Local teen speaks out on behalf of the Muslim community

How did a Towson High School student land a gig blogging for The Huffington Post?

Amara Majeed founded a website called "The Hijab Project," aimed at combating discrimination against Muslim girls and women who wear head-scarves in public. She self-published a book of short biographies of 17 peace-loving, law-abiding Muslims from around the world. She provides online commentary for CNN and, starting earlier this month, for the Huffington Post.

It's worth noting that Amara is 17 years old and is still in high school. What will she accomplish when she's 18?

"I want to transform myself into an idea," Amara, a senior at Towson High School said during a post-school chat in the bookstore that has become a second home for her. "I want to transform myself into this concept of liberty and equality. People die, but ideas don't. I want my ideas to live on long after I've left this world."

Even before she's earned her driver's license, Amara Majeed is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with as a fresh new voice speaking on behalf of an under-represented and frequently misunderstood minority. The 2,770,000 Muslims living in the U.S. in 2010 represent just 0.9 percent of all Americans, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

So Amara can't help but stand out from the crowd — though the impression she makes stems more from her unusual initiative and drive than it does from her black hijab.

For instance, after months of fruitlessly pitching various editors at the Huffington Post and getting no response, Amara sent a long email plea directly to the website's founder, Arianna Huffington, describing her great desire to work for that organization.

The email went on to explain how Amara had gradually learned to embrace her identity as a Muslim feminist.

It described her decision to start wearing a hijab as a high school freshman because she didn't think a woman's merit should be judged solely by physical beauty. It described how two years later, she ignored her classmates' stares while offering up Islamic prayers each morning on the school bus.

According to an email passed along by Amara, Huffington responded by thanking the young woman "for sharing your powerful personal story" and added that she would "love to feature your voice on the site!"

Amara's debut HuffPost post on Feb. 6 was a meditation on skin color and arranged marriages in South Asian culture. (Amara's parents emigrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka, and the family, which also includes her two older brothers, has made several long trips to visit relatives in the island nation.)

"She's always saying that she's not that special," said Amara's close friend, Sarah Sulkowski, 18, of Towson. "And we're like, 'Oh yeah?' Who else do you know who gets emails from Arianna Huffington?"

Charlene DiMino met Amara in the fall of 2013, shortly after being named Towson High's principal. Every morning, DiMino would walk into the high school cafeteria before classes began and find Amara sitting alone with her head bent over her schoolbooks. Frequently, Amara was at her table at 7 a.m., or an hour before the first bell rang. Every day, Amara would spend her lunch period writing in the school library.

"She was so focused and disciplined," DiMino said. "I remember thinking, 'There's something special about this young woman.'"

Amara describes her website, the Hijab Project, as a social experiment. Muslim and non-Muslim women were encouraged to wear a head-scarf to the mall or other public place and then record their experiences on the site (thehijabproject.org).

In part, the website was a response to the animosity that head-scarves have incurred in much of the world, where they are perceived incorrectly as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism. Quebec, for instance, considered banning public workers from wearing head-scarves and other visible religious symbols such as crosses as recently as 2013, only to have the proposed law trounced at the polls.

"As a Muslim woman, I can't watch the news without feeling criminalized and misinterpreted," Amara said.

"I feel like I need to show the world that not all Muslims are horrible people who kill innocent civilians and rape girls. The way Muslims are portrayed by the media is dehumanizing and it's brain-washing."

Sociologist Christopher Bail, who studies the way Muslims are depicted in the American news media, says that Amara isn't over-reacting. He analyzed more than 50,000 newspaper articles and news broadcasts between 2001 and 2008 and found a disproportionate number of negative portrayals.

"We see images of the attack on Charlie Hebdo or the Boston Marathon bombing, and they contribute to the perception that terrorism inspired by some version of Islam is on the rise," said Bail, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. "In the U.S., there's very little evidence of this. There's a huge gap between perception and reality."

Amara's mother, Ayesha Jabbar, says that her daughter's example helped her summon the inner fortitude to resume wearing her own hijab and to brave occasionally hostile glances and remarks.

Growing up in Sri Lanka, the head-scarf was part of Jabbar's daily attire. But after moving to the United States, she stopped covering her head.

"I love this country," she said. "After 9/11, people started staring at me, so I took it off. But when my own daughter started wearing her hijab, I was so proud of her. She helped me be strong and show that I'm proud of who I am."

The women from around the world who Amara met on the website, from the women who told horror stories of sexual abuse to the soldier who expressed her determination to wear her hijab while fighting for the U.S., moved the teen deeply.

"I got to learn about the diversity of human experience," she said. "Their stories stayed with me."

During Amara's junior year of high school, she decided to devote less time to maintaining the website, which at its peak had about 9,400 "likes," and instead to refine and publish some of those stories in the form of a book called "The Foreigners."

Amara began planning the book in January. She conducted interviews and wrote a draft in June. A Towson High School classmate took the photograph for the book jacket and a college friend edited the manuscript.

Her parents had no idea that Amara was about to become a published author until the day she asked her father for his credit card.

"I asked her, 'Amara, why didn't you tell your parents that you wanted to write a book?'" her father, Mansoor Majeed recalled.

"She replied, 'Daddy, teenagers in America don't tell their parents everything.' "

Naturally, Mansoor Majeed was curious. But, he knows his daughter's privacy is important to her and she's never caused her parents even a single moment's concern. So he bit his tongue and handed over his credit card without asking any more questions.

He didn't find out what "The Foreigners" was about until weeks later, when he went onto Amazon.com and typed his daughter's name into the search field and the book title popped up.

"Amara, you did a good thing," he told her when he came home from work that night. "I'm very proud of you."

The high school senior is currently in the midst of interviews with potential colleges. She thinks she might aim for a career as a women's rights lawyer, though adults impressed with Amara's analytical skills and fluid writing style think she might have a future as a journalist or as a cultural commentator of some sort.

Not that Amara spends every spare minute hatching plans to improve the world. She chatters away happily with her friends about everything from the recent Grammy broadcast to her obsession with Dr. Phil to the boys she has a crush on.

But, the standards she sets for herself are sky-high and at times, Amara worries that she won't be able to keep up that pace. So she tries to lower the expectations of the adults around her by intentionally downplaying her own achievements.

"I'm never satisfied with what I've accomplished," Amara said.

"I feel like it's never enough. It's important to me to get as much done as I can before I turn 18 and become a legal adult. It's so much easier to be extraordinary when you're young. The standards are constantly increasing as we age, and it's so much harder to be impressive when you're older."

Chances are that Amara soon will learn this happy truth: With the exception of pro athletes, very few people peak in their teens or early 20s.

On April 4, when she celebrates her 18th birthday, she'll just be beginning to come into her own. She'll just be beginning to figure out what she has to give, to identify the purpose to which she can devote her energy and talents.

"I'm constantly trying to up my game," she said. "I want people to be able to look at me and know what I stand for."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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