MINNEAPOLIS – Sometimes when Asma Haidara, a 12-year-old Somali immigrant, wants to shop at Target or ride the Minneapolis light-rail system, she puts her Girl Scout sash over her everyday clothes, which usually includes a long skirt worn over pants as well as a swirling head scarf.
She has discovered that the trademark green sash – with its American flag, troop number (3009) and colorful merit badges – reduces the number of glowering looks she draws from people otherwise bothered by her traditional Muslim dress.
“When you say you are a Girl Scout, they say, ‘Oh, my daughter is a Girl Scout, too,’ and then they don’t think of you as a person from another planet,” said Asma, a slight, serious girl with a bright smile. “They are more comfortable about sitting next to me on the train.”
Scattered Muslim communities across the United States are forming Girl Scout troops as a sort of assimilation tool to help girls who often feel alienated from the mainstream culture, and to give Muslims a neighborly aura. Boy Scout troops are organized with the same inspiration, but often the leap for girls is greater because many come from conservative cultures that frown upon their participating in public physical activity.
By teaching girls to roast hot dogs or fix a flat bicycle tire, Farheen Hakeem, one troop leader here, strives to help them escape the perception of many non-Muslims that they are different.
Scouting is a way of celebrating being American without being any less Muslim, Hakeem said.
“I don’t want them to see themselves as Muslim girls doing this ‘Look at us, we are trying to be American,”‘ she said. “No, no, no, they are American. It is not an issue of trying.”
The exact number of Muslim Girl Scouts is unknown, especially since, organizers say, most Muslim Scouts belong to predominantly non-Muslim troops. Minneapolis is something of an exception, because a few years ago the Girl Scout Council here surveyed its shrinking enrollment and established special outreach coordinators for various minorities. Some 280 Muslim girls have joined about 11 predominantly Muslim troops here, said Hodan Farah, who until September was the coordinator for the Islamic community.
Nationally, the Boy Scouts of America count about 1,500 youths in 100 clubs of either Boy Scouts or Cub Scouts sponsored by Islamic organizations, said Gregg Shields, a spokesman for the organization.
The Girl Scouts’ national organization, Girl Scouts of the USA has become flexible in recent years about the old trappings associated with suburban white, middle-class, Christian scouting. Many troops have jettisoned traditions like saying grace before dinner at camp, and even the Girl Scout Promise can be retooled as needed.
“On my honor I will try to serve Allah and my country, to help people and live by the Girl Scout law,” eight girls from predominantly Muslim Troop 3119 in Minneapolis recited on one recent rainy Sunday before setting off for a cookout in a local park.
Some differences were readily apparent, of course. At the cookout, Hakeem, a former Green Party candidate for mayor, negotiated briefly with one sixth-grader, Asha Gardaad, who was fasting for the holy month of Ramadan.
“If you break your fast, will your mother get mad at me?” Hakeem asked. Asha shook her head emphatically no.
The troop leader distributed supplies: hot dogs followed by s’mores for dessert. All was hallal – that is, in adherence to the dietary requirements of Islamic law – with the hot dogs made of beef rather than pork.
It was Asha’s first s’more. “It’s delicious!” she exclaimed, licking sticky goop off her fingers as thunder crashed outside the park shelter with its roaring fire. “It’s a good way to break my fast!”
All in all, scouting gives the girls a rare sense of belonging, troop leaders and members say.
“It is kind of cool to say that you are a Girl Scout,” Asma said. “It is good to have something to associate yourself with other Americans. I don’t want people to think that I am a hermit, that I live in a cave, isolated and afraid of change. I like to be part of society. I like being able to say that I am a Girl Scout just like any other normal girl.”