There is nothing modest about the American high school prom. From the gowns to the limos to the day-long spa treatments, prom is an exercise in adolescent excess, generating an estimated three billion dollars in revenues this year. And while many parents and students balk at the immodest price tag, many conservative religious parents--and teens--worry about the skimpy dress and intermingling of the sexes typical of proms. Not to mention the underage drinking, rented hotel rooms and some very immodest debauchery. "Prom," says the Reverend Bill Petterson of Brookfield Presbyterian Church outside of Milwaukee, "is now a cross between 'coming out' and 'coming on.'" For most partygoers, picking out the perfect dress or renting the right limo is the extent of any spiritual crisis related to the prom. But for the more conservative Christian, Jewish, or Muslim student, deciding whether or not to attend prom can be a real test of faith. To observant Muslims, the traditional prom is a triple threat of music, dancing and mingling with the opposite sex--all of which are "haram," or forbidden, in Islam. And while at least one Muslim high school, the Clara Mohammad School in Milwaukee, has entertained the idea of a prom-like event, parents and students are often not comfortable with the idea. "The idea of going out with friends is not a problem; but going out to mixed areas where the primary purpose is to go with a guy is the issue," explains Lubna Malik, now a student at Princeton University. "At `dances' you generally dance with guys. Even if you were just dancing with girls, there would still be guys watching.""[A prom] has dancing (which is forbidden) and music (which is looked down upon)... they lead to shamelessness. I never attended a middle school dance, a high school dance, a homecoming dance, or prom or even any formals here at Princeton."Many Muslim teen web sites suggest organizing alternate events on prom night, such as shopping with the girls or having a sports night with the boys. The popular Muslim website SoundVision.com offers a resource page covering prom concerns and alternatives, with articles like "How to Say No to the Prom: Six Tips."Recently, Muslim teen girls from California to Toronto have been throwing girl-only prom alternatives where they can enjoy all the trappings of the prom without the worry of the boy factor. Many of the girls arrive at the rented halls in hijab, only to reveal halter-top or strapless gowns, intricate hairstyles and dazzling accessories once inside. They eat a halal dinner and dance to pop and Arab music with their girlfriends.
According to the Toronto Star, "Girls who organize these dances say they want to celebrate the end of high school as all teens do... To enjoy the freedom of bare arms, uncovered heads, pretty dresses and dancing, while staying true to their Muslim convictions." Jane I. Smith, a professor of Islamic studies at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, told The New York Times that, "These young women are being very creative, finding a way to continue being Muslim in the American context." "Before, young Muslims may have stuck with the traditions of their parents or rejected them totally to become completely Americanized. Now, they're blending them."However, Malik, who describes herself as conservative and has been wearing hijab since 14, would not attend such a single-sex event. "If the prom did not entail dancing and music it would be fine. Further, the dress code at such a 'prom' would probably not be modest, and if it were, it would be hypocritical to be dressed as such, and then be dancing."As with many Muslims, some administrators at Orthodox Jewish high schools object to even the concept of the prom, citing it as a poor reflection on the schools. They argue that prom is in direct contrast to the tradition of maintaining "shomer negia"--refraining from touching members of the opposite sex--and encourages immodest dress and behavior. However, many Orthodox teens circumvent these restrictions by planning underground proms. Small groups of seniors usually plan the prom, renting a hall or arranging to have the party at a student's home. Depending on the venue, attendees pay for prom tickets which go toward the cost of the affair. The girls wear fancy gowns--some with long sleeves and long skirts, some not--while the boys usually don tuxedos. And there's a hefty amount of mixed-sex dancing. If one of the students has "cool" parents, the parents might actually look into booking a hall, ordering catered food or hosting the party.At one such prom in New Jersey, "many of the students who attended were religious--kept kosher, kept the Sabbath, prayed three times a day, etc.--but they sincerely didn't find anything wrong with dancing with their fellow schoolmates," says Noah*. "They thought it was harmless, especially since most students knew each other since they were in kindergarten. It wasn't as if a night of partying would end in sex, drugs, and alcohol--we all knew each other too well for that."