Zena and Mena Nasiri: Making Space for Muslim Stories in the Library

At a young age, Zena and Mena Nasiri realized that their community libraries did not have books that represented Muslim Women. In an effort to change this, and to enrich other community libraries with books that focused on Muslim women in story, they founded Girls of the Crescent, a nonprofit organization that collects and distributes books featuring Muslim women as protagonists and leaders all across the U.S. and Internationally. In this interview, Zena and Mena discuss the struggles and triumphs of finding representation in literature for Muslim women, as well as juggling the task of running a nonprofit with being high school students.

Where did the idea for Girls of the Crescent originate?

Zena: Girls of the Crescent is a nonprofit formed to collect books featuring female Muslim characters, and distribute them to schools and libraries.

Mena: We got the idea back in fourth grade when we were assigned a research project; we were told to research an inspirational figure, or someone that we looked up to.  So we went to our local public library with Muslim women in mind—our mother would always tell us stories about [Muslim women] and they were extra inspirational because we could connect to them—but we ended up not finding any books on Muslim women in the library.  That was kind of the first time we realized that there was a lack of representation and diversity in the books we had access to.

Z: Then, last year in February, we read the first book with a female Muslim character that we had ever read (The Lines We Cross, by Randa Abdel-Fattah).  It was really amazing being able to see a character that had a name similar to ours—her name was Mina—and who went to a mosque and who had experiences in life that were similar to ours.  We had such an amazing experience reading the book; we knew that we wanted other people to be able to feel the same thing, so we got started with our nonprofit.

Were there any challenges or obstacles that came with starting the nonprofit?

M: It was a little difficult dealing with the legal documents: forming a nonprofit was very new to us.  We had the help of our mom’s friend who helps out with nonprofits and the legal processes, and so she helped us with all the paperwork and that made it easier.

Z: Multitasking, with high school, and having a lot of other responsibilities besides the nonprofit is something that we’ve had to balance.  It’s an obstacle, in a way, because we have to fit in time for the nonprofit while also managing all the other aspects of our lives.

What has been the organization’s biggest achievement, in your eyes, thus far?

M: I think for me, it’s getting to deliver donations, and getting to meet with the children at the libraries—just seeing their reactions when we give them to books.  It’s really amazing knowing that we’re making a difference and that these books are actually being brought to children. It reminds us of when we were that age, and looking for those books and it’s just really amazing to know that our work is making an impact.  

Z: We’ve also spread out to places outside of our local community, which we weren’t expecting to happen as quickly as it did.  We’ve donated to Houston, Texas; we’ve donated to Pakistan; and we have donations ready to go to Toronto, Hong Kong, and France—so being able to go international has been a huge accomplishment.  

Have you had any trouble reaching your target communities?

Z: At first we had a lot of trouble reaching the librarians and people in the school districts, but it’s gotten a lot easier.  Now, a lot of librarians and teachers are actively trying to diversify their collections so they’ve been looking at books with more diverse characters (maybe from the LGBTQ+ community or books with black characters or native American characters) and they’ve been making diversity displays.  It’s becoming a big thing right now, and our work is helping that as well.

How would you like to see your project expand over the next few years?

M: We’re hoping to spread out more!  We’re already international but we want to impact other countries outside of our community, and reach as many libraries and schools as we can.  We’re just hoping to impact as many people as possible.

What do your classmates think about your nonprofit?

Z: Our classmates think it’s pretty cool.  When we were interviewed by NBC, our principal sent out the interview to all the staff at the school and we got a lot of congratulations from teachers.  A lot of my friends have come up to me and asked me how to form a nonprofit because they have their own ideas, and Mena’s friends have been asking her about the same thing as well.

What is it like working with each other?

Z: It’s good—most of the time!  (laughs).  We’re only a year apart so we’re pretty close as sisters.  It’s nice having Mena because she has my back so if I have a lot of homework one day and I’m not able to work on the non-profit I know that she can take over.  And the same goes for her hopefully (laughs).  

M: And we’re good at different things; we have different talents, so it’s nice to break up the work that we’re doing.  We don’t all have to do everything, it’s nice to share it.

Who have been some of your role models in this endeavor?

Z: Definitely our parents because they both immigrated from Iraq with not a lot of money and didn’t know English very well.  They came to America and they didn’t have a job or anyone they really knew, yet our mom managed to get a job on her fourth day in America.  Just the hard work that our parents have put in to get us to where we are now, and raising two children is inspirational to us. Putting in that hard work is something that we want to see in our lives as well.  

What are you both hoping to do after finishing high school?  Is nonprofit Management in your futures?

Z: We both want to go into STEM fields, but this nonprofit has really changed our perspective a lot.

M: Yeah, I’ve taken some business classes in school and I’m starting to like it, so nonprofit management could be something I end up going into.

Z: I see going into nonprofit work not as something that’s really unachievable now.  I think I could do it if going into STEM isn’t something that I want to do in the future.  

Are there any other projects in the works right now?

M: My sister and I are actually working on a book right now.  We’re writing a biography about inspirational Muslim women: this is going back to fourth grade when we couldn’t find biographies about Muslim women. It’s been an amazing process researching these women and reading about their triumphs and what they’ve accomplished.  It has helped us with our nonprofit as well. We’ve finished a full draft and we’re going to get it checked by an editor and then I’m doing illustrations as well.

What would you say to other people your age who want to form a non-profit or take on a big project like this?

M: We’d definitely say just go for it!  There isn’t anything that limits you from doing what you want to do.  We were told that we were too young or that we couldn’t run a nonprofit because it’s complicated, but here we are and we’ve made an impact.  If it’s something that you’re really passionate about, and it’s work that you love, then of course—go for it!

Click here to learn more about Zena and Mena’s work with Girls of the Crescent!