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

79876When sixteen-year-old Amal decides to wear the hijab full-time, her entire world changes, all because of a piece of cloth…

Sixteen-year-old Amal makes the decision to start wearing the hijab full- time and everyone has a reaction. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, people on the street. But she stands by her decision to embrace her faith and all that it is, even if it does make her a little different from everyone else.

Can she handle the taunts of “towel head,” the prejudice of her classmates, and still attract the cutest boy in school? Brilliantly funny and poignant, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel will strike a chord in all teenage readers, no matter what their beliefs.

 


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I know I know, “if you hated her last book so much why did you read the other one?” Well, I was bored with mind-numbing daily routines and wanted an audiobook to get me through them. Something that I don’t desperately want to read (those are reserved to be read) or too difficult (I won’t be able to understand it and completely my work at the same time), this book was available in my library’s audiobook collection, which was also where I found the last book. Also, I’ve heard that this one is better, so I thought I would give it a try.

Well, it was better, but not that much better. But considering how much I despised the last book so much I also gave it exactly zero stars, it really doesn’t say much. At least the protagonist is not straight-out annoying this time.

I want to make it clear that I’m happy that there is a Muslim girl with a hijab as the protagonist, you really don’t get that a lot in Western literature. However, it doesn’t mean the book was good.

I read a thesis, not a story

From how the story was written, I’m assuming it written mostly with non-Muslims in mind than Muslims. As there were quite a lot of lectures on how Islam work and how Muslims are not all terrorists, which are something Muslims would probably have an opinion on already. But instead of building up a likeable and relatable Muslim character to empathise with, or conveying the messages through character experience, she decided to have Amal directly lecturing the reader about what they should think about Muslims and Islam, in a quite preachy and condescending way nonetheless. The whole book sounded like a high school student’s essay on the ‘true meaning of Islam’ and the treatment of Muslims disguised as dialogues between characters or Amal’s monologues.Sometimes there were even obviously forced and unrealistic scenarios of bigotry just to create an opportunity for someone to make a big, preachy speech.

This wasn’t a story, this was an essay and to make things worse, a very cheesy essay, disguised as a story. What she wants her readers to think is so obvious and unsubtle as she had the characters say what she would say in real life debate word by word instead of hiding it within the story.

I understand and support activism in literature. A lot of my favourite books, such as the Harry Potter series and The Book Thief are all fictional books that are trying to portray a message, the authors were trying to persuade the readers to think in a certain way through the story. But here is the thing, the STORY is what the authors should be focusing on as authors. If they fail to tell the story, then the message behind it would only fall flat.

Unrelatable characters

When Amal is not speaking essays, she was being a stereotypical teenager, unlike any real teenagers. It is clear that the author is an adult attempting to sound like a teenager while failing completely. The way Amal whines about her parents, swoons over her crushes and jokes around with her friends were very typical in the sense of what adults think teenagers are like. She made all teenagers sound like air-heads.

The characters were also very one-dimensional and flat. It is understandable for characters like Leila whose family was directly forbidding her from having a life, which probably explains why her oppressive family is all she talks about. But here we have Simon who only ever talks about weight and her crush. Really, there isn’t one appearance where she doesn’t talk about how fat she thinks she is. While teenagers with body image issues are very real, teenagers with no concerns other than body image issues probably don’t exist. It’s almost like the author created a character to represent a “teenage problem” and then having their life revolves around it.

There were very little character developments, and when there is, it’s really sudden with no leading up whatsoever. This was a major problem for the last book as well.

We’ve got Tim Tams and Vegemite here, mate! Look at how Australian we are!

While the author poked fun of how Uncle Joe is trying too hard to fit in and look like an Australian (by turning his house into a souvenir store with Australian flags plastered everywhere, no one does that), she didn’t realise how much she is trying too hard to make this book Australian. At times I don’t even remember that the book was set in Melbourne because of how Americanised the story was. I’ve even seen Americans being confused on Goodreads because she used American terms in the book. So maybe in the attempt to remind the readers that it is, in fact, an Australian book, the author just throws in random stereotypical Australian references here and there. The sky looks like vegemite is one of the most confusing and ridiculous things I have ever heard.

Hypocrisy

What I disliked the most about this book was the hypocrisy in its message. Had the message been at least consistent throughout the book I would have thought it was a meh book and gave it 1 star.

While trying to de-stigmatising Islam, the author stigmatised nearly every single major religions (including some forms of Islam ironically) and atheism, oh especially atheism. Most religions mentioned, including Islam were represented in two extremes: Christians like Adam who are cool with Muslims and then Christians parents who disown their children for believing in another religion, Secular Jews and Orthodox Jews, Amal’s liberal family and Leila’s fresh-from-the village family. There is no in-between, there is no balance. Buddhists got a passing mention that had nothing to do with their religion. The author probably knew nothing about Buddhism but decided to mention it anyways for the sake of “ticking the box”.

But be thankful religious people, at least you are not atheists whose only representation was a Christian-turned-atheist-turned-Muslims who felt so empty, without purpose, and had no sense of justice during her temporary atheism phase.

Because of course, without religion, you have absolutely no purpose of living or sense of moral. Atheists are all sad, sad people with empty souls and nothing to live for. I wish I was exaggerating, but that’s exactly how she describe an atheist: empty, without meaning, and no sense of justice. I’m also annoyed at how she made atheism seems like a phase between realising how shitty your past religion is and realising what’s the true religion, aka. Islam. The character first realise how Christianity is not for her (because her Christian parents are evil!) and then in the bitterness of losing her faith, turned to atheism. She finally realised how empty her soul was because no god = no meaning of life or sense of moral, she eventually turned to the greatness of Islam, happy ending.

Saying that “Muslims are just normal everyday people” on one hand and then bashing atheists isn’t helping with your narrative at all. You are preaching and definitely not living it, which makes you a hypocrite. This was the one and the only mention she had on atheism, unlike the more balanced view she had on other religion.

I also wonder, if an author wrote about a Muslim girl being disowned by her bigoted Muslim family and then flung herself into the arms of Jesus Christ and found salvation in God, realising that Christianity is the ‘true religion’, what reaction would that story draw? Probably not ‘this story is about how we shouldn’t judge others based on their beliefs’.

The author wasn’t completely prejudice-free for other religions either. The message is supposedly “don’t care about what other people’s religion, just focus on if they are good people”, which should put all religions on an equal ground. The author attempted to be consistent with her message by showing the extreme two ends of each religion, showing that there are good and bad people in each religion. However, the comments she had on Islam alone shows that she is at least biased towards thinking Islam is superior. “There are good Christians and bad Christians. There are Jews who are open-minded and Jews who are conservative. There are true Muslims who actually read the Quran and understand what Islam truly is, and ‘Muslims’ who don’t understand their own religion and just follows some bigoted culture. Islam is a peaceful and liberal religion and Muslims who don’t agree with MY version of Islam are all misinformed. Actually, they aren’t even ‘black sheep in the Muslim community’, they just cruel people who wear the name of Muslim but are definitely not true Muslims at all.”

See where the double-standard is? If it is another religion, there are good people and bad people – a very balanced point-of-view that most rational people could agree on. This would also shut a lot of people up if they think she is trying to put Islam on top by bashing other religions. However, when it comes to her own religion, there are only good people, the rest are misinformed and don’t belong at all. The bias may be subtle but it is undoubtedly there.

I would love to read a book about a Muslim teenager in the Western world that is actually good. If you have any recommendation please let me know.

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