COLUMBIA – At first glance, Salmah Rizvi appears to be a typical — if overachieving — American teen-ager.
The Atholton High School sophomore wears her hair long, has an obsession with funky sneakers and rides the bus to school every day. She is also sophomore class president, legislative liaison for the Howard County Association of student councils and the youngest-ever human rights commissioner in Howard County.
Like other teens, she doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with her parents. But while other teens spar with their parents over trivial things like curfews and car privileges, Salmah’s pleas to her parents are more profound: She wants to start honoring “hijab,” the Islamic teaching that requires women to dress modestly.
Her parents respect her desire to wear a covering over her head and body, but they also have concerns for their daughter. Her mother feared wearing traditional Muslim covering would make it difficult for Salmah to fit in with her peers, at a time when no other Muslim students at her school were covering their faces and bodies.
“I thought it would put her in the limelight,” said her mother, Shamoon, a nurse at a hospital in Baltimore. “Kids in school can talk about stuff. I am just thinking of protecting her.”
But for Salmah, 15, being Muslim is a part of her identity that she wants to explore.
“I realize that as you grow older, you get tempted more by things that are forbidden in my religion,” she said. “When you use your religion as guidance for your betterment, such as not drinking, it keeps you on a straight path, and you’ll get so much more accomplished, regardless of what you are doing.
“I would rather spend all my time with religious studies than all my extracurricular activities,” said Salmah.
She combined the two this year when she founded the Muslim Student Awareness Club to educate others about Islam. Her club has about 15 members, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Salmah encourages her peers to ask about her faith, so they will better understand her and the decisions she makes.
The club’s first major project was organizing an Oct. 30 forum at her school on Islam, which was attended by 150 people. Her goal was to dispel any stereotypes that people may have about Muslims, particularly since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Wearing bright pink Nike sneakers and conservative business attire, Salmah moderated the exchange between the audience and the nine panelists, including three Muslim women in traditional clothing.
While her classmates straddle the line between childhood and adulthood, Salmah is straddling the line between the Muslim woman she wants to become and the American teen her parents want her to remain — for now, at least.
The struggle is not unique, Muslim leaders here say.
Imam Mahmoud of Dar Al-Taqwa Mosque in Columbia said that “peer pressure tends to push our Muslim youngsters a little bit farther than the average teen- ager.” He said he could understand Salmah’s desire to wear a hijab, but also understand her parents’ desire to protect her.
“We need to make them feel that they are special, not strange,” he said of Muslim teens.
A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the situation Salmah and her parents face is not uncommon among American Muslims.
“The older generation may have come to the country when the practice of Islam was looked down upon,” said Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesman for the advocacy group for Muslims in America. Older Muslims may therefore be cautious about embracing things, such as hijab, that would set them apart.
By contrast, Hooper said, the younger generation may be more ready to embrace traditional elements of the faith. Their parents’ hesitancy is “not something they want to emulate,” said Hooper — but they are still bound to respect their parents.
“She (Salmah) has two religious obligations: one is to obey her parents, and one is to obey Islamic guidelines,” Hooper said.
Salmah was born in the United States; her parents have lived here since they were in college. For now, Salmah has decided that her parents’ wishes will guide her until she turns 18, when Shamoon told her she could make the decision on whether to cover her face and body.
When the argument over traditional clothing resurfaced this year, Salmah suggested it would be a good time for her to start observing hijab, because she already had made friends who would not start treating her differently if she started wearing such clothing.
Her mother conceded that Salmah, “may be right, nothing will change,” but she again put her foot down and put off hijab for the time being. Shamoon Rizvi told her daughter that there is no pressure to observe hijab, and reminded her that “religion comes from the heart.”