Module 7: Does My Head Look Big In This?

ImageRanda Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel tells the story of Amal, a 16 year old Australian-Palestinian girl living in an upscale suburb of Melbourne. Born to professional and loving parents, Amal has had no pressure to wear the hijab, the Muslim head scarf, as her mother does, but has nonetheless made the decision that she will wear this outward symbol of her faith. Her close girlfriends, some who wear the hijab and some who don’t, are totally supportive of Amal’s decision, but the reactions of her friends, school teachers and family are varied. Her own parents are bewildered at her decision, and though they are proud of their independent minded daughter, and certainly want her to follow in the family religious tradition, they are worried about how this will affect her life in school. Amal’s extended family, many of whom are not practicing Muslims, think that she has been forced into this decision. When they understand that it is her own desire to demonstrate her love for God and obedience to him, they feel that she has become overzealous. At school, the teachers and administrators know that they must allow Amal’s freedom of religious expression, but also worry that she has been forced into this seemingly outdated way of thinking.

Amal navigates her own Muslim faith in the face of terrorism, being made fun of at school and realizing that her decision really does set her apart in many ways, including having a dating relationship with the boy that she cares for. Her decision is quite mature, and sometimes her steadfastness seems a bit too mature for someone her age. She doesn’t have second thoughts about this religious commitment, and the book might have been more realistic if we were able to see the complexities in this decision. The decision to cover herself in the hijab seems to have been made hastily and her transformation from uncovered to covered doesn’t seem to have been met with the resistance that realistically would be present.

This book would be good to use for a middle school girls’ book reading group. There are lots of relevant topics that this age and gender would be able to discuss based on the content. It would be interesting to also have some recent articles or current events that have to do with women and the hijab or Muslim women in general.

Abdel-Fattha, Randa Does My Head Look Big In This, 2005, Scholastic, New York.

Review One

With an engaging narrator at the helm, Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel should open the eyes of many a reader. Headstrong and witty, 16-year-old Amal, an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian (“That means I was born an Aussie and whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens”) decides during winter break from her posh private school that she’s ready to wear the hijab, the Muslim head scarf, fulltime, as a testament to her faith. Amal knows she will face discrimination by classmates and misinformed people but she is committed to her decision; her parents are initially concerned, but ultimately rally behind her. Their worries, in fact, are well-founded: Amal attracts her share of stares and taunts both at school and around town, but she finds strength, not only from her convictions, but from her close-knit group of friends, who for various reasons—being Japanese, Jewish, nerdy or body-conscious—are perceived as being outside “the norm.” As Amal struggles with her identity in a post-9/11 world (“Do you have any idea how it feels to be me, aMuslim , today? I mean, just turn on the television, open a newspaper…. It feels like I’m drowning in it all”), her faith—and an array of ever-ready quips—help her navigate an often-unforgiving world. Using a winning mix of humor and sensitivity, Abdel-Fattah ably demonstrates that her heroine is, at heart, a teen like any other. This debut should speak to anyone who has felt like an outsider for any reason.

Publishers Weekly [Review of the book Does My Head Look Big In This?]. Retreived from http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-439-91947-0

Review Two

“Does My Head Look Big In This?,” by Randa Abdel-Fattah, gives us a new kind of outsider. The narrator, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, is the only Muslim student in her class at an elite prep school in an upscale suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Already an oddity (“the teachers labeled me slow in preschool because I was the last child to learn how to spell her name”), Amal raises the bar several notches when she decides to adopt the hijab, the women’s head covering that many Muslims believe to be a requirement of their faith. That she makes this decision while watching a “Friends” episode in which Jennifer Aniston endures the horror of having to appear at her ex’s wedding in a hideous bridesmaid’s outfit signals Amal’s bifurcated worldview, divided between the orthodoxies of pop culture and the traditions of her faith.

There aren’t a lot of modern Muslim women’s voices in contemporary fiction, so it’s refreshing to hear this one. At school, from the principal’s office to the playground, Amal has to battle the common assumption that the only reason she’s wearing a scarf is because her oppressive parents forced her. In fact, her broadminded parents, though devout, worry about her decision and its implications for her happiness in a sometimes prejudiced culture. There are many reasons a Muslim woman might wear the veil: religious conviction (because the Koran requires modest dress), political radicalism (a symbol of rejection of the West), feminism (de-commodifying female beauty), sisterhood (hijab-wearing women tend to help one another), or even to attract an eligible man (the type that doesn’t consider an unveiled woman a suitable marriage prospect).

Amal, sassy and spirited, knows a mere piece of fabric isn’t a barrier to ambition — like the real-life Aussie who designed the first “burkini” for Muslim women to wear at the beach. But Amal also knows it puts her in the path of all the anger and incomprehension generated by 9/11 and the 2005 Bali bombings.

Inasmuch as Abdel-Fattah uses Amal to defeat stereotyping of Islam, this is a valuable book, occasionally an entertaining one. But it would have been more valuable and entertaining if it weren’t so very clear that Abdel-Fattah is using Amal. The book too often veers into an eat-your-peas preachiness that makes it less of a novel and more of a tract. The author also lacks a genuine ear for high school nuance: those delicious, evanescent, almost anthropological details that so enrich works by Cabot and Marchetta (who teaches at an all-boys school in Sydney and has said she never sends off a book until a trusted crew of pupils has scoured it for inauthentic details). I also found it highly implausible that in Australia, where elite private schools are overwhelmingly single-sex institutions, an observant Muslim family would choose to send their daughter to a coed high school.

Abdel-Fattah, a lawyer, attended a Catholic primary school and an Islamic college; at 13, she decided to wear the hijab full time. She says she stopped wearing it outside of school at 17, anxious about prejudicing her job prospects. A novel based more closely on her own difficult choices might have had an authenticity — of voice and of emotion — that this one, sadly, too often does not.

Brooks, G. (2007). New York Times Book Review [Review of the book Does My Head Look Big In This?]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/books/review/Brooks-t.html

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