Pretty in Pink: Sahar Zawam’s prom dress was a baby pink confection with a white underskirt and matching pink shawl, bought from Kids’ World on Church Avenue.

Palwasha Khan sits on the bottom corner of her bed while her cousin stands behind her, spritzing, combing, and curling Palwasha’s hair, scolding loudly each time the teenager moves to answer her phone. Palwasha and her sister’s beds are strewn with shawls, salwar kameezs, hair dryers, hairspray bottles, make-up kits, cell phones, handbags, and pink and purple Pokémon lunch boxes full of gold bangles and necklaces. On the TV, a Bollywood movie — Yes Boss — is playing on mute but everyone is familiar with the story, a complicated love triangle in which an ad exec unhappily woos the girl he loves for his boss. On the wall by the door, stickers describe the primary teachings of Islam: “Who is Mohammad?”, “What is the Quran?”, “What was the effect of Islam on the world?” The girls’ mother walks in and out of the room every so often, checking on her daughters’ progress, which is way too slow.

It’s pre-prom madness Muslima style…

Brooklyn blues

The first time Sahar Zawam realized that being Muslim could make a dent in her social life was when she realized she wouldn’t be able to attend her high school prom.

That particularly American rite of passage was off-limits to the Egyptian-American teenager studying at Midwood High School because Islam forbids its female followers from removing their headscarves or wearing revealing clothes in front of men other than family members.

A lot of Muslim girls at Midwood High, which caters to a large Pakistani and Arab population, were facing the same dilemma. But rather than break the dictates of their religion for the sake of a party — even if it was their prom — last year, two Midwood seniors decided to organize a prom exclusively for Muslim girls.

Abitssam Moflehi, a Yemeni-American, and Farrah Abuzahria, a Palestinian-American, had heard about Islamic proms being held in Dearborn, Michigan. If Muslim girls could party in Michigan, why not in Brooklyn, they asked themselves.

The two seniors rented a small hall in Midwood and sold tickets to Muslim girls (Muslimas) they knew at $15 a head. They promoted the event not only at Midwood High but also in other neighborhood schools, and in mosques and youth centers. Girls who were going told other girls about it and, very quickly, word got around.

On the day of the prom, almost 80 girls showed up at Widdi Hall, coming from all over the Midwood area and beyond.

“The girls were unbelievable!” Sahar recalls. “You know, before they get inside the hall, they still have to wear the hijab. So these girls walk in with their black hijabs, they walk in, and they were like whoosh!” Sahar mimes a girl dramatically pulling apart the edges of her all-concealing, black drapes to reveal the dazzling gown she is wearing inside.

“It was like these girls had never had a party in their whole lives. You should have seen the smiles on these girls’ faces. They were so happy!

That was last year, 2004.

This year, Sahar was president of the Midwood High School Islamic Society and a senior to boot, so responsibility for organizing the 2005 Islamic Girls Prom fell on her shoulders.

Salwa Zawam (left) models the figure-hugging leopard fur print dress she wore to the prom while her younger sister, Noha (right), shows off her Black and pink floral print dress. Their seven-year-old sister, Zainab (center), wears a scarlet two-piece outfit she would have worn to the prom if she had been allowed to attend. Zainab now says that she never wanted to go but her older sisters remember her crying at home because she wasn’t going to the party with them.

Making-up is hard to do

The morning of the prom, the two Pakistani sisters, Palwasha and Sabah Khan, rush to Midwood High to pick up their report cards, then go shopping for hair spray and other accessories, returning home at one — having skipped lunch — to start getting dressed.

The sisters have decided to wear matching salwar kameezs — a traditional Pakistani outfit consisting of loose pants and a knee-length, matching tunic on top — made of translucent black chiffon with flowers embroidered in gold thread all over the bodice.

But an hour and a half later — only an hour before they are supposed to be arranging chairs and blowing up balloons in Widdi Hall, the venue for the prom once again — Palwasha is still having her hair done.

Sabah hasn’t even changed yet. She and her friend, Aisha, are still straightening their hair while Aisha’s cousin, Mishi, is in the adjacent bedroom, working on the computer.

Another Midwood girl, Anam, arrives, dolled up in a tight-fitting sheath with a blue-and-gold diagonal stripe design. Over it, she is wearing a gold knit jacket. Her false nails have been painted a copper sulphate blue to match her bright blue eyeshadow and bright blue sandals. Anam has come from having her hair done at a nearby Chinese salon but doesn’t like the results. (She’d wanted her hair swept up but the hairdresser did it down. She’d wanted fancy but the hairdresser did simple.) She has come to Palwasha’s for moral support and hairstyling advice.

Just then, Mishi walks in, having changed into her prom dress: a simple silk salwar kameez in blue. But she hates it. “I look like a married person!” she wails, looking ready to burst into tears. Anam rushes to console her, forgetting her own predicament. “It’s okay because your face is pretty,” she tells Mishi and herds her back to the bathroom to jazz up the outfit.

More friends turn up at the door and through it all, Palwasha’s cell phone rings constantly with girlfriends calling to ask for last minute advice about what to wear. One girl calls from Canal Street where she is still looking for the perfect dress. Another calls for a second opinion on her selection, and Palwasha asks back: “Which shoes are you wearing? The fashionable ones?”

By four o’clock, the girls are nowhere close to being ready for the prom that is supposed to be starting now. They stand in a row, the first girl fixing the second girl’s dress with pins, while the second girl straightens a third girl’s hair. Palwasha’s hair is not yet finished; she’s been moving around and answering her cell phone so often that her cousin hasn’t finished setting her curls.

An hour late, (from left) Sabah, Irum, and Palwasha rush to get to the prom.

Get the party started

Over at Widdi Hall, the venue for the prom, a steady stream of Muslim girls are being dropped off by their parents, only to find that the main doors to the hall locked.

Worried phone calls to Sahar Zawam reveal that the party’s main organizer is still at home, frantically getting ready herself.

Sahar and four of her younger sisters arrive half an hour late at four thirty and get to work, setting up tables for the trays of food they have brought with them, bringing down the stereo system from the upstairs office, and arranging a corner of the room for photo-taking.

Sahar has roped in her entire family to help with preparations. Her restaurant-owner father has been cooking since seven this morning, making macaroni-and-cheese, fried chicken cutlets, barbecued ribs, salad, jerk chicken, and fried rice for the party. Sahar’s mother has been ferrying her daughter to and from the bakery and supermarket all day, buying a large rectangular cake with the words “Muslima Prom of 2005” written in icing.

Chairs are pushed to the sides to clear the central floor space for dancing. Tables and more chairs are set up along the ends of the room for people to sit and eat.

As the hall is being readied, more girls arrive, including Palwasha and Sabah Khan who have finished dressing at last.

As they enter, the girls nearest the door turn to check out the newcomers. For a few seconds, there is a pause as each side tries to recognize the other without the usual scarves they wear in school. Then realization dawns and the screaming and hugging starts.

Girls who see each other only once a year at the prom reunite like long-lost lovers in a Bollywood movie. One girl who studied at Midwood until 11th grade and then moved to Boston with her family, has returned to New York City solely for the prom. A girl from upstate New York who found out about the prom during a mosque camp in Brooklyn two days earlier, had her father drive her three hours from home so she could attend. Girls whose friends and cousins attended the prom last year, turn up this year to see what all the hoo-ha was about. Two girls attending a Palestinian baby shower being held in the adjacent hall hear the commotion and decide to switch parties, buying their tickets at the door.

Almost 75 girls are inside Widdi Hall tonight: Pakistanis, Egyptians, Sudanese, Yemenis, Palestinians, Kosovars, Puerto Rican and African-American girls who have converted to Islam, Bangladeshis, Turks, and Afghanis. The entire female Muslim world is represented in this small hall in Brooklyn tonight, wearing every color imaginable (though pink seems to be the hot favorite).

Papa, don’t preach

Outside the main hall, in the small lobby area that is the only way in, Nureen Abuzahria, a hefty Palestinian mother of five with a thick Brooklyn accent, sits and watches the door, making sure that only those people who are supposed to gain entry.

Nureen was the chaperone-cum-watchman at last year’s prom as well, and she agreed to fill that role again this year since three of her daughters are attending the party.

Muslim parents have a reputation of being very protective of their daughters but Nureen fully supports the party. “This party is something to let off steam,” she tells me in between spoonfuls of fried rice and three different types of chicken curry. “The girls do here what they can’t anywhere else. Instead of going into the bedroom and dancing in front of the mirror, they can dance here.”

Tanzeen Rahman, a 10th grader at Midwood High whose parents emigrated from Bangladesh, takes a break from the wild dancing going on inside the hall, pleading two left feet, and sits with me in the lobby for a while. Tanzeen, in a deep red sari with a gold border, explains it like this: “I wear a hijab, see? And no one gets to see my hair. And all the girls who do show their hair, and put on make-up, they look all pretty. This prom gives me a chance to actually feel like a girl. I can do up my hair and feel pretty.”

Tanzeen plans on attending both proms — Islamic and American — in her senior year though she prefers the former. “Even though there aren’t guys to dance with here, it’s even better, you know what I mean? You get to be yourself. You get to have fun with your girlfriends.” But Tanzeen still wants to attend her American prom. She sees it as a chance to say goodbye to her entire class, not just her Muslim girlfriends. She considers her parents more liberal than most and is confident that they will let her attend the American prom.

But other parents are more wary. Some refused to give their daughters permission to attend even the Islamic prom, although this is the second year that the prom is being organized. A few mothers drop by the hall unannounced while the party is in full swing to make sure that there really are no boys around. Nureen interrupts her dinner to meet them at the door and explain that no men will be allowed to enter the hall on her watch.

When they finally realize what the party is all about, some mothers are overwhelmed. One mother hugs Sahar repeatedly, saying, “I can’t believe you would think of something like this. Thank you so much! Thank you for giving this opportunity to my daughter.”

Because the night

Not only religion prevents these Muslim girls, mostly from working class backgrounds, from attending their school’s American prom. Financial factors are another reason.

“The [prom] at Midwood High School, you had to pay $125 for the ticket because they took them to the Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan,” Sahar tells me afterwards. “Girls were spending $400 for their dress not to mention $100 for the nails and makeup and hair. And the limos! $150 for the limos. I had girlfriends coming back after the day of their prom and when I asked them about it, they said they spent over $1,500.”

Sahar and her sisters spent less than $150 each for their dresses, shoes, and other accessories. Add to that the $15 ticket price, and you get less than $200 for a night to remember. (No girl arrived in a limo.) Both Muslim girls (and boys) find it difficult asking their parents to foot a $1500 bill for a party that many Muslims find rather licentious.

Many Muslim students in Midwood did not attend their school’s graduation ceremony because it cost too much as well. According to Sahar, tickets for the Midwood High School graduation cost $120.

So halfway through the Islamic Prom, after most of the girls have arrived and most of the photos have been taken, and the afternoon Asr prayer observed, Sahar announces over the microphone that there will be a graduation ceremony for all the seniors who missed their schools’ function. She calls the seniors on stage one at a time to loud applause, much catcalling and even a few tears. She gives each one a gift box, and then makes them wear the Midwood High cap and gown (no matter which school they come from) while a Polaroid photo is taken.

After that, the party starts in earnest. A pile of discarded shoes — sandals, slippers, and heels — forms in a corner of the hall. “The heels, they were not working,” Sahar tells me. Hairpins are discarded as stylized dos are pulled back into simple ponytails. Fancy shawls and jackets are cast aside. Make-up is washed away by perspiration as the girls shake, wiggle, and boogie non-stop.

Everyone has brought their favorite dance CDs with them and is bombarding the two DJs — Sahar’s twin sisters — with requests. The twins have devised a system where they play two songs from each ethnic/national group until they run through all represented groups, and then start all over again. So there are two Egyptian songs, then two Spanish songs, two English songs, two Bhangra songs, and so on, while everyone is on the floor bopping away.
They form a large circle in the middle of the dance floor and when, say, an Urdu or Hindi song comes on, the Pakistani girls go to the middle of the circle and start swaying their hips and clapping their hands in time with the music. Everyone watches for a while, and then they jump in, creating variations of the steps they have just seen. When they can’t manage that, they dance to an inner beat. Two girls start doing the Macarena and pretty soon, the entire hall is following their moves even though a Middle Eastern pop song is playing on the music system. Later, while everyone else is dancing to a Bollywood hit, the two girls start dancing the tango, their locked hands pointing forward as they cut through the crowd, going from one end of the hall to the other.

“Each one shows their cultural dance,” Nureen says, as everyone joins hands and forms a big circle to start learning the steps of a Palestinian folk dance. Tap your right foot twice, then kick forward, while bending your knees slightly. Keep doing that as the circle turns to the right with each kick. “But guess which dance they all know? The American dancing! The hip-hop! Usher comes on and they all know what to do! It joins them together. God bless America!”

Every night, in my dreams…

As the clock strikes eleven, it is finally time to wrap up the party. The hall has only been booked until ten; the girls are already an hour late in closing.

But when Sahar announces that the prom has to end, a furor breaks out. “One more song! Just one more song!” the girls shout.

But when the DJs give in and play one last song — a Hindi number — the Arabs start shouting, “That’s not fair! You have to play one Arab song as well!” And so the DJs have to put on an Arab number.

Then the Turks start complaining.

Eventually Sahar’s mother steps in. She walks over to the hi-fi and pulls out the plug. “That’s it!” she says. “The party’s over!”

The girls start calling their parents to come pick them up.

But even without the music, some girls don’t want the night to end. Salwa, another of Sahar’s sisters, starts singing the theme song from the movie, Titanic, “Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you…” and soon other girls are singing along and slow-dancing to the lyrics.

When the new school year starts, Salwa will be President of Midwood High’s Islamic Society and therefore the organizer of the 2006 Islamic Girls Prom while her big sister attends Pace University in downtown Manhattan.

“Next year, hopefully, we’re going to have almost double the number of girls,” Salwa says, dreaming aloud. “We’re going to have to find a bigger hall.”

Expand it beyond Brooklyn, one girl suggests. Someone else suggests a grander venue. Maybe the Waldorf. More sponsors for the party. Maybe Mayor Bloomberg.

If not the mayor then at least the school principal. Salwa plans on asking Midwood High School’s principal, Steve Zwisohn, and other high school principals within the area, to help sponsor next year’s prom. “What’s the difference between us and everyone else who gets to have a prom?” she asks. “We work as hard in school. We have 90 and above averages in school. We all passed our Regents [state exams]; we’re all good people; we all do community service. What’s the difference between us and them?”

But school sponsorship comes with restrictions. The girls would need security officers, signed letters of permission from parents, and additional chaperones: all conditions that Principal Zwisohn says must be met before the school can sponsor a student party. So maybe there won’t be any school sponsorship. Maybe instead the girls will ask local Muslim businesses to help defray some of the costs.

“It would be so cool to look back on this one day,” muses Sahar, thinking of future Islamic proms years from now. “Like, oh my god, we started with 70 people and now, it’s 3,000. It would be so cool.”

Outside the ballroom, after all the girls have left, the Zawam sisters pile into their mother’s car for the drive home. They relive the night during the drive back, arguing about who danced the best, laughing at how girls didn’t recognize each other without their scarves, sharing which part of the party was their favorite. As they reminisce, they massage feet aching from too much dancing.  

At home, their father is waiting up to ask, “How was the food?”

The girls reassure him. The food was so good there was none left behind — people ate seconds and thirds and packed more to take home.

Then throwing off their fancy dresses and jewelry, but without bothering to remove make-up and hairpins and false nails, the girls collapse into bed. Their once-a-year Cinderella night is over; they will be back to wearing hijabs tomorrow.

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