July 11, 2005
Minneapolis, Minn. — A group of Girl Scouts gather at a community center in Minneapolis. Like many Girl Scout troops, these young girls start each meeting with the Girl Scout promise. The girls face each other, holding their three middle fingers in the air, and recite their pledge. But this troop does it a little differently than most.
"On my honor," they start, "I will try to serve Allah and my country, to help people and live by the Girl Scout law."
Substituting Allah for God is one of a few tweaks the Girl Scouts of America have made to the traditional scouting rituals and practices to include Muslim girls. These girls wear traditional head scarves, called the hijab. They earn some badges unique to their faith. Islamic merit badges are rewards for learning prayers or teaching non-Muslims about their religion.
As they prepare for their first overnight camping trip, these girls insist that their troop leader, Farheen Hakeem, get special Muslim-approved marshmellows so they can make s'mores. And Hakeem has secured a private swimming hole where the girls can shed their scarves and swim without any men seeing them.
What unites the girls in this troop is their difference from everything around them.
"As Muslims, what do we do differently that other people don't do?" Hakeem asks the girls in a lesson on cultural understanding.
"We pray," one girl says.
"Right. What else?"
"We wear the hijab." Hakeem also wears a head scarf and explains to the girls that non-Muslim people may think the tradition is uncomfortable and inconvenient.
"What do you think when you see non-Muslim girls wearing shorts and showing their skin?" Hakeem asks the girls.
"It must feel like they're naked," one girl answers.
Hakeem works fulltime for the Girl Scout Council of Greater Minneapolis as a membership coordinator. She's also running for mayor of Minneapolis as the Green Party candidate. She has four Muslim troops and says it's not that hard to tailor girl scouting to Islam since it's already segregated by sex, and stresses discipline and sisterhood.
Hassan Mohamud is an imam for the St. Paul Islamic Center and president of the Somali Family and Youth Association of Minnesota. He wants more Muslim girls to join Girl Scouts.
"We know that if we go back in American history," he says, "the Scouts is where they can discipline and educate their kids to behave properly in American society. And Islam is a religion of discipline."
Hassan says scouting is a good way to integrate in American society and teach young Muslim girls to be leaders here.
"We call it positive integration," he says. "We take what is good in America and then replace what is bad. We have some values that we came with as Muslims that are beneficial to American society and the American system and America does have values that are important to us also."
But there's one important aspect to scouting that Muslim girls don't get. That is meeting girls who are different from them. Through its history scouting has worked as an equalizer and meeting place for boys and girls from all backgrounds.
Hassan Mohamud wants to keep Muslim girls in a segregated Girl Scout troop. There are other leaders in the Twin Cities minority community with the same goal. That's lead to segregated Hmong and Latina troops, as well.
Shelley Jacobson, executive director of the Girl Scout Council of Greater Minneapolis, says the council will maintain all-Muslim troops since it's one of the only opportunities for these girls to spend time with girls just like themselves.
"We really do want to focus on greater integration," she says. "But we do need to start somewhere where families believe their girls are safe and they are talking about things that are culturally honoring in that space."
Jacobson says that as volunteers and staff learn more about Islam, they can start thinking about integration. Muslim Girl Scout troops are in their second year in Minneapolis. They hope to have 100 members in all Muslim troops next year.