If you’re asked to name a book with Muslim characters, you’re probably going to mention A Thousand Splendid Suns by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini.
It’s a brilliant book that’s endured the years and become a classic, but its ubiquity highlights the rarity of central Muslim characters in literature.
Noticing this lack of representation, two teen sisters decided to start a non-profit organisation to increase access to books for Muslims around America.
Mena, 14, and Zena Nasir, 16, from Michigan, love reading but struggled to find female Muslim characters that reflected their own experiences.
When they were assigned a project in the fourth grade about an important historical figure, using a book as a source, they both struggled to find options.
The experience got them wondering why there were so few choices of Muslim-focused books in public access libraries. So they set up their own service, Girls of the Crescent. They buy texts that feature Muslim characters and donate them to schools around America.
Mena and Zena told Metro.co.uk: ‘For our project we went to our local public library, hoping to find books on Muslim women in history who inspired us a lot, but we ended up not finding any books about them.
‘We had to switch who we were doing the project on and that was the first time we realised that there was a lack of representation and diversity in the books we had access to.
‘Last year, we read a book with a female Muslim main character for the first time and the feeling of seeing a character like us and feeling represented was incredible.’
The sisters set up and designed their own website, and spend their spare time researching books for all ages that have protagonists from Islamic backgrounds.
That takes a lot of time and resources but luckily the sisters have a community behind them.
They ask for donations and hold fundraisers to be able to send books around the country and to parts of the world where access is difficult.
And they manage to do it while completing their homework on time.
They tell us: ‘We are really busy as teenagers with homework, advanced classes, and clubs, but we always find time to dedicate to the nonprofit.’
‘Books have an immense impact on how children behave, socialise, and see themselves in the world, and if young kids don’t see themselves represented, there is a certain sense of not belonging.
‘The diverse books we are donating can mean so much for Muslim kids by providing them with a sense of acceptance and inclusion in the world that they may not see portrayed in the media or in their communities.
‘In addition, a lot of people are not exposed to diversity in their communities and schools and books with representation can provide that exposure.
‘Either way, these books are able to shape people’s perspectives of society by showcasing the diversity and providing a new point of view.
‘We hope that by increasing diverse books and by spreading positive messages about Muslim girls, we can create a more accepting and respectful community.’
For those hoping to expand their literay canon of Muslim stories, the Nasirs have some recommendations: The Perfect Gift by J. Samia Mair, The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard, The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian, The World is Not a Rectangle by Jeanette Winter, Ayesha Dean and the Istanbul Intrigue by Melati Lum, and Ms. Marvel by G. WIllow Wilson and Sana Amanat.
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