What is Prom?
You might think that Shazia Ahmad, 16, is really lucky.
After all, her junior prom is coming up in May, and then next year, she'll have her senior prom to celebrate the end of her high school years.
The prom is a yearly social event commemorating students' completion of high school. But it is far from celebrating academic achievement. It is the ultimate event of the teen social scene.
But Shazia won't be dealing with all that goes into the Prom: getting a fancy dress, getting made up, etc. because she's not going. "The angel of Death can show up at your door anytime," she says, quoting a speaker at a Muslim Youth session at ISNA she attended. "Do you really want him to catch you at the prom?" she asks.
What is it about the prom that made Shazia happily reject the idea of attending the ultimate teen celebration? It's not the happiness of completing high school she rejects when it comes, she explains. It's the social elements present there.
What is Prom? : What it's really about
"Dating, drinking, drugs, sex, they're like essential components of your prom night," Ahmad tells Sound Vision in an interview from her home in Albany, New York. "Being in that environment is dangerous because it makes you vulnerable to doing wrong."
But it doesn't stop there. Ask Shaema Imam, 22, who attended her prom.
"It's not just the drinking, it's not just the hotel room and sex part, it's the whole atmosphere that's created where alcohol, dancing and varying degrees of nudity are correlated with a good time," says the McGill University student.
It is also big business. "This is a multi million dollar business of selling clothes, accessories, make-up, limousine services, food, alcohol, condoms. You need to realize what this is all about," Imam says.
Prom night often starts off with dinner at a hotel organized by the high school. But that's tame compared to what happens afterwards. Many of the students head off to clubs, where mixed dancing and plenty of alcohol and drugs are part of the scene.
Imam says students in her graduating class rented a club called The Underground for the post-dinner part of the Prom. She says the smoky, dark and unsafe club scene disgusted her.
But what's really wrong with the Prom?
"On one level there's of course the Islamic restriction on being around those who are doing Haram things," notes Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs, Imam of the Community Mosque of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. Griggs accepted Islam in 1972. He attended his high school prom a few years before that when he was not Muslim.
"We're not even supposed to be sitting amongst people doing Haram (forbidden) things and so the environment is just pregnant with acts [we're not supposed to be involved in]. From the music that is being played to the Islamically inappropriate interactions to the drinking," he says in an interview with Sound Vision. "It's just a very unIslamic environment and atmosphere. You can't be in that environment without being negatively influenced."
"The whole purpose of the Prom is to provide a dance forum for students," Griggs says. "This forum has no Islamic parameters."
Alcohol: No Prom without it
"Everybody becomes so drunk," says Shadi Sakr, 23, about the event. He recounted how one student, the year after high school graduation, kept insisting Sakr was in the same limousine as he was on Prom night. Sakr did not go to his prom.
But apart from embarrassment, alcohol can lead to death. In 2005, during prom and graduation Season (April, May, June), 676 students under the age of 21 were killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In fact, one of the reasons Alcohol Awareness Month is held in April is because it is the beginning of the prom and graduation season. Many communities conduct anti-drinking campaigns during the month aimed at controlling alcohol use before, during and after events like the prom.
Sex: Prom Night is the night for it
Sex is clearly part of the Prom experience. "It's the volatile mix of putting unsupervised teenagers with their hormones raging, providing an opportunity for these teenagers to act out their fantasies," notes Imam Griggs.
He does not think that things have changed with regards to the prom much since his teen years. "I think that as long as there have been proms, that same element of debauchery has existed," he says.
While for young women, the prom may be seen as a special night of celebration with friends and a guy of their dreams, "for the young guys, you're just trying to see how many young girls you can be with [have sex with] before the sunrise," Griggs tells Sound Vision.
Sakr explains that youth losing their virginity on Prom night is one of the foci of the evening. "It's the night where you become an adult, supposedly," he says.
Hotel rooms are rented, in most cases for this very purpose.
In particular, the clubs are where students "practice all [those] ‘girl-guy' moves," according to Imam and the situation is even more dangerous because they are most often under the influence of alcohol.
The build up and let down of prom night
"There's a whole building of an anticipatory culture around ‘the night'," explains Imam.
Indeed, youth are bombarded through magazines, websites, television sitcoms, advertisements and general peer pressure to participate in this most "essential" of teenage rituals. Even parents who are strict with their children tend to loosen up for Prom night.
"The whole year, people were getting their licenses, deciding on what clothes they wanted to wear. Reserving their appointments six months in advance for the hair salon," says Sakr.
But the experience of and letdown from the Prom are much greater. "It's almost impossible for any experience to live up to that build up," says Imam. "This whole night there's [an] aura of high class escapism, but the day before the Prom and the day after you're still the same, unsure teen," she says, adding it makes it seem almost like you have nothing to look forward to anymore.
"The next morning I went home on the city bus," she says. "It's almost like turning back into Cinderella's pumpkin."
Intense peer pressure to go to the Prom
Peer pressure to go to the prom is strong. Consider Shazia Ahmad's case: "I wear Hijab, I started a Muslim club at my school and I'm still asked what am I going to wear to the Prom," she says.
"The young folks are, because of our failure to provide Muslim high schools and Islamic educational environments for our teenagers, in the public schools, and they're subject to the pressure," explains Griggs. "It's not an artificially induced pressure they're feeling."
Amber Rehman, 21, of Montreal, Canada did not go to her Prom but warns that, "I had to be very firm and have a very forward opinion on it. If I let myself, I could have been persuaded."
Peer pressure is often what makes young Muslims decide to go. "It depends on how dear you hold your non-Muslim friends," says Sakr. "I would say most guys would follow the group. "
But I just want to go out with my friends...
What's wrong with the prom if all it is is going out with my friends to celebrate, some Muslim youth ask. "Of course you want to be with your friends," says University of Toronto student Aiysha Malik. She attended high school in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, Canada.
"Regardless of whether a person is Muslim or non-Muslim you forge bonds with people who have watched out for you for five years," she says in an interview with Sound Vision. "So you build bonds and you want to spend time with them, but you have to ask yourself, what kind of time do you want to spend?"
"They'll be drinking and they won't be the friends you know at school," she explains."Once a person drinks they act different and the dynamic is different. It's less focused on friendship."
"At a prom it seems as if you're together but you're not. It's like going to a movie together. You go to a movie with friends but you focus on the screen. You're not interacting with one another, but you're sitting next to one another, so you think you're together just because you're physically present together." Malik chose not to attend her Prom.
Sakr adds that at the Prom, "you're seeing people you've spent the last five years of your life with in their worst behavior, and you're rationalizing it."
It won't affect me
A number of youth assume it's easy to attend the prom and not drink, dance, do drugs, etc. The reality is very different. "It's really hard to have a halfway thing," says Imam. "There's no way your Muslim child can just go there and be a wallflower and not be affected," she warns parents.
"If you think that you can protect yourself, then you're entrusting yourself to your own weakness," says Rehman. She adds that Allah warns against even going near Zina (sex outside of marriage). With the prom, you're not only going near that, but also near alcohol and drugs.
"You're bearing witness to the Haram and ask yourself, if you were to die there, how would you face Allah, that this is the last time you would be with your friends?" asks Sakr.
One night of ignorance, and never again!
"Perhaps, just for one night I could pretend to be a regular Western teenage girl, dress up beautifully, make my hair and make up, dance, have fun, and then, wAllah, I promise, I swear to God, I'll act like a Muslim forever after," wrote an anonymous Muslim youth in the Summer 1995 issue of the Montreal, Canada newsletter Salam, rationalizing her choice to go to her prom.
"Many Muslim youth may be tempted to think that this night is their last foray into the (unIslamic aspects of popular) culture," says Imam. But the result of this approach could be deadly: it could mean never coming back to Islam.
"When I weigh the pros and cons of what happened, my Deen (religion) is still here and if I had had fun that night I would have forgotten easily," says Rehman.
The Prom night bubble bursts
Apart from the letdown from the gigantic hype, prom night turns out to be a bust for many.
Although Sakr says the day of the prom he just stayed home, was bored, and "sort of regretted the fun that I could have had," he later found out almost everyone at his prom was drunk, there was too much craziness in the hotels, and some people got kicked out.
The prom is a major test for Muslim youth. It represents the struggle against some of the very basic elements of what is defined as a "good time" in North American teenage culture. Muslim parents and communities need to work together to recognize and help the youth resist these pressures.
Perhaps they can start with advice from youth like Shazia Ahmad, for whom the prom is no big deal. "There's life after the prom," she says with a small laugh.