From El Salvador to Lebanon to Nepal, NPR has been exploring the lives of 15-year-old girls around the world. But what’s it like to be 15 in the U.S.? To find out, NPR’s Michel Martin spoke with three sophomore girls at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.
Leslie Morales, whose parents are from El Salvador, explains the importance of a girl’s quinceañera — even though she decided to celebrate her 15th birthday with a trip to Disneyland (score!) instead. Soraya Mohamud, whose parents are from Somalia, tells us about how grateful she is for her mother’s support. And Tanjum Choudhury, who moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh last year, talks about her older sister — who’s always on her case — and about why girls rule.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On the significance of turning 15, in each of their cultures
Leslie Morales: The meaning of a quinceañera is to grow up. You’re becoming a woman. You’re responsible for yourself. You’re going to start making more decisions for yourself. You start thinking about what career you want to practice or what you want to do with your future.
Soraya Mohamud: When you turn 15, there’s a little bit of maturity that’s now expected of you. In our culture and in our religion [Islam], 15 is a huge number. When I turn 15, I am a woman. So everything that I do wrong, everything that I do right, and all my deeds and my sins and whatnot — I am now accountable, not my parents.
But I have three older sisters, and they’ve shown me the rights and wrongs. They’ve shown me what to do, and they’ve shown me that I can do anything that I want to if I really put my mind to it.
Tanjum Chowdhury: In my family, when you’re 15, you start helping Mom. Before, it was my older sister responsible for helping Mom and other stuff. But now my sister is shouting at me, like, “Oh, you help Mom ’cause I’m out at work.” So after school, I do my homework and I try to help my mom.
On expectations that weigh on them
Leslie: For my family, I have three younger brothers, and I’m the oldest. And they expect me to do the cooking at the house. They expect me to clean up, and I do. Since I’m the oldest, I feel like I’m supposed to show them, to give them an example of doing good in school, graduating, going to college. And that’s what I want for myself as well.
Going to college will be an honor. I would be the first one in my family. I’ll feel so special. And then my brothers will see me going to college, and they’re going to want to get on my level. That’s going to encourage them to do good in school. It will be awesome, honestly.
Tajum: My family, they all are educated well. Some of my cousins are like architects, engineers, electric engineers. My mother was a teacher and my dad was a city mayor in Bangladesh. So I try to get good grades like my brother and sister and cousins. My brother is really good at math, and I am not, so sometimes it’s hard.
I want to be a journalist, but my dad wants me to be a doctor.
On how things are different in the U.S.
Soraya: My mom really tries to instill the value of education in me. For people like my mom and dad, in Somalia, some would be able to continue their education, and some of them wouldn’t. And most of the time, it was the girls that wouldn’t be able to. And I guess the pressure was always like, “We are in America, Soraya. You know, there’s so much opportunity. You have to take a hold of it.”
Just knowing that there’s people back in Somalia who have to choose between getting a better life by continuing their education or having to go home and be married off or having to do work at home. It’s troubling.
I will never, ever stop being thankful of my mom. She worked so hard to come here. She was so set on coming here, set on making a better life for all of us.
Leslie: My parents, both of them are from the same village in El Salvador. But now, the gang violence is starting to spread into the village. My aunt was telling me it’s calming down. My cousins there, they keep a distance from gangs and stuff. But over there, it’s much easier to get involved in that kind of thing. Over here, there’s more opportunity to do other things.
Tanjum: I came here last year. When I was in Bangladesh, my parents were different because they let me play sports and work for a student newspaper writing stuff.
In villages, families are more conservative. Some parents don’t want their child to finish school, and they want her to get married. But now it’s changing. The government has rules now, to protect you if your parents try to push you to marry.
On why girls rule
Soraya: I do know some families that put girls aside and say, “Hey, no, you can’t do that.” But also, my aunts would tell me, “You can do it.” They push me forward. My female teachers would always sit right beside me, helping me doing English homework and whatnot when I couldn’t understand it. We have a great bond of support. That’s what I really like about it. We’re not just sitting ducks. Like, we can do stuff.
Leslie: I think women have the capacity to do so many things. Especially in our religion [Pentecostalism] all the women and the girls, we’re very close-knit.
Tanjum: Boys are good, not bad, but girls — they’re always smart. Girls can do whatever they want.
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