Monday, August 06, 2007

Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
3Q 3P M/J/S

Amal describes herself and her situation like this:
I'm an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian. That means I was born an Aussie and whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens. I'm in eleventh grade and in four days' time I'll be entering the first day of my third term at McCleans. My Jennifer Aniston experience couldn't have come at a worse time. I mean, it's hard enough being an Arab Muslim at a new school with your hair tumbling down your shoulders. Shawling up is just plain psychotic.

"Shawling up"? "Jennifer Aniston experience"? Hunh? What does that mean? Okay, let's backtrack just a minute. Over winter break, Amal watched a Friends rerun in which Rachel (played by Jennifer Aniston) is a bridesmaid in her ex's wedding. Her dress is hideous, and at first, she's embarrassed and lets the teasing get to her. But midway through the event, she decides the heck with that and jumps up to sing "Copacabana" in front of all the guests. Seeing Rachel/Jennifer refuse to be intimidated by what anyone else thinks is a turning point for Amal. It's what makes her decide to become a "full-timer" -- to wear the hijab (headscarf) all the time, not just at the mosque or as part of a school uniform.

Wearing the hijab is not an easy decision. Amal knows it's going to make her a target for scathing comments, prejudiced remarks, and curious glances. And she's scared about all of that. But at the same time, wearing the hijab just feels right. It's taking a stand for her beliefs. It will make her feel closer to God. She's proud of who she is, and her religion is very important to her. And too many people think that Muslim women are downtrodden and repressed. She wants them to know that Islam honors women and encourages them to live full and complete lives. Wearing the hijab is one way that she can honor her belief and send a signal to those who don't understand. But that doesn't mean it isn't a scary thing to do. Anything that marks someone as Arab or Muslim, whether it be the hijab, a name, or physical characteristics, makes him or her a target. Is she ready to deal with that?

Wearing a hijab isn't just about wearing a headscarf. Wearing the hijab sends another kind of signal, too. It means that the wearer is modest in all things, from dress to romance. And that means that not only will a devout Muslim girl not have sex before marriage, she also won't have a physical relationship of any kind. That means no hugging and definitely not kissing. That doesn't mean that a girl can't fantasize, though, and Amal is really good at fantasizing over Adam. Mmmmmmm...Adam! Yeah, he's got a bit of acne and a tendency towards a unibrow, but those muscles! That hair! Not only that, but he's a popular jock who is also an excellent student. Of all the kids in school, she's most worried about what Adam will think about her wearing the hijab. Unfortunately, even though they were chem lab partners last term, Amal knows she isn't really on Adam's radar. So it surprises and delights her no end when, instead of dividing them, wearing the hijab actually attracts Adam's attention. They soon become good friends, and Adam joins her group of friends. Amal savors his IMs and phone calls at night and their deep conversations during the day. But does Adam really understand what wearing the hijab means? What if he doesn't understand the line between friend and girlfriend?

There's a lot to like about this book. For one thing, I enjoyed the peek inside a culture that isn't my own (it's a far cry from my own, in fact). Amal often has to deal with people who think of her as a foreigner, even though she's lived her entire life in Australia. Abdel-Fattah does a nice job showing that Amal and her family and friends are no different from anyone else, while at the same time showing us what is unique about their culture. Another plus is that the book manages to be quite funny while still dealing with some serious and significant topics. Amal has a great sense of humor and a wry eye towards her family and friends, which makes for several laugh-out-loud moments. It's also refreshing to read a book where the relationships between the main character and her parents and friends are honest, caring, and supportive. You won't see any backstabbing here. And for parents and teens who prefer books with minimal swearing, sex, and drinking, this one is right up your alley.

Abdel-Fattah takes great pains to be inclusive and to show a well-rounded view of a typical Australian-Arab teen. Amal has two very good friends who are also Muslim, and all three girls are very different. Yasmeen is the worldly girl, very into shopping and fashion. Leila is determined to be a lawyer, but her mother comes from a culture which expects the girls to sublimate themselves to the men in their lives (the girl's brother comes off looking like a real jerk), and there's no reason for a girl to be educated, let alone go to college, as far as she's concerned. A girl only needs to know how to maintain a home and keep her husband happy. She's desperate to marry Leila off now, before she gets too old (say, 18). Amal/Abdel-Fattah makes it clear that this is a cultural thing, not a religious thing. The way Leila's mother is bringing up her daughter reflects the culture of her village, not Islam. This is obviously something the author wants us to understand, but I wish she had been more subtle about it.

Amal also has several good friends who are not Islamic. There's Josh, who is Jewish and understands what it feels like to be an outsider. So does Amal's friend Eileen, who is of Japanese descent. A significant subplot in the book involves their friend Simone's body image issues. Eileen is round and voluptuous instead of model-thin, and it's a serious problem for her and for her mother. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she can't believe that a boy would actually find her attractive, when she is (as far as she and her mother are concerned) so fat. Abdel-Fattah and her characters come down squarely in the "be comfortable with yourself the way you are" corner, and reading those scenes feel like a big warm hug. Amal and all her friends are people you would like to hang out with.

I do have some reservations, though. At times, Amal had an anxiety attack about wearing her hijab in situations where it felt odd to me. In the middle of a tense debate, would people really be concentrating on what she's wearing, not what she says? Would it really be her main reason to be nervous about beginning her section of the debate? I didn't think so. (On the other hand, the scene in the mall when she applies for a job made it very clear that Amal has reason to be wary about people's reactions.) There's a subplot with a Greek neighbor that not only plays out predictably, but somewhat unrealistically. My biggest problem, though, was that I found that what started out as one of the book's strengths became a weakness. I frequently found myself reading a scene and thinking first that the conversation was very interesting/fun/whatever, then that it was informative, and finally that it felt as though it was in the book so that Abdel-Fattah could make something clear to her readers (culture vs. Islam, romance in Islamic culture, female empowerment issues in the Muslim community, etc.). I would have rated this book a 4Q 3P if this had happened less often.

Overall, I definitely recommend this book. I don't know if it's a book that everyone will love, but I think it's a book that may do very well by word of mouth.


Here are a few lines that made me smile:

"Who cares what normal is, Simone? Let's protest. From now on we're the anti-normal, anti-average, anti-standard. You can eat what you want to, I'll wear what I want, and we'll die with a bag of chips in our hand and a tablecloth on our head."

I can't bear to sit through another night manicuring my nails with Justin Timberlake, so I say yes.

The way I see it, I'd rather follow God's fashion dicates than some ugly fake-tanned old fart in Milan who's getting by on a pretty self-serving theory of less is more when it comes to female dress.

About reading Cosmo:
According to Cosmo, Adam and I are perfectly matched, although June's edition gave us a low score on physical compatibility so I threw out that issue. All my Cosmo are stacked under my bed because my mom hates me reading such "filthy magazines with nothing but sex and skinny girls." She think that if I read them I'm going to spend my Saturday nights bouncing away in cars and throwing up my lunch.

(This is Simone speaking:)
"You think that's my dream? To get checked out my guys? Guys would check out a streetlamp if it had boobs."


  1. i read this book too and thought it was brill! have u read "ten things i hate about me"

  2. I'm glad you liked the book. I'll pass your recommendation along to my teens here. I didn't know that Abdel-Fattah has a new book out. I haven't seen any reviews of "Ten Things I Hate About Me" yet, so thank you for the heads-up.

  3. I loved this book! You should deffinatly use this book when you do book talks!

  4. It was on the list of books I was considering bringing with me to Two Rivers. I get the feeling I should have. I will keep it in mind to use in the future.


Agree? Disagree? Something you'd like to say in response? Feedback is welcome! Just keep it on topic, please. And if you found one of my booktalks and used it, I'd love to know how it worked for you.