Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Does My Head Look Big in This?: A Look at Muslim Women in Young Adult Fiction

If you’re looking for Muslim teenagers in young adult fiction, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many good examples. There are plenty of Orientalist novels about exotic Muslim girls in distant lands. A standard example is the narrator of Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (Suzanne Fisher Staples, 1991), who at age 13 is forced into marriage with a man over 50 who already has three wives. Western Muslim women don’t fare much better. Until recently, Jehran of Caroline B. Cooney’s The Terrorist (1999) represented the role of a Muslim woman in young adult fiction: the antagonist, who, abused by her family, is driven to murder.

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah represents the new trend: Muslim protagonists who aren’t terrorists. Abdel-Fattah’s book has to be the most overtly Muslim book that exists in young adult fiction.

The book, published in 2005 by Scholastic, is the story of 16-year-old Amal, an Australian-Palestinian who struggles with standard high school drama, in the context of being a Muslim girl who has recently adopted the hijab. The original cover art shows the face of a girl in a maroon hijab. She is looking up with a slightly raised eyebrow. Instead of glamorizing her by turning her hijab into a niqab and adding dark eyeliner and eye shadow (as done to the protagonist of this book), the publisher chose a cute and friendly cover, scattered with brightly colored circles. It’s even reminiscent of the cover of this lighthearted read. Amal’s hijab isn’t played up to sell books.

So, before anything, masha’Allah! Muslim teenage girls are finally represented in young adult/teen fiction. Not as terrorists. Not as child brides. Instead, they’re average high school girls. Author Randa Abdel-Fattah takes this responsibility seriously and she tries to tackle every issue facing Muslim teen girls. That’s where she trips.

It’s understandable that Abdel-Fattah would have a lot to achieve in a book like this. She takes on the hijab (the decision to go from non-hijabi to full-time hijabi, the reactions, the consequences), the image of Islam in the context of modern-day terrorism, boys and dating, culture vs. Islam, sexism within the Muslim community, racism, Islamophobia, prayer and wudu, fasting, and being the lone Muslim in an upper-class Australian prep school. It’s a lot to cover, and Abdul-Fattah has 360 pages to do it, but often her attempts to address the topics come off rather heavy-handed. It’s that she has stereotypes to break, and she will break them, damn it.

The book is awash with spelled-out stereotype-breaking. It is stated repeatedly that Amal was not forced to wear the hijab. Her school principal, a rather two-dimensional character, even suggests her parents make her wear it, so that Amal can explicitly state, “No, I made this choice.” The idea of a Muslim woman as “oppressed” is repeatedly mocked. It’s clear that Abdel-Fattah set out with the goal of destroying Muslim stereotypes. The goal in and of itself isn’t a problem; it’s the way Abdel-Fattah achieves it that is.

Here’s a description of narrator Amal’s old (Islamic) school:

“Where they indoctrinate students and teach them how to form Muslim ghettos, where they train with Al-Qaeda for school camp and sing national anthems from the Middle East. NOT!” (12)

Simply describing how wonderful the school is, which Abdel-Fattah does, would be sufficient to get her point across, but she goes beyond this to describe the stereotypes and tack on “NOT.” This can interfere the readability of the story. In an other example, an awkwardly stilted dialogue ensues for the sole purpose of assuring readers that Amal does not wear her hijab in the shower (“Helps with the conditioning treatment” ([45]), when the explanation that she takes it off at home already suffices. A smaller attempt to break stereotypes is the author’s note that Amal has light hair and green eyes; Amal explains that people are surprised by her appearance once they know her name. It’s certainly valid for Abdel-Fattah to note that not all Muslims or Arabs are “swarthy and dark-eyed,” as stereotyped. Ironically, the cover shows Amal not with green eyes but dark brown. Clearly some stereotypes have yet to be broken.

Amal describes her reaction to the terrorist bombings in Bali as a combination of horrified sadness for the victims and outrage that would be associated with her religion, her faith, her God. Amal says, “These people are aliens to my faith” (250). I’d say most Muslims can agree with this statement and relate to her reaction, whether in terms of the Bali incident, September 11th, the Sudanese teddy bear incident, or Aqsa Parvez’s murder. The visibility of Islam is so frequently so negative that it forces Muslims into the awkward position of having to explain themselves, simply for being Muslim, every time.

Unfortunately, Abdel-Fattah’s view of what is a Muslim is strictly defined. First of all, there’s the huge emphasis on the hijab. Half of the plot focuses on Amal’s decision to wear the hijab, the reactions she receives, and how it changes her behavior. Granted, the hijab is a large part of many Muslim women’s lives and all the issues Amal raises (“What will my classmates think?” “Dare I go on the subway alone?”) are realistic and specific, but the author spends less time on Amal’s reasons for wearing hijab. In fact, Amal spells it out like this: “I’m doing it because it’s my duty and defines me as Muslim female” (52). Exactly why this is a “duty” is never explored. Amal explains it as “modesty” and falls to the clichéd dichotomy of hijab or scanty clothing. Modesty is an odd way to explain the hijab when Amal focuses so much time on makeup and new clothes in order to impress boys. The irony is never questioned. She does have a close Muslim friend, Yasmeen, who doesn’t wear the hijab, but any reader unfamiliar with the hijab debate within the Muslim community could easily assume that Amal’s viewpoint — that the hijab is the initiation into “universal sisterhood” (28) — is the last word on hijab. This is rather off-putting to those of us who consider ourselves members of the sisterhood of Islam — without covering our heads.

I’ve browsed commentary on the book at sites such as Amazon and LibraryThing. The majoity of the response indicates that the novel’s main readers are non-Muslim, although the book has been read by Muslim women seeking to find a portrayal of their experiences growing up the West. In the novel, Amal rants about being seen as the “walking ambassador” of Islam because she is the only Muslim at her school (156). Ironically, outside the book the character carries this same responsibility, because she is the most visibly Muslim narrator of any young adult novel. Abdel-Fattah wittingly or unwittingly defines through Amal what it means to be Muslim. For Amal, Islam involves wearing hijab and abstaining from romantic relationships until marriage. Anything less is presented as against her beliefs. These are pretty mainstream Islamic ideas, but they may leave the non-Muslim reader with the firm belief that no “real” Muslim ever considers dating or sees hijab as not obligatory.

Nevertheless, Amal does break other stereotypes. She’s a Muslim teenager and she watches Sex in the City. She has a mad crush on her classmate Adam, showing that Muslims are in fact not asexual! It’s interesting to see how Abdel-Fattah handles the conflicting forces within Amal: she is intensely attracted to Adam (from forearm lust to his personality), but she does not believe any romantic relationship is appropriate outside marriage.

For a book that’s a “journey of faith” as the dust jacket advertises, there’s a lack of clear spirituality. Amal goes through the actions of religion; she prays, she fasts, she wears hijab, and she doesn’t shy from explaining her beliefs to her classmates. But it’s hard to see her spiritual connection with God, to understand her actions as anything more meaningful than rote motions. The most helpful moment is when Amal explains to her crush Adam that praying is like taking a timeout in soccer. Nowhere else does Amal hint at what prayer or faith actually mean to her. Sport analogies, though, fall short of spiritual significance. Perhaps it’s just not for this genre. The prose is hardly poetic, and one of the most vivid descriptions is of Adam’s bulging forearm. As put by one Amazon reviewer, “For the Muslim reader looking for an ‘emaan lifter’, look elsewhere.” Islam is described in terms of daily actions, but there’s nothing inspiring about it.

Littered with painfully stilted dialogue, far too many references to shallow materialism (Amal learns that color-coordinating her hijab with her shoes and bag is essential), and moments when the book plods on without a plot, Does My Head Look Big in This? is no literary gem. The writing is too immature for a typical teenage audience. Especially in the first half it easily passes as mediocre fluff reading — “chick lit” if you like.

In the second half more serious themes are addressed. Amal’s friend Leila faces unfair treatment at home. Her mother, clinging to tradition she learned growing up in a village in Turkey, criticizes Leila for focusing on school. Leila is introduced to man after man, all in her mother’s attempt to marry her off at age 16. While Leila is told off for being a “bad girl” for studying and not doing enough housework, her brother entertains scantily-clad girlfriends, goes to bars, and returns home intoxicated on alcohol and marijuana. Unlike Leila, he is not forbidden from going out at night or even punished for his behavior.

It’s commendable of Abdel-Fattah to bring up issues such as this, instead of painting the entire Muslim community as as progressive as Amal’s parents. Here Amal faces the same issue covered in a recent post; how can she help her friend without making Islam into the culprit? She hesitates over telling her non-Muslim friend about the situation: “I’m worried that she’ll think, Oh, typical Muslim nutjobs. Locking their girls up in the house” (297). Her clarification that culture is not Islam (“And they don’t tell me it’s a Muslim story. They don’t tell me it’s a Turkish story. They understand it is a Leila story” (301) and “she’s following her village’s culture, not Islam” (89)) is again a bit heavy-handed; it’s too clear that Abdel-Fattah wants to make the distinction. I appreciate that Abdel-Fattah doesn’t ignore sexism and oppression within the Muslim community. This is even more relevant with the recent story of Aqsa Parvez.

If there were a hundred books about Muslim teenagers, Does My Head Look Big in This? would not be the one book I’d recommend. Abdel-Fattah’s writing could do with serious editing for length and quality. She lacks the skill of subtlety: messages like “Show kindness even to the grouchy old lady next door” hit the reader with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the predictable storyline makes foreshadowing useless. The fluffiness can grow tiresome. And there’s the fact Amal defines her understanding of Islam in black and white terms.

Unfortunately, the hundred books about Muslim teenagers do not exist. Does My Head Look Big in This? is what we have, the only book to cover so many issues of Western Muslim teenagers. And, despite its flaws, the book succeeds in one of its very important goals: normalizing Muslim girls. Here is Amal. She’s not a “fanatic,” she’s not a terrorist, and she doesn’t lead a life of misery and abuse. She’s just a teenage girl, dealing with standard high school problems — but she navigates them her own Islamic way.

(Note: Randa Abdel-Fattah has come out with a second book featuring a Muslim teenager, Ten Things I Hate About Me (2006). Not yet available in the United States, this novel focuses on the protagonist’s identity as a Lebanese-Australian.)