When two fourth grade Michigan girls walked into their library hoping to research Muslim female role models for a project, they were disappointed by what they found—or didn’t find.
“We went to our local library, Rochester Hills Public Library, with Muslim females in mind,” says the now 14-year-old Mena Nasiri. “But we couldn’t find any books.”
It became clear Muslim women were in dire need of more representation. Mena and her older sister Zena, now 15, knew that for a fact—but what were two young elementary school-aged girls to do?
The issue floated around in the brains of the Nasiri sisters for years. Finally in early 2018, the gears began to turn, and they came up with an idea.
“In February of this year, we read the book ‘The Lines We Cross,’ which has a female Muslim main character, and we felt such a connection with her,” Zena says. “It was so great seeing ourselves represented…we wanted other [Muslim girls] to feel that.”
The two then began their nonprofit foundation, Girls of the Crescent, an organization dedicated to collecting and then donating books about Muslim women—both fiction and nonfiction—to libraries.
In their first book drive, the girls collected roughly 200 books with the help of their school district’s PTA. They then moved onto working with their public library—the same one they walked into years prior during their search for books on Muslim female role models.
“Everyone that we’ve asked to help us and everyone that we’ve donated to, they’ve been really positive,” Mena says. “They’ve been really excited to see two young people trying to make an impact in the community. The librarians especially have even ordered their own copies of our books alongside us donating to them.”
Zena adds locals in the neighborhood and even authors sent books to them too.
The Nasiri sisters always loved reading and were a part of their library growing up. For them, it was natural to turn to the physical library space for a research project instead the virtual world of the Internet. Thus, they focused their organization’s efforts on a place with which they felt a special connection.
“The library is a really communal place,” Mena says. “A lot of younger kids also go, so we thought it would have a better outreach.”
Rochester Hills Public Library Youth Services Manager, Betsy Raczkowski, said she recently touched base with the girls’ mother who has brought her daughters to the library since they were babies.
“They saw their library as the perfect place to reach people,” Raczkowski says. “I’m insanely proud of them—instead of waiting, they took charge.”
The Nasiri sisters wanted to ensure young Muslim girls would be able to see themselves on the library shelves when they walked in, instead of feeling invisible like they did as fourth graders.
“Seeing yourself represented in a book enhances not only the reading experience, but it helps people feel included in society,” Zena says. “We didn’t feel like we belonged because we didn’t see Muslim main characters in books.”
In their Michigan area, Girls of the Crescent donated books to numerous libraries, both public and within school districts.
“We want to spread out and maybe go to other states and possibly even other countries,” Zena says. “We want to reach as many people as we possibly can and have the biggest impact that we can.”
Being featured on actress and comedian Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls this past summer helped give the Nasiri sisters great exposure. Their Instagram, @girlsofthecrescent, is also slowly building a following, and that’s where many authors reach out to them, the girls say.
For now, the sisters are focusing on getting proper representation in their local Michigan community and triumphing through the school year. They’re even working on their own book to add to their Girls of the Crescent collections—a nonfiction reader about important Muslim females.
“There’s a lot of amazing [Muslim women] that need to get more recognition,” Mena says.
One day, a fourth grade Muslim girl working on that same research project will be able to find this upcoming title (and hopefully, many others) on her library bookshelf. She’ll feel validated, represented, and recognized in her society—feelings Zena and Mena Nasiri longed for years ago and are currently turning into realities for the next generation of Muslim youth in America.
To learn more about Girls of the Crescent and help bring literary diversity to your local library, visit their website here.
A version of this article was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons.