Saturday, 20 March 2010

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

"What's the big deal? It's a piece of material."
My mother snorts. "Since when do people see it as a mere piece of material? You and I both know that's a tad optimistic, ya Amal."
"So what? I can deal with all the crap...I want to try...and I want that identity. You know, that symbol of my faith. I want to know what it means to be strong enough to walk around with it on and stick up for my right to wear it."

So that's why sixteen-year old Amal decides to go full-time. That means wearing the hijab anytime a man who's not part of the family is around. Outside her house, at the mall, at the cafè, but especially in school. Not a decision to be taken lightly, when you're an Australian-born -Palestinian-Muslim student in a posh non-Muslim school. It takes guts, but Amal is dead serious and won't listen to anyone telling her it's a crazy idea.

I really enjoyed reading this. My first thought was that it should be given to anyone who's ever wondered what a girl who wears the veil thinks and feels. What are the reasons behind her custom. Whether she was forced to wear it or she's proud of it. It answers all these questions and more, in a straight-forward way. But this is not simply a book with a message.
It's mainly a very funny, witty and engrossing read. Its main character Yamal is a strong-minded and extremely smart girl who sticks up for her traditions and culture, while being a normal teenager with everyday teenage problems like zits, boy crushes, bitchy queen bees and best friends with weight complexes. It's hard not to like her.
Then there're a myriad of secondary characters: Amal's classmates, her Muslim friends, her family, her grumpy Greek neighbour. They all make this book a pleasure to read. I especially loved Amal's relationship with Mrs Vaselli, the Greek neighbour. It has a bumpy start, but it gets warmer and heartfelt and bittersweet.

One underlining theme of the book was the different ways in which human beings can experience immigration. Some will try to forget their past and blend in with the locals, in the hope of being accepted as equals. Others will cling on their cultures, and stick together, so not to feel too far away from home, and to remember who they are. Others will never truly feel at home and will end regretting the journey all their lives.
And then there's the second generation, the kids like Amal, who are born in a country, but for many people, they will never belong because their parents came from somewhere else.
To Amal she is a real Australian and is entitled to the same rights as any other Australian citizen, but at the same time she's also a Muslim whose parents happened to be born in Palestine. Just like her friend Eileen whose parents are Japanese.
Although Amal is proud of her heritage and will always defend it against its detractors, you can definitely sympatise with her when she's constantly asked to respond for terrorists actions done in the name of her religion. Wearing the hijab makes it even harder, because it exposes her immediately to the public and it seems to give people the right to associate her with murderous acts committed by complete strangers. And while Amal can't tolerate to always having to defend herself, the author is also showing that is just ignorance and the media depiction of terrorists as simply Muslim which causes confusion and misunderstandings among people. When Amal decides to respond, she's always spot on: it's not about religion. Just like it wasn't about religion in Northern Ireland. It's about politics. It seems like a very easy thing to grasp when she says it, and yet, TV and newspapers makes it a lot harder to tell the difference.

Another aspect that it brilliantly dealt with is the treatment of women in Islam. Most of non-muslim would think that Islam would be suppressive of women's rights. While Amal has being brought up to stand up for herself, to believe in education as a means to achieve independence, and to protest when she's called a "chick" by her male friends.
When her Muslim friend is pushed by her mother to find a suitable husband so that she can leave school and be a good wife, Amal is appalled that her friend's mother considers this part of being a good Muslim. To her it's just part of a tradition, not of her religion.
While I don't know enough about Islam to say if this it true or not, I appreciate the author's efforts to show that not every Muslim thinks the same, and that there can be multiple interpretations of the same religion.

One thing that I had a bit of a problem, though, was with Amal's decision to avoid any physical contact with the opposite sex before marriage. I understand that it's part of her religion of which I know little about. But I do feel that it's very similar to the Christian idea of virginity as the highest form of purity and the idea of sex as sinful and impure. I strongly oppose this view , I believe it's unhealthy and unnatural. In the same way I shudder at the thought of virginity pacts and rings, I can't bring myself to warm up to Amal's idea of refusing any kind of promiscuity until she finds the right one with whom she will spend the rest of her life. I see it as a very unrealistic expectation which is bound to bring her disappointment. I know many won't agree and will tell me I should respect her right to choose not to have sex until marriage. I do respect it, but I don't agree with it, and I can't shut up about it.

Anyway, I'm really happy I read this, it has definitely open up my mind about many issues, and it has given me a rare insight in the mind of a teenage Muslim in a way both entertaining and satisfying. You shouldn't miss it.

Other views:
Reading in color
Books love me
Adventures in reading
Bookshelves of doom
What Kate is reading
Becky's Book reviews
I was a teenage book geek

Please let me know if I missed yours.


Nymeth said...

Well, I'm glad you didn't shut up about it! I wouldn't either - in fact, I have huge problems with the notion of "promiscuity" altogether. Anyway, I'm glad to hear you found this a worthwhile read overall, because I have it on my tbr pile :P

jehara said...

I haven't read this, but last year I read Ten Things I Hate About Me by the same author. It deals with similar issues and I really enjoyed it. I have been wanting to get my hands on this since I enjoyed Ten Things so much.
I agree with you about the virginity pacts and such. I strongly oppose this view as well.

Amanda said...

I've wondered about this one for a long time, because i read another review that thought it sounded preachy, but reading yours it sounds like something I'd enjoy.

valentina said...

good Ana, i think it's definitely worth reading, but I'm curious to know your thoughts on it.

jehara, it's good to know her other book is good too, I will most definitely read it soon.

Amanda, I read those reviews, only after having read the book, but it had never occurred to me that it could have been preachy. At least I didn't notice it. Maybe cause I was very interested in reading her points of view on everything, and just appreciated the whole point of the book. But I'd be curious to know how you felt about it.

Teenage Problems said...

Sounds like an awesome book!