Thursday, May 21, 2009

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

Plot Summary: Normal, sixteen-year-old Amal is an Australian-born Muslim Palestinian. All on her own, she makes the decision to start wearing the hijab (head-covering) full-time. Her parents, teachers, friends, and people on the street all have a reaction – some good, some not so good. But she stands by her decision to embrace her faith and all that it is, even if it makes her different from everyone else.

In this day and age, with so much ‘Islamic Terrorism’ all over the news, a story like this is very refreshing. None of the girls in Amal’s story are made to wear the hijab. The two girls who do, Amal and Leila, do so of their own choosing because they’re strong in their Muslim faith. I think that’s a fabulous message to send in this day and age.

At times, Amal seemed a bit too introspective and wise for her age, which made the prose seem more message-y than story, but it was never heavy-handed. And this is still a story I recommend.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

I like how Amal comes to her decision about wearing the hijab, and how she sees it as believing in yourself so completely that you can withstand the constant questions and taunts. Her example is Leila, who is always ready with a quip or comeback whenever someone makes fun of her hijab.

I would have liked to see a bit more, though. Throughout the entire novel, we never find out what the hijab means to Amal. We learn that it’s part of the Muslim religion, and that it makes her feel closer to God, but we never learn why.

When an avid Christian wears a cross around her neck, she does so for a reason. The cross is more than just the symbol of Christianity. It’s a reminder of what Jesus went through when he was crucified, how he was tortured, and all the pain and suffering he brought on himself so that the world could have eternal salvation. Wearing a symbol like that around your neck will probably elicit a more personal response than “it’s the symbol of Christianity.”

For Muslims, it’s traditional for women to cover their heads (at least). But so many practicing Muslims aren’t necessarily following this, so there must be a reason motivating the ones who do. What motivates Amal to put on the hijab full-time? What about it gives her enough inner strength to deal with the taunts that she knows are coming? How does wearing it make her feel closer to God? We never find out these things, and I think this is a major short-coming in the story.

Other than that, this is a well-rounded story about Muslim culture, the different things that women face both within their families and outside of them. And I was glad to see that there were plenty of respectable Muslim boys in this story, with only one jerk. Leila’s brother isn’t the way he is because he’s Muslim, it’s because of bad parenting. I’ve seen plenty of non-Muslim boys turn out that way because the parents didn’t know how to check their son.

Overall, this is a good story that’s worth reading. Especially now.


Mary Witzl said...
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Mary Witzl said...

Whether to wear a hijab or not to is one of the issues a lot of my female students have to face too, but here it is much more of a political issue than a religious one. And the truth is, that it is NOT written anywhere in the Koran that women must cover their heads or any part of their bodies. This is one of those cultural customs which has been passed down; in his later years, Mohammad asked his younger wives to cover themselves; they began to do this and the custom spread, though it varies greatly throughout the Muslim world.

Turkish women often cover their hair in order to make a statement: Turkey's government has been secular for a long time and many people embrace this, but others want an Islamic government. A woman student who wears a hijab is generally making a strong political statement.

At our university, women are prohibited from wearing headscarves or veils, and the women who change back into them immediately after school (there is a place where all those who are so inclined do this -- quite funny to watch) are those who want others to know where they stand on this issue.

I could understand Amal's decision to wear the hijab if she felt that by doing so she was embracing her culture -- using it as a kind of shibboleth to show others her faith and to feel closer to her people. I agree that this ought to be explored -- it's an interesting issue and a timely one too.

Tabitha said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! I was wondering if you'd weigh in, considering where you live. :)

The reason behind her wearing the scarf definitely needed to be explored more in the book, especially in light of how some people in Turkey use it as a political statement. To wear the scarf and face those known obstacles is a big decision. I would have liked to have been a bigger part of her decision, so I could understand it and maybe sympathize.

Liana Brooks said...

I think it's interesting to see the Muslim perspective on this. And I wonder if there are ties to the Christian tradition.

There is a New Testament scripture about women keeping their heads covered. And there was a time when any "good" woman in a Christian country kept her head under a hat or scarf or wimple much like a Muslim woman of today.

There are still Christian sects who believe in this teaching. Some wear hats to church, some wear their hair in covered buns, some wear bonnets.

I've seen friends make the choice to wear the hijab and, for me, it was more shocking to see them wear anything else (like a bright rainbow clown wig) than it was to see the scarf. The hijab became part of their identity. It was never a matter of good or bad, it's just them.

Danyelle L. said...

Sounds like a great book! And I love anything that explains people better. :D

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book--it was refreshingly funny, as well as being thoughtful!

I felt like I understood her decision to wear the hijab--she talked about the "modesty in dress" issue. And at the same time she started wearing it, she also committed to doing her daily prayers, so it was all part of embracing her religion more deeply. I had a harder time understanding her resistance to kissing her guy friend. She wanted to be abstinent until marriage, that I get, but there's a lot of room between kissing and going all the way, and I wished she had explained more about why she drew the line where she did.

Overall, I liked this book a lot! It's on my "recommended" list.

Anette J Kres said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well written and thought provoking. The characters feel like people you might know from high school. Great read, regardless the the religious and political implications. It's a story about a girl embracing her spirituality amid the tumult of high school life. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tabitha said...

Liana - I believe that Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religion all have the same history, but go in different directions at the birth of Christ. Of course, someone who knows more should correct me if I'm wrong. :) I went to college with a group of girls who were Apostolic Christian, and they wore a head covering any time they were in public. Or if the needed to pray. It wasn't a full scarf, just a doily-looking thing that they pinned to the tops of their heads. And they *always* wore their hair in a bun. There are lots of similiarities between Christianity and Islam.

Danyelle - it's a great book! Definitely put in on the TBR pile. :)

Jenn - yeah, I got that too. To me, that seemed like the external answer, or the one you tell anyone who asks. It didn't seem like the deep-down-in-her-soul answer. Wearing a cross around your neck is nothing compared to wearing the head scarf, mostly because of visibility and preconceptions. I just thought that her decision would be more involved. I think she touches on this when she says that wearing the scarf is the beginning of the journey and not the end, and I would have liked to see more of this. But it was still a very enjoyable story. :)

Annette - definitely! I hope everyone reads this book. It's a great story, and has really interesting characters. :)

-.- said...

Great review! When I started to wear the hijab at 9, I faced taunting too. (One person who was a friend of mine, stopped being my friend and made fun of me every day because of this) So I can easily relate to Amal and Leila. This sounds like a wonderful book, I'll definitely have to check it out.

Also, Muslim women are told to cover in the Quran, so the hijab is compulsory. And when the ayah (verse from the Quran) came down, all the women started to cover their hair...I'm not really sure where Mary Witzl is getting her information.

~ Popin

Bish Denham said...

This is a very interesting post. And it sounds like an interesting read.

Mary Witzl said...

Popin, over 95% of my students and many of my colleagues are Turkish, Iranian, and Kazakh Muslims. They are the ones who told me this, but I have heard it from other sources as well. The Koran does stipulate that women should dress modestly, but this is open to interpretation. That is the reason why women in different Muslim countries dress differently, with some covering themselves entirely, and others covering their hair, but allowing their faces to show, etc. This practice also conformed to tribal customs at the time. Even before the Prophet's time, many women were already in the habit of wearing veils to distinguish themselves from slaves, who wore very little.

But honestly, I didn't make this up on my own!

Christina Farley said...

I'm not sure if this is a book that I'd read but it is interesting seeing the plot outline and the responses from people.

But I think it is something we should all keep in mind. Why do we do things? What is the purpose? Tradition? Cultural pressure? Belief? It's all so interesting.

Living in Korea, I've had to dress more modestly and when we were in Indoneisa, I never wore shorts or sleeveless shirts in public. (except Bali but that isn't really Indonesia!).

But I wear a cross because of my faith and it defintely has a strong meaning to me. Not just because it looks good.