened to be one of the program organizers came up and saved the day for me, unknowingly. I was the first, and for a long time, the only, hijabi in the coil. My friends remained in the corner till almost the end, when they had to finally join the line.

It sounds strange that I was becoming frustrated with the fact that they were “sticking together”. There is a difference between clique-y behavior and sisterhood. As so many lecturers put it, “we cannot isolate ourselves!”This was a prime opportunity for da’wah with people who were likely to become influential community leaders, and if not direct da’wah, we still owed them a representation of Islam! As Muslims, we always have a higher purpose in whatever we do. Our purpose could not be to simply get accepted to such a program to have it on our resume, or for college applications, or for fun. We always have a higher purpose. And the manner in which my friends acted was not going to facilitate da’wah or dialogue, nor did it give a representation of true Muslim behavior.

That day, I learned that unity is not isolation. I also learned a lot more in the following days!

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  1. Tanzil Khader

    March 29, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    Assalamu alaikum

    Alhamdulillah, really happy that there are ppl who are clear with their work in this world.

    This is all we have to do, whatever we do, we will do with an intention of daawah.

    The Prophet Muhamamd (pbuh) said: “The reward of deeds depend upon the intentions, and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended.” – ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab, Vol. 8, Book 78, Number 680.


    • Sarah S.

      March 30, 2011 at 1:46 AM

      Wa’alaai’kum assalaam warahmatullah,

      JazakAllahu khairan, may Allah help all of us be truly sincere and fulfill our responsibilities~

  2. Nahyan

    March 29, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    Good stuff mashaAllah, tabarakAllah.
    Looking forward to the rest.

  3. Amad

    March 29, 2011 at 2:27 PM

    Interesting thoughts… Sometimes we don’t realize how cliquish behavior can be a big turn off for others who aren’t part of it…

  4. b.a.

    March 29, 2011 at 5:20 PM


    Nice article ma sha Allaah.

    I think the da’wah aspect is a two way process (this is just me reflecting on what you’ve said. Not a direct response or anything). While it’s important to engage our brothers and sisters in humanity, it’s also equally important to make sure we have a solid base of brothers and sisters from our faith, from which we can receive continuous spiritual and intellectual “nourishment” in sha Allaah.

    Individual often go into two different directions. Some are very isolationist in their attitude towards others, while there are those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum – with no real, unique connection with members of their own faith.


    p.s. I’ve heard lecturers say the same thing about not sitting together in lectures as well, but honestly I don’t know why it bothers them. I really don’t think it’s because they care for how “integrated” muslims are per say, but I think, as a result of their own insecurities, it just bugs them to see muslims sticking together.

  5. Khan

    March 29, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    Where can I apply for this program? Is it still taking applicants for this year or has it ended?
    JazakhAllaho Kairan

    • Sarah S.

      March 30, 2011 at 1:44 AM

      This was a local program in my area. Sorry!

  6. BintBachir

    March 29, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    Assalaam Alaykum,

    As I read this, I just had a big smile on, because I also have been to a few conferences, in which my concern were: prayer time, place, shaking hands…
    But on the other hand, about the “cliquiness” of Muslim(ah)s, sometimes, I have mixed fillings about it. While I do not always want to be cliquy, I also do care about meeting my muslim sisters. Sometimes, when you are a hijabi and see other hijabis, there is just like a magnet pulling you to them :) LOL you can’t help it! :)
    There are a few muslim(ah)s that I have noticed however who seem to try as much as possible not to stick with other sisters. I do not know how much I enjoy seeing it, but in essence, I think it is better to be in the middle path, not too cliquy and in the same time getting to meet other sisters as well.

    Nice read, MashaAllah!

    • Sarah S.

      March 30, 2011 at 1:43 AM

      Wa’alaai’kum assalaam warahmatullah,

      I’m so pleased I made you smile, alhamdulillah!
      There is no doubt that that amazing magnetic attraction between Muslim sisters is an extremely positive and necessary element of sisterhood. Who hasn’t been pleasantly surprised to meet another sister in an unexpected place like a neighborhood park and smiled like a maniac even if you didn’t know her? :) and then of course you can go into the entire aspect of the necessity of good companionship in Islam and the fact that we should be even more careful and caring of each other as believers.

      My issue was our specific situation and the grand opportunity for da’wah. This was not a school or a situation that entailed an elongated intimate friendship type relationship. This was supposed to be a program for influential teens to learn more about their community.. they should be able to finally learn about their Muslim neighbors here if nowhere else! We are not totally dependent on each other for support- because we’re sure of what we believe in, so we don’t feel any less sure of ourselves while we’re surrounded by people who think differently from us or may even look down on us. We’re unified in purpose and belief which is stronger than any physical proximity.

      I felt some kind of aura of apology for “our weirdness” when they were far too “cliquey”.

  7. halima

    March 30, 2011 at 12:56 AM

    Nice read! I was looking forward to more, bit on the short side…but very good. So true about that bit though…you can’t always isolate yourself to just Muslims you know..its always good to branch out…but the thing is I think lots of Muslims avoid hanging with Non-Muslims because of the barrier..

    • Sarah S.

      March 30, 2011 at 1:49 AM

      SubhanAllah this whole experience was eye-opening for me. I learned so much and I’d love to share more.

      I can understand the lack of similar thought processes and ideals but I don’t think that’s an excuse for da’wah :P especially in this kind of situation!

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