Thursday, 6 March 2014

Muslim High School Boys, Girls and the Prom (Advice)

The Prom Problem

Being a Muslim at a public high school comes with its own set of challenges.  One of the biggest problems in high school that we all are faced with is: Prom.

It doesn't help that popular culture has propagated the idea of Prom as being an extremely crucial event of high school life.  Prom itself can play a huge role in teenage movies and fictional/reality shows, with some as old and iconic as Back to the Future and Never Been Kissed, to more recent movies like Mean Girls and Napoleon Dynamit, to the latest Glee episodes, to Disney's latest movie and attempt to corrupt the children of the world.  Pop culture also reinforces the stereotype of the cool kids attending Prom while the losers are sitting on the sidelines, too lame to get a date to go with.

I'm writing this post in order to help any young Muslim students struggling with the Prom season to figure out whether or not Prom is for them.
Let's face it: Prom is a huge deal.
For some reason, Prom seems to be a huge deal here in the US (and possibly schools in other countries have a similar dance/social event).  We hear things like “Prom is the milestone of senior year,” or “Prom is one of the best experiences of high school.” We keep hearing these ideas over and over and we begin to believe them.
As if seeing Prom repeatedly on the big screen wasn't bad enough, just being on a high school campus during “Prom season” can be another form of torture for the young Muslim faced with the dilemma of attending Prom.  The student government spends months upon months planning for Prom and this event is one of the most hyped up of the whole year.  There are rallies and assemblies devoted to making people excited to go to Prom.  Everyone is buzzing with the latest gossip about who is going with who, who is asking which girl out in what cute and creative way, and what drama has arisen in the process. 
The girls are talking about what dresses they will be wearing and where they are getting their hair and make-up done.  The high school class anxiously follows the Prom Court and looks forward to seeing a friend be crowned as Prom Queen or Prom King, or an extremely disliked classmate not being crowned.  There is so much excitement that builds up on campus, it's hard not to get sucked in to the topic of Prom and start feeling excited too, especially when it's the only thing that everyone keeps talking about.
It comes to a point where it seems as if 4 years of your high school life really does culminate in the one evening of Prom.  It also may come to the point where you really want to go and don't want to miss out.  But how can you decide on whether or not going to Prom is something that should be a part of your high school experience?
Arguably, when looked at from a purely Islamic perspective, it is pretty black and white what a person's decision should be about Prom.  However, we don't always go by or see the logic in what we know Islam or our parents say.  Maybe there is another process that we must go through on our own as young adults which takes Islamic principles and our parents' preferences into account to some degree, but is largely an independent and individual decision.
To go or not to go?  That is the question!
There are many things that you should consider.  I have used reflections from my own experiences in high school (Class of 2009!!) and reflections from experiences of other brothers and sisters I know through the Muslim Student Union (MSU) and other organizations.
We all agreed that Prom is an extremely conditional thing which is very relative to your specific high school and group of friends.  There is a lot of gray area that you will have to wade through, so I hope that the advice we can give your from our experiences help you in making your big decision.
First things first, stop and ask yourself these main questions:
What does Prom really mean?  What good will going to Prom do for me? What bad will going to Prom do to me?  What will I miss if I don't go?  What will I gain by not going?
Make sure you have stopped and seriously asked yourself and really thought about these things.
Here are the top 3 reasons that I found to be the most compelling for those debating about going to Prom.
1. Everyone is doing it and I don't want to be left out.
After being in high school with the same class for 4 years, you've learned that it's all about going with the flow and doing what everyone else is doing.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but it can definitely influence the decisions that you make.  Sometimes being Muslim and having a strange name that even your fellow Muslim classmates refuse to pronounce correctly is hard enough, and our goal can turn into laying low and sticking out as little as possible.
It may be hard to explain yourself to 400 classmates, especially when you don't have a group of Muslim peers who will do the same.  If you're all alone, it can become very difficult to keep telling people over and over again that you aren't going to Prom “because of my religion” or “because it's against my religious beliefs.”
I was pretty much all alone and was one of the 5 Muslims who graduated in my class.  I was open with my close friends and they didn't even really need to ask why I wasn't going to my Prom.  However, with people who were more like acquaintances, coming up with a response that made me feel comfortable was a little harder.  In my case, I would simply say “I'm busy that day and I don't feel like going anyways” and alḥamdulillāh it turned out to be completely true because my masjid's Youth Group was taking a huge rock-climbing trip the day of my senior Prom so I had that as a valid excuse.  Rock-climbing beats Prom any day!
One thing that I learned the hard way in high school was that I am a Muslim and I will always be a Muslim.  That means I will always be different from my classmates no matter what I do. As soon as I started realizing that and stopped trying to fit in and stopped caring about what others thought of me, I was able to come to terms with my Muslim identity and embrace my faith.  For me, it was a gradual and side-by-side, grueling process.   All of the mistakes that I made and struggles I went through in high school truly tested me and shaped me into the person I am today.  My experiences in high school gave me the conviction that I have in my deen today.  (I am not saying to go out there and do a bunch of stupid things and make bad decisions.  Learn from the experiences of those who came before you and don't fall into the same problems.)  But maybe going to Prom isn't something that you think is opposed to your Muslim identity.
A really important thing to truly reflect on is how many of the people that you went to high school with will be a part of your life after high school?  Do you think that your relationships with all of these people you know will continue once you are all off to different colleges?  In my experiences and in others,' no one really cares about anyone from high school and everyone pretty much forgets and gets over everyone else.  There are only a handful of friends that you will keep and stay in contact with, otherwise the rest of the people you know will become distant memories.  It may seem like your graduating class is so special and that you will be so sad to leave everyone, but you'll get over it in no time inshā'Allāh and then look back and think that you were being incredibly dumb the whole time –  trust me.
Another thing that many people said is that going to Prom isn't as huge of a deal as it used to be.  Many people don't go to Prom for various reasons, not just the losers who can't manage to find dates.  Maybe Prom is lessening in its importance and it's not that big of an event at your school.
2. I am just going with my friends.
Some of us will go to Prom just to hang out and share this once in a lifetime experience with our friends.  You might not be in it to go with a date or to dance with anyone from the opposite sex.  You might not even go to dance at all and will be chilling in a separate arcade type section.  If this is the case, if Prom isn't a big deal, was there another place to go and hang out with your friends somewhere else?  Maybe going to Prom is something you consider to be a social event in which you can uphold your principles and values.  Maybe Prom is just a way for you to get a little dressed up, take some pictures, and be at an event with your whole class.  If this is what you are thinking when making your decision about going to Prom, also see if there are any alternative hang outs or things you can do in a different place.
See if Prom really is the only and the best place for you to hang out with your friends and have an amazing and memorable time.
It is also important to see whether or not you feel comfortable discussing these sorts of decisions with your friends and whether or not they respect your principles and values (even if your non-Muslim friends have to relate a little to your Islamic beliefs).  How valuable is their friendship to you if you can't feel comfortable and can't trust them?  We all know how important having good company is.
3. I won't do anything wrong.  I just want to see what Prom is all about.
We think that we are extremely strong in the face of temptation and immune to falling into questionable practices.  The truth is that we have to take into consideration the environment we are in and that we shouldn't be the ones who are testing ourselves with things, we should leave that up to Allāh
There is a story of when the Prophet Muḥammad (peace be upon him) was a child and was in a situation where he was about to do something just to check it out.  He went into the city where there was a wedding and music playing.  Right before he was exposed to the gathering, he became so sleepy he fell asleep and didn't wake up until the next morning.  He went back again the next day and the same thing happened again.  We see that Allāh had protected him from entering into an environment in which questionable things were happening.  Allāh had kept his Prophet (peace be upon him) safe and pure.  Sometimes our curiosity gets the best of us and we just don't want to feel like we're missing out on anything.
If you've set ground rules for yourself, or even if you and your parents have sat down and set ground rules with one another, that is a great start.  But really consider the environment that you will submerge yourself into.  Will you fall into that sort of “mob mentality” and start compromising things you had promised yourself, your parents, or even Allāh that you would not do?  Is it really going to be that easy to stay within your own boundaries if a song that you love comes on or if the person you've had a crush on for the whole year asks you to dance with them?  Will you be able to stand firmly upon your rules when no one else around you is following them?  Will coming to Prom with all of your rules in place make you feel even more left out than never coming to Prom in the first place would have made you feel?  At least for me, when I know I am disobeying Allāh, or my parents, or by being in a place that I shouldn't be, I freeze up and can never have a good time.
With all of these rules you may have set for yourself, will you really even be able to have the “full” Prom experience or enjoy yourself?  Back in my day (I'm saying this as if I am now old, I'm just afraid at how fast kids are “growing up” and pushing the limits these days), there was a huge debate and controversy about “freak dancing”/”freaking”.  Take a second and think about the phrases used to describe that kind of dancing.  Yeah…gross.  Would seeing your classmates, maybe people you even respect or admire in some ways, engaging in strangely perverted, shameless, and to be blunt, animalistic mating-like actions be something that you would be okay with to just stand and watch? 
Or could you ignore it even if you tried?  What about the fact that some kids will show up drunk or high, or will be getting drunk or high afterwards?  Is that something you'd be comfortable or feel safe about?  Will seeing all of this serve as a string of constant reminders about why you maybe had doubts about attending Prom in the first place?
You might have gotten permission to attend the dance, but what about an after-party?  Are your parents okay with you being out really late or all night long?  What happens at after-parties?  Will the party be mixed?  Is the whole Prom experience even about Prom in the first place, or does the fun part really not start until the after party?  And what about the whole idea of Prom night being all about having sex?  This is the night to prove your manliness or that even a good girl can “give it up,” and the pressure is there to some degree no matter how conservative the person is.  Maybe your group of friends isn't one that is into that kind of stuff, but what about the fact that this notion that has arisen out of Prom?
It is important to think about what kind of environment you are putting yourself into by attending Prom or any Prom after-party.  Is the amount of risk of falling into doing something bad by placing yourself into an environment like this truly worth it?  Will you even manage to have a good time when you're in this sort of environment?
  1. Weigh the pros and cons of going to Prom after considering all of the information above.
  2. Talk to other Muslim students/youth in your area that you trust and look up to.
  3. Ask your parents for their thoughts and be honest with them.  Listen to your parents and don't make going to Prom a big deal if they aren't letting you go.
  4. Make sincere du‘ā’ to Allāh to do what is the best for you and to always protect you.
  5. Evaluate your group of friends.  Determine what kind of relationship you will have with them after graduation.
Keep in mind that you might be missing out more by going to Prom than by not going!   You can always come up with an alternative trip or hang out with Muslims, friends, or family.  Convince your parents to be a little more lenient with you and spend that money on something worthwhile!
An important thing to note is that Proms are different from school to school and that going to a Prom might not necessarily be too wrong.

I pray that this has helped you make a decision and/or come to terms with a decision that you have made or one that has been made for you.

**Quick Advice to Parents
  1. Are you overreacting?  Don't make this a bigger problem than it is.  Don't take your child wanting to attend Prom as a failure of your parenting.
  2. Be open with your child and talk to them.  Get an idea of where they are coming from.  Prom might not be as bad as it seems.
  3. Make sure you give your child enough breathing room and don't make them feel as if you are smothering them or forbidding them.  The tactic of forcing your children to do things and being “too strict” can really backfire.
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