In March, MMW ran a guest post by Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall about representations of Muslim women and girls in young adult literature (part one, part two, and part three.) The article focuses on stories, written by non-Muslim Western authors, of Muslim girls living in places like Afghanistan, and the kinds of images that are created through these novels. In their introduction, they ask: “Does popular young adult fiction about Muslim girls build understanding or reinforce stereotypes?”
It just so happens that this question formed a major part of the master’s thesis that I wrote last fall, so I thought this would be a good time to share a bit of the research I did, which looks at a somewhat unusual representation (for this genre) of a teenage Muslim girl.
Bifocal, the book I focused on, was published in 2007 and written by Deborah Ellis and Eric Walters, two well-known Canadian children’s authors. Its plot is based on the arrests of the “Toronto 18,” a group of young Toronto-area Muslim men arrested on terrorism-related charges in June 2006. Bifocal tells the story of a similar case of mass arrests from the points of view of two male students (Haroon, a Muslim of Afghan background, the other a white Christian), and their experiences with the racism that escalates at their high school after a student is arrested. The book’s official description calls it “a serious, hard-hitting book about racism,” and in using this novel for my research, I wanted to look at to what degree it could be used as an anti-racist text. As part of the project, I interviewed two teachers who had used the book in their classrooms.
One of the most interesting characters in the novel, especially in relation to the discussion about depictions of young Muslim women in young adult fiction, is Zana, the twin sister of Haroon. While her brother tries to avoid being drawn into the drama that follows the arrests, Zana reacts by becoming more politicized and vocal about her Muslim identity, a decision that she expresses in part by beginning to wear hijab and niqab. Zana self-identifies as a feminist with a very confident and independent personality, and her decision to dress in niqab is shown as an active personal choice that she undertakes despite the protests of her family—quite a different understanding of the possible motivations for religious covering from the “poor-oppressed-veiled-woman” trope that tends to permeate this kind of literature.
This scene, narrated by her brother Haroon, illustrates some of the arguments that Zana makes throughout the book:
Her eyes, all I can see of her face, look at me over the black veil.
“Why?” I ask […] “Just tell me. You’ve found God, you’re doing it to annoy Mom, you’re doing it on a dare or a bet – whatever. Just tell me why. I’m ready to hear you now.”
Although I can’t see the rest of her face, I can read her eyes. I never realized before how much you can read in just a person’s eyes. Always before, I’ve had the whole face to look at and interpret. But all I have now of my sister is her eyes. And I can tell she’s trying to decide whether to bother telling me.
Then she speaks. “Ever since September eleventh – before that, but especially then – people have hated us because we’re Muslims [...] They hate our names, they hate our traditions, and they think we’re all mindless terrorists who want to strap dynamite to our chests and go blow up a Toys ‘R’ Us. They don’t see us as people.”
“But if we continue to look and behave so differently from most people,” I say, “they’ll never trust us.”
Zana sits down […] “Not all of us can do that,” she tells me. “How we dress is so much a part of who we are. Some women believe – believe – it is their duty to God to be fully covered. Some have only been in this country a short while, and they have worn the veil in their home countries all their lives. When they must get used to so many new things already, do we really need to add clothes to that?”
“But people think I make you wear this,” I say. “They think Dad and I are oppressing you. It’s fine if you believe in it, or if you’re used to it, but that’s not you. Why do you have to wear it?”
She stands up and goes back to work, dismissing me. “It’s called solidarity, Haroon. Look it up sometime.” (pp. 168-169)
Both of the teachers that I interviewed talked about Zana as a character who their students (none of whom were Muslim) both admired and struggled to understand. They liked her independent personality, and could identify with some of the conflicts that she experienced with her family, but the idea of putting on hijab (not to mention niqab and abaya) as an act of resistance was clearly outside of what they were familiar with.
The very idea of explaining religious covering through anything other than patriarchal control of women’s bodies or specific understandings of female modesty is likely new for a lot of readers. In many ways, this struggle was productive and effective in challenging the students to re-think their previous assumptions: most of them ultimately expressed their support for Zana, despite not being able to fully understand her decision. In this way, the novel might serve to provide some kind of basis for an understanding of expressing solidarity and support without actually having to share each other’s opinions.
Aside from wishing that we could talk about politicized Muslim women without having to focus on the veil every time, I generally liked Zana’s character and the possibilities she presented, and was glad to hear that several students had been challenged to think critically about her.
The one part that bothered me is that Zana’s friends (girls who also wear niqab and abaya) are described throughout the novel by both narrators as faceless, indistinguishable from one another, and “eerie to watch” (p. 187). None of them ever speaks, which positions Zana as something of an anomaly. As readers, we are not necessarily being invited to imagine that most women who wear hijab or niqab are doing so with the degree of agency and personal autonomy that Zana does.
In fact, both teachers I spoke to told me that their students generally came to consensus that although Zana should have the right to wear whatever she wants, she shouldn’t be made to wear it—an interesting conclusion considering that there is absolutely no suggestion in the novel of Zana being compelled to wear niqab (on the contrary, her family pressures her to take it off.) Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect one novel to completely break down the stereotypes that come from so many other sources, but I do wonder if it might have come a bit closer to this goal if Zana hadn’t been portrayed as so exceptional.
As a novel claiming to serve as an in-depth look at racism and how it should be addressed, Bifocal is a mix of some successes and some serious flaws. Zana’s character is, to me, the most interesting, and perhaps the one with the most potential to challenge readers’ perceptions, which is a welcome break from the kinds of female Muslim characters that seem to be more commonly presented.