“Save the Muslim Girl!” Part I

This was written by Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall, and originally appeared at Rethinking Schools Online.

Does popular young adult fiction about Muslim girls build understanding or reinforce stereotypes?

Young adult titles that focus on the lives of Muslim girls in the Middle East, written predominantly by white women, have appeared in increasing numbers since Sept. 11, 2001. A short list includes Deborah Ellis’s trilogy The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City; Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Under the Persimmon Tree; and, more recently, Kim Antieau’s Broken Moon. These titles received high praise and starred reviews from publications like Horn Book and Publishers Weekly. Each features a young heroine trapped in a violent Middle East from which she must escape or save herself, her family, and other innocents in the region. Authors portray Muslim girls overwhelmingly as characters haunted by a sad past, on the cusp of a (usually arranged) marriage, or impoverished and wishing for the freedoms that are often assigned to the West, such as education, safety, and prosperity.

Young adult literature about the Middle East cannot be separated from the post-9/11 context in which these books are marketed and increasingly published. Deborah Ellis’ The Breadwinner, for instance, was originally published in 2000, but Groundwood publishers rushed to re-release a paperback reprint of it in the United States after 9/11 (Roback & Britton, 2001). Since that time it has been translated into 17 languages and has become an international bestseller (Atkinson, 2003); in 2004 it was selling an estimated 15,000 copies a month in the United States (Baker & Atkinson, 2004). “Save the Muslim girl” stories emerge alongside a preoccupation with Islam in mainstream news media and a surge in U.S. and Canadian military, political, and economic activities in the Middle East and West Asia. The texts are framed and packaged to sell in a marketplace at a particular moment when military interventions are centered on Afghanistan and other predominantly Muslim countries.

As many teachers have found, these stories offer an enticing way for students to engage with current events, language arts, and social studies curricula. However, given that these books are written for and marketed primarily to a Western audience, what ideas do they teach young adult readers about Muslim girls, Islam, and the Middle East? In what follows, we detail three lessons that dominate the “save the Muslim girl” stories.

Our interest here is not to defend any particular doctrine (fundamentalist Christian or Islamic). Rather, in this article we identify how these books reproduce–and offer opportunities to challenge—longstanding ideas commonly associated with Islam: backwardness, oppression, and cultural decay. We believe that these novels can best be used to teach about the common Western stereotypes that are universalized in these books rather than to teach about Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Islamic cultures.

Learning a Stereotype Lesson #1: Muslim Girls Are Veiled, Nameless, and Silent

Young adult books about the Muslim girl usually feature a veiled adolescent on the cover. Her face is cropped and concealed, usually by her own hands or her veil. Much of her face is covered, including, most significantly, her mouth. Images serve as a shorthand vocabulary. Consider how iconic images—a white or black cowboy hat, a scientist wearing a white lab coat, a princess—set up a stock plot. The repeated images of veiled girls reinforce familiar, mainstream ideas about the confined existence of Muslim women and girls. This is the Muslim girl story we expect to read.

These kinds of images have a long history in the West. Steve McCurry’s famous 1985 photo of 13-year-old Sharbat Gula on the cover of National Geographic provides the most well-known example. When we show the photo of the famous green-eyed Afghani girl in our education courses and ask students to write what they know about her, every student recognizes her image, yet few if any know her name, where she comes from, or that her photograph was “captured” in a refugee camp by a white U.S. journalist. Interestingly, the 2004 Oxford edition of Deborah Ellis’s Mud City reproduces a photo of Sharbat Gula on its front cover, taken from the same series of photographs McCurry captured in the mid-1980s (see Figure 1). The cover of Antieau’s Broken Moon has a virtually identical image: a close shot of a young girl with a veil covering her mouth, and her hands cupping her lower face (see Figure 2). What ideas about Muslim or Middle Eastern girls—specifically Afghani girls—are we as audience invited to imagine?

Just about every book in this genre features such an image on its cover. These are familiar metaphors for how the Muslim girl’s life will be presented within the novel. The way the girls’ mouths are covered reinforces existing ideas about their silence and suggests that we in the West (conceptualized as “free” and “liberated”) need to help unveil and “give” them voice. The images also invite ideas about girlhood innocence and vulnerability, and invite Western readers to protect, save, and speak for these oppressed girls.

But, is it not true that Muslim girls are oppressed and voiceless? We would argue that all women experience gender discrimination in different ways and with different consequences. The experiences of a U.S. woman (for example) will vary greatly if she is heterosexual or a lesbian, living in an urban center or a rural area.

Imagine this rural lesbian is black, or black and Muslim, or black, Muslim, and a non-native English speaker. In this way, her experiences are determined not simply by her gender, but also by her racial, ethnic, and sexual identity. What strikes us about the books that we review here is that they are written by white Western women who author, organize, and interpret stories about Middle Eastern girlhoods for Western consumption. This raises questions about the politics of storytelling. For instance, how do (white) Western women decide for “global” women what their issues and oppressions are? Who tells whose story and in what ways?

Richard Dyer reminds us that while we may believe that stereotypes are derived from a limited truth about particular people, we actually get our ideas about people from stereotypic images. So it isn’t the kernel of truth that results in stereotypes. Stereotypes are created and reinforced by the repeated appearance of particular images and the exclusion of others. Thus, the repeated circulation of the image of the veiled, sad Muslim girl reinforces the stereotype that all Muslim girls are oppressed.

Stereotypes are particularly powerful in the case of groups with which one has little or no personal relationship. Thus, for young people who get most of their ideas about “others” from textbooks or from media, we need to ask what ideas are learned when they “see” a very limited image of Muslim girls.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II!

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