“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!

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra

    Using fiction or memoir to shed light on a larger issue-current events post 9/11 can be extremely helpful and engaging for teens and young adults, but it’s a veryy fine line because the author’s work (and often the teacher’s view)is always subjective. Quite frankly, you can’t be neutral about Muslims or Islam in a post 9/11 world because your outlook is predisposed by the media and politics, if not jaded somehow. The only way to combat this is to have more Muslims -both men and women- share their story. Fiction, memoir, essay, etc. Thank you for reminding us, in matter-of-fact way, that if we don’t tell our own story someone else will do it for us–And that’s not fair.

  • http://www.anniesyed.com a.q.s.

    Perhaps therein lies the main issue: a lot of these women–child or adult–from the aforementioned culture and religious backgrounds can’t (be it for self-imposed reasons or as expected by others) tell their own story, so someone else must.

    I recently wrote a piece titled “The Role of Male Female Relations In Developing Nations and Its Implications for Nation Building.” I prefaced it with the following:

    Although there exist exceptions to all types of generalizations and stereotypes, they remain exceptions; therefore, until the exceptions stand out to the extent that they defy the rule, the majority determines the actuality.

    Thanks for this article. It was shared on twitter via @zenpeacekeeper.

    ~a.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner RCHOUDH

    @ a.q.s

    I beg to differ with what you say about Muslim women not getting to tell their stories. In fact some Muslim women have been able to publish real life “memoirs”, with one condition that they cater to the neo-Orientalist type of thought that views Muslim women as simply being “veiled and oppressed”. Likewise I think the main reason why non Muslims get to write stories supposedly about Muslim women is because they also tend to parrot this neo-Orientalist type of thought. With neo-Orientalism also comes this tendency to sensationalize stories as this series of articles illustrates (with the oppressed covered Muslim woman needing to be pitied). That non Muslim writer of “Jewel of Medina” almost got her book published because of some downright false but sensationalistic elements she added to the story of a real life historical figure. Why couldn’t the publishing company simply publish the real life story of Aishah (RA)? Because it’s not salacious enough? Because the story is about a real life figure?
    If publishing companies really cared about Muslim women writers they would lay off the sensationalism that’s often expected within these stories. Like would Randa Abdel Fattah, author of “Does My Head Look Big In This?” have gotten her story published if there was no frivolous little love interest involved but instead revolved around her protagonist discussing in a heartfelt way the deep spiritual conviction that led her to want to practice Islam? I’m thinking no because publishing companies seem to want to stay away from topics deemed too “intellectual” and instead opt for catering towards the lowest common denominator.

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  • henna

    I read 2 books about Afghanistan from an Afghani now settled in USA, Kite Runner and Thousand suns.

    Kite Runner was book belonging to boys and Thousand sons a “girls journey”. Writer belongs to Afghanistan and before Taliban came there Burkha/Nakkab were less worn as per analysis of book. Book tries to answer for those women who do not want to wear it.

    Well most of Muslim women today wear some kind of Chador, let it be nakaab, burkha, scarf anything. then what happens to muslim women who do not wish to wear that, they become a minority. And if we see in history when we write about minority who are forced to follow and resign to that life it makes more news.

    Like you write about killing of hindus,Muslims, christians in India, Muslim, Christian killing will make more news as they are minority in India.
    But if you write about triple talaq or forced divorce for others when women is helpless, involvemnet of Muslim may get some coverage but if it is Hindu it may get more, why? Because society in India today feel women in India are oppressed and in Muslim family they are more oppressed and if someone speaks against that it it wont be of any help.
    Though there can be other side also.

    What I basically want to write is that minority if forced to do something can make much interesting news than if majority is doing something.

    A Similar example from India is “Reservation of 33 percent seats for women in Parliament”, though some Muslim political outfits want reservation for muslim women separately but then there are other strong Muslim organisations which do not want this to happen. why? They say Islam prohibits Woman from becoming leader. In afct one Maulvi said on TV that if Muslim woman wants to become a Parliamentarian and debate with men then better she should cut her hair and also become Man. This news got a lot of coverage. It is sensational and does make the stereotype that Islam does not women to do same stuff as man more strong. But at same time it shows how muslim women who do not want this Fatwa, are seen as less Muslim.