A R C H I V E S
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Prim Proms: How Religious Teens Party|
|05/21/05 at 09:22:24|
Prim Proms: How Religious Teens Party
From same-sex dancing to modest gowns, conservative Muslim, Jewish and
Christian teens are finding prom alternatives.
By Ellen Leventry
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
“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
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
"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."
However, the school’s rabbis didn’t see the underground proms as
harmless and neither did many of the parents. A former student of modern
Orthodox schools on both the East and West coasts, Noah recalls getting
lectures at home and at school about not planning a prom because it was
a form of assimilation: “Many parents felt that a prom sealed the deal
in terms of their children throwing off the yoke of Judaism and copying
their gentile neighbors.”
Orthodox Jewish school administrators may try to find out which students
attended such underground proms. In Noah’s case, those who attended were
threatened with expulsion. One school was said to have scheduled
important finals for the morning after the prom as a disincentive. Some
schools are rumored to offer better grades in exchange for not attending
the underground prom. Rena Lauer, who attended Orthodox schools her
whole life but is not Orthodox, recalls hearing tales of rabbis paying
people not to attend. “According to my friend,” explains Lauer, “they
didn't simply offer a couple of dollars, but hundreds.”
Orly Lieberman, who attended a Jewish Orthodox co-ed high school in
Brooklyn, NY, recalls that while her school had an underground prom, she
chose not to attend.
“Although I was in a relationship at the time (with the man who is now
my husband), and personally felt comfortable attending the prom (I would
deal with issues of dress by finding something appropriate, if not quite
as formal as proms usually are), I chose not to attend because I felt
that I gained a lot from my high school education; I enjoyed what I
learned and it brought me closer to my faith. As a result I felt I would
be disrespecting both the teachers and the lessons that I learned by
However, Noah stresses that most of the students attended the
underground prom “not as an act of rebellion, but simply because they
genuinely thought it would be fun and because they wanted a solid
'validation' of their high school experience.”
“We'd been watching countless movies and reading teen magazines and each
screamed 'Prom! Prom! Prom!' each spring, and so we felt somewhat
entitled to that 'average high school experience' that we were obviously
Lieberman’s school did, however, offer a kosher alternative to prom.
“The school held a dinner for the senior class and faculty. We were to
dress rather formally, but modestly,” explains Leiberman. “The event
included speeches by classmates and administrators and dancing in which
the genders each took up half of the dance floor and danced among
Gown by Modest
Some conservative Christian teens skip their proms because of similar
concerns about immodesty. Others, whether or not they attend private
religious schools, can still feel comfortable attending their prom
thanks to the phenomenon of modest prom wear. This small but growing
trend--retailers selling dresses that meet religious modesty
requirements--may expand now that secular schools are creating and
enforcing prom dress codes, sending those in too-revealing clothing home
for the night.
The Utah-based company Modest by Design, co-owned by Eddie and Heather
Gist, carries prom dresses with the Church of Latter-day Saint’s modesty
requirements in mind--shoulders, navel and knees covered (and don’t even
think about cleavage). But their gowns are going over big with
non-Mormons, says Eddie Gist. “We found out very quickly that there are
a lot of people looking for modest clothing; from Florida to New York,
all walks of life, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist, and Presbyterian.” The
store even holds a modest prom dress design contest in which the winner
has her dress made and can wear it to her prom.
"It’s not like you’re gonna go to hell if you show your shoulders or
anything," explains Jennifer Loch of Jen Magazine, a fashion magazine
for Latter-day teen girls. "But you have to draw a line somewhere. All
religions have a place where they draw the line. It’s just important
that you have a line, because it’s all about saying 'This is as far as
I’m gonna go.'"
Latter-day Saints aren’t the only ones getting in on the modesty
movement. Some Roman Catholics have started hosting what they call Pure
Fashion shows, highlighting clothing with coverage.
While cynics might think that it’s the parents pushing the modest trend,
and many teens are donning prim gowns begrudgingly, Loch also points to
the hundreds of letters she gets declaring that "modest is the hottest!"
Gist puts the numbers at about "60/40, when it comes to mothers vs.
daughters" seeking out modest prom wear.
Between same-sex proms and modest prom dresses, religiously conservative
teens are finding ways to celebrate this rite of passage without
compromising their own values (or their parents' rules). Notes Loch,
"Most of the Latter-day Saint teens in the U.S. go to regular high
school and are just trying to fit in with the crowd; they’re trying to
be like their friends, without breaking the rules of their religion."
But not all religious high school students consider the prom a rite of
passage. Asked whether she felt she missed out on an important milestone
by skipping her prom, Malik, the Muslim student now at Princeton,
concludes, “I don't feel being American means going to a prom. I was
born and raised in America and experienced every aspect of life that any
other person would have. Spending hundreds of dollars on a dress, shoes,
my hair and nails--that doesn't seem like something I missed out on.”
*Not the student’s real name
Ellen Leventry is Beliefnet's former Teens editor and a contributing