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Muslim college students
Maria Malik will be going to Princeton University in the fall on a full scholarship. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

When Maria Malik found out she had been accepted to Princeton University with a full scholarship, she didn’t know if she would be allowed to go.

The eldest of six children in an observant Pakistani Muslim family, she knew that her parents wanted her to stay at home and would much prefer that she go to a women’s college.

But Princeton was her dream school. She never really thought she’d get in, but she had applied at the last minute after reading the memoir of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who also grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet. Princeton sounded like paradise.

After double-checking to make sure she hadn’t been accepted by mistake, Maria — a debate champion at the all-girls Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice in Brooklyn —set out to persuade her parents that she could live in a co-ed dorm at the Ivy League college and still maintain her faith.

“I don’t think there’s a contradiction. In my religion it says that you should educate girls,” she said as she sat in a café in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, wearing a long, flowing, white-patterned dress and a black head scarf. “The wife of the Prophet Mohammed, she was a big business owner.”

Teenagers and their parents have long tussled over where and whether to attend college. Both sides pull in their own directions, motivated by financial, cultural and personal circumstances. Maria and her friends at the school, where 92 percent of the girls are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and about 45 percent are observant Muslims, faced that struggle this spring. But some of the issues that sparked debates in their families — about whether the girls would be allowed to leave Brooklyn, talk to boys in class, remain unmarried — were not even questions for their less religious classmates.

These young New York City public high school graduates find themselves caught between two worlds — the American culture in which they’ve come of age and the culture of a homeland their parents both fled and cling to. The box they find themselves in is as much social and cultural as it is religious.

Like many teens, Maria and her friends want more independence than their parents want to grant. The girls want to stay connected to their religion and where they come from, while breaking free of things from their parents’ generation that they find constraining. They see college as crucial to that journey. Their moms and dads came to the United States to create better lives for their children, and believe that education is key, but they also want their girls to be safe, their religion to be respected and contact with boys to be kept to a minimum. They battle within themselves and with their daughters over the risks they are willing to take — and how much fear and community disapproval they are willing to endure — to allow their daughters to escape the poverty that often circumscribes their lives.

Muslim college students
Almost all of the observant Muslim girls at the Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice in Brooklyn will be attending college this fall, some closer to home than others. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

Maria’s campaign to convince her parents to bend tradition for the sake of her education began a few years earlier, when she was accepted, in ninth grade, into the prestigious Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer program, which required her to spend three weeks in Rhode Island. Her dad initially said no to that, but she enlisted her principal and college adviser in her cause.

“My principal really likes getting involved in things like this,” said Maria, with a smile. “She’s very convincing. She told my parents, ‘she worked hard for this, you should let her go,’ and she convinced them.”

Winning permission for four years at Princeton, however, would be a much bigger hurdle. A visit to the campus with her parents was arranged. “When they went to Princeton, they could see that it was really safe, even though my dad was a bit worried,” recalled Maria, remarkably poised at 19. “He was like, ‘Why are the gates open all the time?’”

But the trip ended well. The next day, Maria’s dad brought in a box of donuts for the staff of her high school to thank them.

“It is a great honor for us,” said Muhammed Malik, two weeks later. “It is a great change for us, but we are trying to adjust.”

The family lives in a two-bedroom floor of a house, with the four girls sharing one bedroom and the two boys sleeping in the living room. Maria’s mother supports her daughter’s dream of getting a college degree, but vacillates about how to handle her entry into coed education.

“My mom is like, ‘There’s going to be boys there, don’t look at them, don’t talk to them, don’t think about them,’” Maria said with a giggle. “And I’m like, ‘Mom, they’re classmates, like, what if I’m in a discussion?’ And then she’s like, ‘Oh, you can talk, but look at the table.’”

Maria’s father, 47, was a teacher in Pakistan before he emigrated in 1999. He worked first in back-breaking construction and then long hours for years as a taxi driver. He eventually got a license to work as a substitute teacher but was never able to land a steady job. While working during the day, he began taking computer classes at night to become a software technician.

“Education is most important,” said Malik, clearly proud of his daughter’s achievement. “I was thinking she would stay at home, but we can sacrifice this, and it will be good for her future. If she lives within our values, then our culture and Islamic values are not colliding with this.”

Not all of Maria’s friends’ families have been able to make such a massive adjustment. Iqra Bibi will be the first girl in her family to go to college. Her mom didn’t finish grade school and her dad didn’t graduate from high school in their native Pakistan. She was interested in Wellesley and Mount Holyoke, but her parents didn’t want her to leave New York City, so she never applied to those schools, not wanting to disappoint them. Instead, she is going to nearby Brooklyn College, of the City University of New York. Still, they fear for her safety and that boys will lead her astray.

In a conversation at school, a group of Maria’s friends discussed their parents’ concerns about what they see as the drinking and dating culture on American campuses. Iqra, 17, who is religious and prays daily, still bridles at times against the cultural restrictions imposed by her parents.

“I don’t like that they only feel like I’ll be protected if I’m married,” said Iqra, who for a time was the only one in her Brooklyn middle school to wear the hijab.

“I don’t want to be like my mom,” she added, and then paused, seeming startled by her own words. “I mean, I’m like totally proud of her, and I admire her, but I don’t want to be like her. It’s all about my dad for her, and I want to be independent.”

The Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice is led by Mariela Graham, who, at 27, became New York City’s youngest principal when it opened in 2007. She and the school’s college counselor, Allison Burke, spend hours speaking with concerned Muslim parents about why it will benefit their daughters to take field trips, visit colleges outside the city (there’s a mother-daughter college trip), spend summers far away and ultimately attend the best college they can afford.

“When I started this school, I was looking at how to build women leaders and develop their interest in science,” said Graham, who has a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College.) “I never thought people even debated these questions.”

But the school’s south Brooklyn location and all-girl population has attracted many observant Muslim families, alongside a diverse array of other students. The building itself is surrounded by religious Jewish schools, kosher grocery stores and apartment complexes filled with members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group. Girls in hijab silently pass by men in black religious garb and women wearing wigs, escorting clusters of children to other schools. Maria’s school is now 45 percent Asian (mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh), 23 percent African-American, 20 percent Latina and 12 percent white. The classrooms are filled with attentive students, about half of them with their heads covered; it has an enviable graduation rate of 95 percent.

In April, Burke helped Maria and some of her friends organize a panel on the benefits of extracurricular activities — and how to win over wary parents.

“The girls shared advice about how to work with parents to help them understand the value of such activities, and how to advocate for themselves while also respecting their culture,” said Burke. “Some of the girls spoke about traveling abroad to Costa Rica and Korea, and others shared how they had negotiated with their parents to be allowed to travel on the train into the city by themselves for various summer programs.”

Some of Maria’s friends have had to take matters more firmly into their own hands.

Iram Amin comes from what she says is a very conservative family and shares a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and five older siblings, none of whom have gone to university.

“I started slowly, I picked myself up, I started learning English,” said Iram, 18, who came to the United States in 2009 and was ostracized in middle school because of her visibly Muslim appearance. “I started staying after school [to study]. I built up my own reputation and that’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

Iram was disappointed that none of her family attended her high school graduation this month, an event bustling with other girls’ family members. During the college application process earlier this year, she didn’t tell her parents that she was applying to colleges outside of New York City.

Her father has already given consent for an arranged marriage back in Pakistan, but Iram instead plans to go to St. Lawrence University, a liberal arts college in upstate New York that is about a six-hour drive from Brooklyn — with her parents’ reluctant permission.

“I will marry someone who I want and who I love,” said Iram, wearing a tightly fitting head scarf. “I will say no, because Islam gives permission to marry someone who you want.”

Several of Maria’s friends said they get mixed messages from their parents, who seem caught in a cultural labyrinth as they weigh their daughters’ bright futures against the pall of potential community disapproval. One friend, 17-year-old Aisha Meah, said her father gave her permission to study in Korea for a few weeks this summer, then rescinded it after one of her uncles criticized him for allowing such travel. Aisha, who will attend City College in the fall, discussed it with him again, and he relented.

“My dad finally understood,” said Aisha, who emigrated from Bangladesh when she was 10. “So even though they may be opened-minded, when they think about their reputation, they kind of have to become strict.”

Amrana Malik’s mother dropped out before middle school and got married, in Pakistan. Amrana (no relation to Maria), the senior class president at her school, was not allowed to leave the city for college, and will attend Brooklyn College. She is required to cover herself when she travels on the streets (although she sometimes took off her head scarf at school), but about two years ago her mom told her not to wear the hijab when she went to interview for a job at ShopRite. Amrana said she thinks her mom was worried that she would be discriminated against. (She got the job, which she loved, and held it for a year and a half.)

“The only reason she makes me cover my head, like in school and transportation-wise,” Amrana said, “is because she’s like, ‘all the girls are going to be wearing it.’ So it has a lot to do with society.”

Amrana, 18, who lives with her parents and three siblings in Brooklyn, added, “They do believe it’s important to get an education, but they think it’s important as a last resort … so you know if your husband leaves you, you have something to fall back on. Why can’t my education be something that I’m doing like it’s first, not something that’s a back-up?”

Iram has sometimes felt exasperated by her parents. “The other day, [my father] said to me, ‘You should go back to Pakistan. What are you going to do after school? What’s the value?’” She answered, “If there’s no value in America’s education, why did you bring me here?”

Muslim college students
Yomna Eldeeb’s parents wouldn’t allow her to live in the dorms at Rutgers University, but she graduated last year from a college closer to home and is grateful for her experience there. Credit: Courtesy Yomna Eldeeb

Colleges and federal agencies that track student demographics don’t keep data based on religion, so it is unclear how many observant Muslim women go to college in the U.S. and graduate. But a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found that 26 percent of Muslim Americans have college degrees, similar to the country’s overall rate of 28 percent. Due to immigration trends, however, Muslim Americans are typically younger than the general public (59 percent of Muslim Americans are between the ages of 18 and 39, compared to just 39 percent of the overall population), and twice as likely to be enrolled in college.

Although national data is scarce, Shabana Mir’s award-winning book, “Muslim American Women on Campus” (2014), a year-long intensive study of students on college campuses in Washington, D.C., describes the difficulties many women experience as they try to maintain their values and religious practices within a climate that often revolves around drinking and dating.

“Student life is not really one that supports religious lifestyles,” said Mir, who is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the American Islamic College in Chicago. “It’s great that Princeton gave Maria a full scholarship, and what I would want to ask is, what is Princeton doing to merit the trust of Maria Malik’s father? We sometimes blame religious students for being ghettoized, but what are the mainstream institutions doing for these minorities?”

Religious women who have graduated from college say they struggled with the cultural change, but note that many other students from different backgrounds go through culture shock, too. Many say their parents became increasingly supportive as they went through the process.

Yomna Eldeeb, 23, of Bayonne, New Jersey, began covering her head when she was nine years old, one week before Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, her mother forbade her to wear the hijab, fearing for her safety as a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and physical attacks swept the country. A month later, Eldeeb put it back on and has worn it ever since.

She originally hoped to go to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and live in the dorm there, but her father required her to live at home while in college, and commuting would have been too costly. So she enrolled at Saint Peter’s University, a Jesuit college near her home. One of only a handful of women at the college who covered their heads, Eldeeb eventually found her place after Saint Peter’s accommodated her desire to start a chapter of the Muslim Student Association; she is now grateful for her time there. She said education is held in high esteem by her dad, a limousine driver who emigrated from Egypt before she was born.

“My parents were for me going to college. Me telling them I might not go to college might have broken their hearts,” said Eldeeb, whose two younger sisters don’t wear hijabs. “They came to this country for us, and to say we didn’t want to go to college, it would have been like a slap in the face for them.”

Eldeeb’s youngest sister will attend Stony Brook University in New York this fall — and she will live in a dorm.

“I think it was because I was their first,” said Eldeeb. “My dad is an overprotective father, and he was scared for my safety, but I think he’s been able to see that you can be safe at college.”

Maria will live in a dorm at Princeton. She hopes to earn a doctorate one day. This summer, she will be working with a NASA scientist in an internship secured with help from the Opportunity Network, which helps low-income students prepare for college. She will also attend a three-day boot camp, run by OppNet, that will focus on issues of diversity and self-advocacy on campus.

Meanwhile, Maria’s dad, unable to find steady work with decent pay in New York, took a software technician job in Chicago this spring.

“It’s very hard to survive,” he said over the phone, his voice cracking. “I am very sad. This is the time I’m supposed to stay with my kids.”

But he has high hopes for Maria.

“We want to tell her to make a difference. You can live in this environment and be a good citizen and be inside of Islam,” he said. “I tell her she can make a better world, being a politician, or a judge or a lawyer. It’s a long path. I don’t pick her path for her. It is for her to choose.”

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