'We want everyone to feel represented': The US schoolgirls empowering young Muslims through literature

Zena and Mena Nasiri have started a non-profit organisation to ensure books with female Muslim characters are stocked in schools and libraries across the world

Zena and Mena Nasiri are Muslim sisters who live in Rochester, Michigan, and enjoy reading books. So far, so unremarkable. Last year, though, Zena and Mena launched a non-profit organisation called Girls of the Crescent and their lives have been anything but normal since. They have been interviewed on NBC's Today show, featured on Amy Poehler's Smart Girls website and written a piece for Malala Yousafzai's newsletter – and it's all because of books.

Girls of the Crescent is an initiative designed to increase the availability to schoolchildren of books featuring strong female Muslim characters. Zena, 16, and Mena, 15, curate an ever-growing list of suitable reads for a range of ages and then set about raising the necessary funds to buy and distribute as many of these as possible to schools and libraries.

Since Girls of the Crescent launched in March 2018, the sisters have raised $4,000 (Dh14,700) and handed out more than 500 books around the US, including all 21 schools in Rochester, as well as in Canada, France, Hong Kong and Pakistan. "We didn't think it would be this big," says Zena. "We've never had any experience running a non-profit but it's been so cool to see how much it's grown."

Girls of the Crescent has grown so much, in fact, that the sisters have recently been forced to store dozens of books – most bought through donations via the website; others gifted directly by authors – in the spare room at home. They will all have to be distributed soon, though – if only just to free up some space. “We’re actually having people to stay, so we need to empty that room,” says Zena, laughing. “I don’t know where we’ll put them all, probably in the basement.”

Favourites on the list include Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan and The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter. But Zena and Mena agree that The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah is the book that has had the greatest impact. Set in Sydney, it tells the story of Mina, an Afghan-Australian teenager, whose friendship with Michael is complicated by his family's opposition to immigration. "That [book] changed everything," says Mena, who has read it three times. "We hadn't seen that much representation before."

“It was mind-blowing,” agrees Zena. “It was the first time Mena had seen her own name in a book. The lead character ate similar foods to us and went to the mosque daily. We just wanted other people to have the same experience of reading about a Muslim character they could relate to.”

As Zena explained in an interview earlier this year: "We want to make books with representation and diversity a norm in schools and libraries. We also want to inspire others to take action when they see an issue in their community or the world."

The idea for Girls of the Crescent came about through necessity. Zena and Mena were asked, as part of a school project, to present a profile of a historical figure each of them admired. Zena opted for the female fighter pilot Sabiha Gökçen, while Mena chose Fatima al-Fihri, who founded what is believed to be the world’s first university.

The pair headed off to the school library, only to discover that there was no information on either of these Muslim women. Worse, there were hardly any books at all – fiction or non-fiction – featuring Muslim women. It was the same story at the local library.

“We decided to go to our parent-teacher association and asked them to put $150 towards buying books,” explains Zena. “We managed to get more than 200 books into local schools and libraries. It was really successful, so we decided to start Girls of the Crescent.”

The speed at which the organisation has grown is ­remarkabl and you could easily forgive Zena and Mena for taking a break (and no doubt burying their heads in a good book). But they now want to focus on other minority groups and will soon start distributing books with Jewish and Native American lead characters, for example. "We want everyone to feel represented," says Mena.

I can't help wondering when they ever find time to do any schoolwork. "We're really, really busy, but we manage to do it," says Zena. "It's been really hectic, but we love our non-profit." The school has been understanding, too. "When we were on the NBC show, our principal emailed the link to all the teachers in the school," says Mena. "They showed it in some of the classrooms, so that was cool. All our friends are really supportive, a lot of them have asked how to start a non-profit because they've had their own ideas."

We also want to inspire others to take action when they see an issue in their community or the world.

And just in case Zena and Mena weren't busy enough, they have now also written a book celebrating 50 ­influential Muslim women, such as political activist Linda Sarsour and Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest. "We're in the process of finding a publisher," says Zena. "So if you know any publishers that could connect us with anyone..."

It would be no surprise if Zena, who wants to be a doctor, and Mena, who hopes to become a scientist, were one day featured in a similar book. So what advice would they give to other young people with ambitions to make a difference? “Just go for it,” says Zena. “We’re teenagers and we started a non-profit organisation, we didn’t think we’d get this far. There’s nothing really stopping you from doing what you want if it’s something that you love and that you’re ­passionate about. Try – there’s no harm in that.”

More information is available from www.girlsofthecrescent.org

Girls of the Crescent book recommendations

There are dozens of books to choose from on the Girls of the Crescent list. To help you get started, though, Zena and Mena have selected four of their favourites.

Zena says:

Ms Marvel by G Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat is a wonderful comic book series about Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenage Muslim girl who acquires superpowers. I loved it because Kamala is a relatable and lovable character and it's great to see a female Muslim superhero.

I also recommend The Perfect Gift by J Samia Mair. It is an adorable picture book about a young girl looking for an Eid present for her family. It is great for parents to read to their children during the holidays.

Mena says:

I love the Ayesha Dean series by Melati Lum. These two books feature a young Muslim girl who goes on adventures with her best friends and solves mysteries. It is an ideal middle grade book and is all-around enjoyable.

I also recommend Internment by Samira Ahmed. It is about a teenage girl and her family who are forced into an internment camp for Muslim Americans and have to fight for their rights and for freedom. It has an interesting concept and is hard to put down.