November 9, 2010

Review: Does my head look big in this?

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:37 pm

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

I was given this book by a close friend of mine who knows I’m interested in books about Muslim women. It’s taken me awhile to get down to it on my to-read pile but I approached it with a lot of positive expectation.

The set up is simple. Sixteen-year-old Amal has decided to give up being a “part-timer” and wear hijab not just for bad hair days and religious observance but all the time. The book launches into this straight away, in what will be a consistant teenage voice. Amal is bubbly and confiding, an average teenager who likes shopping and watching television. She’s attended mainstream and Muslim schools and is about to start her third term at grammar school in Australia.

Early on Amal says that she “does [her] all-time best thinking through making lists” but the first list of the book degenerates into an “essay” and there’s not much use of list-making either in dialogue or narration later. This is a good idea but ultimately it seems like an concept that the author forgot to follow up – unfortunately so, because it could have really tied together some of the events of the plot.

In the first list/essay Amal disposes of the “Religious/Scriptures/Sacred” reasons to wear Hijab in 59 words which boil down to: “God says men and women should act and dress modestly”. This religious theme remains largely unexplored. Amal will later mention that she is now praying five times a day but we don’t see her praying or discover what her prayers are about. In concentrating on the things that make our heroine a ‘typical teenager’, the author seems reluctant to give a sense of how Amal experiences her faith. The intention is clearly to handle the religious subject matter with a light touch but I would have liked some more exploration of how Amal experiences her faith. We edge around this in some consideration of why she intends to save romantic relationships for marriage but it comes down to “being true to what you believe in”. As a reader, I appreciate the fact of Amal’s belief but it seems to exist at one remove from the text.

After the list that becomes an essay we do get a real list in chapter three, dividing people into columns of those who will be okay with hijab and those who will be “not so OK”. Here I had a real problem with the text. Each column has thirteen points and on the “Ok people” side we have Amal’s Mum and Dad; friends Leila, Yasmeen, Eileen and Simone; cousin Samantha; a school teacher, nuns, Orthodox Jewish woman, monks, bald women, hippies, people who appreciate good fabric and nudists because “if they believe in the right to take it all off, surely they believe in the right to keep it all on?”. Why monks and nuns count separately I’m not sure or why nudists get the pass.

Then on the negative side are listed a group of girls who will later turn out to be the popular posse at school, assorted shop keepers, Amal’s uncle and aunt, future university students and staff, neighbours, job interviewers, the school principal, a boy she likes (she hopes she’s wrong about this) and nudists (again) “who are offended by people who keep it all on”. She also lists feminists, or rather “hard core feminists who don’t get that this is me exercising my right to choose”. Nudists get the benefit of the doubt but moderate feminists who support a woman’s right to choose how much of their body to display don’t even get a look-in on the lists? This is a problem for me and something of a danger sign for the rest of the book.

Amal’s story explores themes of identity and individuality and teenagers will find a lot to empathise with. Amal supports her friend Leila against a bullying brother and repressive mother with dramatic results; she supports another friend against the girls who call her fat and the ideals of a diet-conscious mother; she makes friends with a boy named Adam and then wonders if he’d like to be more than a friend. Amal also makes time to forge a relationship with a crochety neighbour and encourage her to bury the hatchet in her own family feud. All of this is believably and realistically handled.

Other elements jar. The school is equipped with a standard-issue mean girl posse, complete with fashionista queen bee who makes fun of hijab-wearing Amal and curvacious Simone. But instead of enfolding Tia Tamos and her crew into the evolving understanding of the class, she is left in the cold and eventually shut down by one of the boys who calls her a slut – to the delight of Amal and her friends. I found this depressing reading on a couple of levels. It’s not feminist-friendly and it’s lazy writing.  From the first Tia has been a straw man antagonist and I’m getting tired of the carbon copy depictings of mean girls in high school stories. I would have liked to have seen Amal engage directly with the racism and stereotyping of the mean girls rather than emulating their tactics – and relying on a guy to speak for her.

One of the best parts of this book is Amal explaining to the leader of the debate team that she doesn’t want to speak for Islam or explain that it doesn’t endorse the Bali bombings because she is not Islam and can speak only for herself and that no one has asked Christian students to explain their religion or that it doesn’t endorse the Ku Klux Klan.

“Muslim is just a label for them. In the end, they’re nutcases who exploded bombs and killed people… And if you want me to talk on their behalf and act as though they’re part of me, what are you telling me you think about me?”

I really like this response. It’s honest, it’s apposite, and it speaks to the experience of thousands of Muslims across the world who have suffered as a result of ignorance and Islamaphobia. It’s also very true to the impression I have of Amal.

At the end the group of friends with Amal at their centre have achieved positive transformations but “Simone is still reading diet magazines” and has stopped smoking because her boyfriend told her to, Leila’s brother is “still a creep”, Amal is blowing kisses to Adam but doesn’t consider that flirting and Tia Tamos appears to have fallen off the planet in the chirpy conclusion of the book. Amal plans to write a list – but then realises it would be very short because she knows what outcome she wants – and this last part would be great if the list-making theme had been a more significant part of the book.

Ultimately I’m torn about whether I’d recommend this book. On the positive side it does what it sets out to do and shows us a young Muslim girl experiencing high school with the same essential concerns and behaviours as any other teenage girl. The first person narrative is variously lively, confiding and thoughtful. The narrative is well-paced and plotted.

But then again, it is perhaps too typical a high school novel. There’s a lack of intersectionality in the identity plot when it comes to the battle between the sexes. The girls’ interests and topics of conversation are limited to fashion, television and boys. The mean girls don’t really add anything to the plot except a background hum of normative and/or racist loose talk. The approval of boys is the social height of the high school world. There’s no engagement with the fact that Leila’s family insist on traditional gendered roles and her brother is unfavourly favoured – the conflict here centers on her mother’s attempts to marry Leila off. There’s also not a lot of engagement beyond banter with the popular obsession with thinness and diets.

It’s founded on strong ecumenical concepts but in feminist or social justice considerations it’s more fragile. Given the identity politics issues that drive the narrative I would have liked much more engagement with issues like traditional gender roles, thinness and diets, sexism and feminism itself – I’d like to know what underpins Amal’s assumption that the only feminists she cares enough to list will disapprove of her wearing hijab. Because without that intersectionality this book sometimes lapses into stereotyped, shadow-puppet and straw-man characters who could have been lifted out of obscurity with a more robust engagement with common assumptions and societal norms.

Reluctantly, because with moderate editing at a few critical points I’d rate it higher, I’m giving this 2 out of 5 stars.

I’d be interested in any recommendations of books with a similar subject matter.

Powered by WordPress