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Shame on You: Desi Shame Culture and its Impact on Muslim Kids, a guest post by Farah Naz Rishi

A long time ago, my local masjid hosted a Ramadan dinner, as it always did in the holy month of fasting for Muslims. Usually, these dinners meant praying together as a community, and breaking our fast together on a potluck style meal that involved samosas, curries, and the ubiquitous, vague semblance of a pasta dish.

However, I had other plans.

After that one particular dinner, under cloak of darkness, I slipped out of the masjid and walked to the nearby Sunday school, a small cottage that had been converted into a schoolhouse. That night, it was empty of students—save for the boy I was secretly “dating” at the time, waiting for me.

I cherished these Ramadan dinners because it was the only time he and I could see each other in person. Being South Asian Muslims in a conservative community meant hiding our illicit, budding romance, even if everyone already knew about it. It didn’t matter that we were a couple of awkward teens who only snuck out to talk, face-to-face, uninterrupted (we usually only talked through text messages). As far as anyone knew, we were lovers in the dark, the epitome of sin. All our lives, we’d been taught that the performance of being a “good Muslim,” of maintaining one’s public image for the sake of family and community honor, was to be valued above all else. A lesson that clearly didn’t take.

Which is why, when we were caught that night, one uncle in our community loudly proclaimed that if we were caught alone again, he would break our legs. My parents didn’t speak to me for days.

I was fourteen years old.

In IT ALL COMES BACK TO YOU, protagonists Kiran and Deen, who dated in the past, reveal that they had made pact to hide their relationship from their family. Kiran notes that she kept her relationship with Deen a secret because she didn’t want to “add stress” to her family: “Dating in the casual sense,” she says, “is still frowned upon Muslim communities, and it’s not something you can openly talk about unless you’ve practically made a formal Jane Austen-style declaration that you’re in pursuit of a life partner.” In the Muslim community I grew up in, this was precisely the case; dating carried a stigma, and that to date meant that I was a sinner, that I must have a weak faith. Regardless of my own religious beliefs—individual beliefs that I was still developing myself, on top of everything else—it felt that my community demanded I follow their brain trust iron-clad rules. That in some way, developing my own personal beliefs was wrong, too.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Although there are exceptions, many South Asian teens are expected to live up to their parents’ origin country’s cultural and religious standards, or at the very least, do so on the surface—all in the name of maintaining public image and family honor. And when one fails to do so, like in the case of Deen, one carries that shame and guilt for years to come, a weight that drowns you in a sea of expectation, and can lead to a self-destructive spiral.

The concept of honor reflects a family’s reputation and prestige within a community; and individual actions can raise of lower the entire family’s honor. Looking back on my own past experiences, it almost makes sense why some Muslim teens want to leave their community altogether: It gets exhausting seeing everything through the lens of shame and honor. Every act in life carries the extra consideration of, how would this affect my family and community? As if life isn’t already difficult as it is for a brown teenager.

Also exhausting? Being a second-generation immigrant teen balancing mainstream Western cultural norms and one’s family’s traditional values. It can often feel like an isolating experience, growing up too “westernized” to be accepted by the motherland, but too brown to be anything else. You are forever the Other. It makes sense, then, to find love with a fellow misfit trapped in the same limbo space. In this love, you can find an ally: someone who understands why you can’t go to sleepovers with friends from school, why you can’t go to school dances, and why sometimes it feels impossible to reconcile the need for emotional connection with your parent’s religious views.  

But for those teens who aren’t lucky enough to find that ally, the sense of isolation can prevent them from seeking help when they need it most. In the case of Deen’s older brother, Faisal, the pressures of growing up in an influential family, of being anything less than perfect, became too much to handle. And instead of having an open, transparent conversation—one necessary for healing—Faisal’s parents tell him to hide his pain for the sake of the family’s honor. Of course, this eventually results in Faisal’s sense of failure reaching an unavoidable and dangerous fever pitch. For many, this is an experience far from fiction. As “shame culture” is most utilized as a method of control in Asian communities, Asian American young adults are the only racial group with suicide as their leading cause of death (source: https://theconversation.com/asian-american-young-adults-are-the-only-racial-group-with-suicide-as-their-leading-cause-of-death-so-why-is-no-one-talking-about-this-158030).

I wrote IT ALL COMES BACK TO YOU because I wanted my younger self to feel seen and understood. I wanted a wider audience to understand how difficult it was to grow up, for better or worse, in a tight-knit community that felt like it was always watching, and how the threat of shame can have very real, dangerous consequences on our mental health, and stain the perfectly innocent act of growing up.

My parents and I never spoke again of that night at the Sunday School. Despite their obvious disappointment with me, they carried on as if nothing happened. Instead of using it as a learning opportunity, a chance to connect and know more about their daughter’s personal life, they swept it under the rug. I suppose the public shaming we received was enough.

But there’s no room for growth if we’re not allowed to make mistakes. The irony is that using “shame culture” as a weapon to control often drives teens to hide under cloak of night, and internalize that hiding our shame is better than communicating it—the original problem that drove Kiran and Deen apart in the past. This is precisely why I wrote IT ALL COMES BACK TO YOU: to show South Asian Muslim teens who are finally able to break the silence—and that ultimately, the most important lesson any teen can learn is that despite those who pretend otherwise, we’re human, flaws and all.

And there’s no shame in that.

Meet the author

Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani American Muslim writer and voice actor, but in another life, she’s worked stints as a lawyer, a video game journalist, and an editorial assistant. She received her BA in English from Bryn Mawr College, her JD from Lewis & Clark Law School, and her love of weaving stories from the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s probably hanging out with video game characters. She is the author of I Hope You Get This Message. You can find her at home in Philadelphia, or on Twitter and Instagram @farahnazrishi. Learn more at https://farahnazrishi.com.

About It All Comes Back to You

Two exes must revisit their past after their siblings start dating in this rom-com perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon and Morgan Matson.

After Kiran Noorani’s mom died, Kiran vowed to keep her dad and sister, Amira, close—to keep her family together. But when Amira announces that she’s dating someone, Kiran’s world is turned upside down.

Deen Malik is thrilled that his brother, Faisal, has found a great girlfriend. Maybe a new love will give Faisal a new lease on life, and Deen can stop feeling guilty for the reason that Faisal needs a do-over in the first place.

When the families meet, Deen and Kiran find themselves face to face. Again. Three years ago—before Amira and Faisal met—Kiran and Deen dated in secret. Until Deen ghosted Kiran.

And now, after discovering hints of Faisal’s shady past, Kiran will stop at nothing to find answers. Deen just wants his brother to be happy—and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Kiran from reaching the truth. Though the chemistry between Kiran and Deen is undeniable, can either of them take down their walls?

ISBN-13: 9780062741486
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Dear Society: Sheltering Teenagers Helps No One (Thoughts from a Young Adult), a guest post by Zack Smedley


Hi! The following is a piece I wrote the night before my 20th birthday, almost four years ago. I’ve never posted it anywhere before, but I wanted to share it now. In hindsight, the only footnote I’ll add is that I say “teenagers” when I should really be saying “privileged white teenagers from middle-class families.” Forgive my far less developed cultural awareness from back then.

Without further adieu, I yield the stage to 19-almost-20-year-old me.

Today I wanted to discuss what it’s like to grow up as a teenager in today’s (American) society. Why? Because as I approach the hilariously old age of 20, I’ve finished developing a list of complaints I have about how the world handled teenager-me.

I should begin by saying I’ve grown up blessed with a plethora of good fortune. I have two happy and healthy parents who love me relentlessly, my family lives comfortably, and I’ve managed to get into college and survive as a Chemical Engineering major (so far, anyway). A good bulk of teens reading this are, I hope, fortunate in similar aspects. So why do I say we’re all getting screwed? Why have I, for years, been so fundamentally unhappy with my transition from childhood to adulthood?

Picture this! Growing up as a teenager twenty or thirty years ago, life was different. Kids got jobs at 16 to maintain their junk cars. As soon as they could drive, they were able to roam around with minimal supervision. They had to sweat a bit to make ends meet, but by the age of eighteen, they had gotten enough practice living as adults that they were ready to take off the training wheels.

(Or so I hear, anyway. I myself wasn’t a teen thirty years ago).

Here’s what inspired this post: today I was sitting in lecture when I realized I didn’t have a single idea how to do taxes. TAXES. The only thing you’re required to do on this earth apart from dropping dead.

Which leads me into a brief rant: why the hell didn’t any teacher in high school bother to sit down us wide-eyed little 16- and 17-year old selves and say “here’s all the information you need about mortgages and credit unions and taxes”? Is the point of high school not to prepare kids for the real world? Why is it that I—and every other peer of mine—has reached their twenties without having been taught a single strategy for managing credit lines or sketching out a plan for IRA’s?

BUT THANK THE LORD I KNOW THAT THE MITOCHONDRIA IS THE GODDAMN POWERHOUSE OF THE CELL.

That said, my gripes here extent past my ignorance towards the Internal Revenue Service. One quick YouTube tutorial can, and will, fix that issue. But let’s dive a bit deeper for a second.

I earned my driver’s license a few days before my senior year of high school. My parents, God bless them, weren’t comfortable with me taking the car past the driveway for another six weeks. (The ol’ “it’s not you we don’t trust, it’s everyone else.”) Several of my friends were in similar situations.

And I know what you’re thinking! Hey, why didn’t you just buy your own fixer-upper car with the money you had saved from your high school job? I would have loved to do that. Except that I—along with, once again, most of my friends—wasn’t allowed to have a job in high school. My parents and teachers must have rehearsed their lines together, because it was identical sound bytes from both: “school is your job.”

To be clear, I understand this pattern is no one’s fault. It’s not my teachers’ fault for assigning me the homework they’re required to give, and my parents didn’t do anything wrong by having me focus on school. But it’s gotten to the point where we’re sending kids off to college—and I was absolutely among this group—that have never had a job, never taken care of their own car, and never been allowed to make their own mistakes.

If you’d like to know what the powerhouse of the cell is, though, by God will I knock your socks right off.

Now. I’m thankful every day for my wonderful parents & teachers. And I realize that if my biggest problem is them caring about me too much, I probably shouldn’t be ranting at all. But I’m going to, because these issues I’m describing a) extend far, far beyond my own household, and b) are way too important to not talk about.

Our society is screwing teenagers by not letting them grow up sooner. Parents and schools say “oh, we just don’t want you to have to worry about working, or maintaining a car, or dealing with long nights” but that’s the stuff that turns kids into adults, man! We have to get our hands dirty sometime, and in my opinion, parents and schools of the modern day are shoving fundamental skills aside because, “worry about that when you’re 18.” It’s entirely understandable why they do this—after all, kids are coming home with six hours of homework a night. The answer isn’t to “power through it.” And I’m not here to propose any concrete solutions. But the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one, and Houston, we’ve got a big one here.

Parents—especially the great ones, like mine—are so driven to protect their kids from everything. But hardship, and mistakes, and pain…those things shape us to be stronger. And dealing with life experiences (such as jobs and cars) early on can help us teenagers learn how to overcome those challenges for when we’ve truly grown up.

And now here I am—finally filling out my own job applications, driving my own car, managing my own finances—and I couldn’t be happier. But I’ve had to spend a few years playing catch-up, and that was a heavy weight on my shoulders.

In short, to any parents with teenagers: I know how scary it can be letting your kids go, but it has to happen sooner or later. Just be mindful of when they’re really going to become adults, so you can make sure they’re ready to face the world when they step into it.

And high schools? If you’re going to make me sit through a class where I learn how to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks and craft glue, the least you could do is make sure I know what a goddamn FAFSA is.

Meet Zack Smedley

Photo credit: James Ferry

Zack Smedley is a chemical engineer who recently graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. As a member of the LGBT community, his goal is to give a voice to marginalized young adults through gritty, morally complex narratives. Deposing Nathan is his first novel. Find him on Twitter @zack_smedley. Twitter @zack_smedley.   

About DEPOSING NATHAN by Zack Smedley

“A heartbreaking and important read.” —Caleb Roehrig, author of Last Seen Leaving

“[A] layered, complex depiction of questioning (bi)sexuality..A heartbreaking case worth revisiting again and again.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Nate never imagined that he would be attacked by his best friend.

For sixteen years, Nate was the perfect son—the product of a no-nonsense upbringing and deep spiritual faith. Then he met Cam, who pushed him to break rules, dream, and accept himself. Conflicted, Nate began to push back. With each push, the boys became more entangled in each others’ worlds…but they also spiraled closer to their breaking points. And now all of it has fallen apart after a fistfight-turned-near-fatal-incident—one that’s left Nate with a stab wound and Cam in jail.

Now Nate is being ordered to give a statement, under oath, that will send his best friend to prison. The problem is, the real story of what happened between them isn’t as simple as anyone thinks. With all eyes on him, Nate must make his confessions about what led up to that night with Cam…and in doing so, risk tearing both of their lives apart.

ISBN-13: 9781624147357
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/07/2019

Book Review: All Summer Long by Hope Larson

Publisher’s description

all summer longA coming-of-age middle-grade graphic novel about summer and friendships, written and illustrated by the Eisner Award–winning and New York Times–bestselling Hope Larson.

Thirteen-year-old Bina has a long summer ahead of her. She and her best friend, Austin, usually do everything together, but he’s off to soccer camp for a month, and he’s been acting kind of weird lately anyway. So it’s up to Bina to see how much fun she can have on her own. At first it’s a lot of guitar playing, boredom, and bad TV, but things look up when she finds an unlikely companion in Austin’s older sister, who enjoys music just as much as Bina. But then Austin comes home from camp, and he’s acting even weirder than when he left. How Bina and Austin rise above their growing pains and reestablish their friendship and respect for their differences makes for a touching and funny coming-of-age story.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This will be an easy hit with fans of Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, Jennifer Holm, and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends. I could probably bring 20 of these to work, put them on my desk, and have them all gone to 5th graders in a few hours.

 

There’s so much to like here. I loved everything about this graphic novel except the repeated use of the word “lame.” Why do people think it’s okay to still use that word? Barring that, which took me out of the story every time because I had to sigh and roll my eyes, it was fantastic. I love that it’s about a boy-girl friendship. Neighbors Bina and Austin have been best friends literally their entire lives. But as athletic Austin heads off to a month of soccer camp, leaving music enthusiast Bina behind, Bina feels at loose ends. She’s never really had to figure out what to do without Austin. She listens to music, plays her guitar, binges a tv show, and texts Austin, wishing he’d bother to text her back. It’s not that she doesn’t have anything else going on in her life, but it’s her first summer really on her own. Her older brother and his husband are adopting a baby, her other adventurous brother pops home and gives her a little pep talk, and she has a good relationship with her parents. She becomes friends (maybe, sort of, she thinks) with Charlie, Austin’s older sister. Charlie introduces her to new music, gets her into babysitting, and makes Bina feel kind of cool. And kind of used and frustrated. Middle school is a pretty typical time to discover just how complicated relationships, even lifelong ones, can be. So much is changing, but, as her mom points out, Bina is becoming more herself every day. She’s getting more into music, understanding more about social dynamics, and learning how to shape her own days without her best friend there to help her. When Austin returns from camp, things between them are definitely different, but they work it out, discovering that growing and changing doesn’t have to mean growing apart. Bina is a great character and a lot of readers will relate to her feelings and uncertainty. A solid addition to any graphic novel collection. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780374310714
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/01/2018