Sarahi Sanchez, a student at Summit High School in Fontana, California, told a reporter that she and her friends simply saw “a chance to do something good.”
The girls were looking forward to the school prom, a dance for upperclassmen that is a rite of passage for many American teenagers as they prepare to go to college or begin a career.
This group of friends at Summit High wanted to nominate their Muslim friend, Zarifeh Shalabi, to be prom queen, an honor often conferred on popular cheerleaders by a vote of the graduating class. Zarifeh, an observant Muslim, is one of a few girls among the 2,000 students at Summit High who wears a head scarf. She is not the type of student who goes to parties and knows everyone.
But the girls’ school is a few miles from San Bernardino, where in December 2015, a terrorist attack occurred. Pictures of the suspects — one a young, hijab-wearing woman — had been in the news constantly during the winter. And Zarifeh had been afraid of a backlash against Muslims.
That is why her friends seized upon the idea of nominating her to be prom queen, to set her mind at rest. Several girls wore hijabs to show support on the day of the vote.
“This was a way to prove we don’t have problems with bullying or racism,” Sarahi told Jennifer Medina of the New York Times.
For her part, Zarifeh wasn’t sure she would even be allowed to attend the prom. Raised within a strict family, she had always declined invitations to parties, sleepovers and dances. But after being nominated for prom queen, she lobbied her mother for permission to go. Her mother hesitated, consulting aunts and uncles before finally agreeing that Zarifeh could attend accompanied by several female friends.
“I had no idea how much she is really respected and loved at the school,” her mother told the Times.
For her big night, Zarifeh wore a flowing gown with long, butterfly sleeves, borrowed from a family friend, and an elaborately beaded gold hijab from her grandmother’s scarf collection.
Zarifeh and her friends traveled by school bus to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, where the prom was being held. When she was announced as prom queen, approval rocked the pavilion. “Everyone was screaming, and I was just shocked,” Zarifeh recalled.
“We all felt like we had won,” said her friend Savanna Smith.