Boy vs. Girl: “Pure” Islam or Purely Sanctimonious?

Na’ima B. Robert’s second book, “Boy vs. Girl” is set in a South Asian community in Britain. The two main characters, Farhana and Faraz, are sixteen-year-old twins trying to negotiate their identities as the children of Pakistani immigrants and as Muslims.  Robert attempts to tell the story of struggling with trying to find a sense of identity as a Muslim teenager.

Farhana is perfect and ideal in every sense of the world. Not only is she described as looking like “Aishwarya Rai,” she is strong, independent, and wants more than what her parents want for her. Farhana’s conflicts were trivial, particularly in comparison to the conflicts that her brother faces. She considers, but faithfully rejects, the temptation of dating the elusively hunky Malik, and struggles with the hardships of wearing hijab for the first time. Her twin brother on the other hand, Faraz, is not as intellectually and socially gifted as his sister, and is being tempted by getting wrapped up in gang and drug warfare.

Robert’s main focus is being critical of a “cultural” version of Islam. The central vehicle for this is Najma, the aunt of the twins that wears niqab, but rebels against the family and community by being religious in a “pure” way, and stirs family drama over her desire to marry a non-Pakistani convert.  Robert views culture as what holds Farhana back, rather than her family being religious in the orthodox sense of the word.

While the conflict between changing cultures is a reality that I could definitely relate to, I am completely sick of this idea that one can actually separate culture from religion. I believe that this prevents us from critically engaging with religion. The notion of religion, just like culture, should be deconstructed, particularly because the interpretation and lived reality of religion has always been reflective of cultural rules. Despite this, Robert places “pure Islam” on a pedestal. In pursuing this single-minded mission, “Boy vs. Girl” is a landmine of problematic stereotypes. The only sense of clarity comes with being religious in the “right” way.

The characters fit into neat categories, and this was vastly problematic in relation to the female characters. One character in particular, Robina, was very interesting for me. She is a vapid and shallow Pakistani girl that has many of the characteristics necessary to be a mean girl: blonde highlights, a mean streak, boy crazy, and serious envy of our heroine. Robina’s older sister represents the “wrong” way to deal with the archaic culture that pollutes Islam: she goes out and goes to clubs, and Robina idolizes her.

On the other hand, Aunt Najma is pitted against Robina’s sister: she too has rebelled against her family, but in the “right” way, she moved away to university and became religious. She acts as the spiritual and religious guide for both Farhana and Faraz.  I wondered why she could not reject cultural notions without being religious, and why Najma and Robina’s sister had to be such complete opposites.

Farhana’s religious conflict is minute, and she remains a faithful and pious character. I would call her and Auntie Najma Manic Pixie Hijabis. (The  ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, is a stock film character that is quirky, bubbly and helps brooding male characters learn to live.) Najma and Farhana are sassy, religious women that only exist to inspire others to follow the straight and narrow religious path, and in Farhana’s case, she brings Islam to the heart of her hunky crush. While it is refreshing to see a Muslim female character that perseveres with a smart mouth and courage to be different, they never stray from the “right path.” Neither of them are rebels, and they only serve as another exaggerated example of the importance of moral purity in women, a stereotype that has been recycled countless times.

The male characters also fit neatly into stereotypes. The girls in the book struggle with vanity and boys, and the boys struggle with violence, drugs, and gang warfare. Getting involved with haraam is, as always, a slippery slope. Faraz gets wrapped up in a world of drugs and gangs, and the dialogue as well as plot line of said story is particularly cringe-worthy. It seemed as though Robert researched gang life by watching one too many afterschool specials about the subject.

There was really no complexity to these characters, even though they were used to deal with a heavy topic. It was ironic to me that Robert is so passionate about encouraging dialogue about being more accepting within the Muslim community, but at the same time, resorted to so many stereotypes in order to make her point.  While trying to encourage inter-racial marriage and show the dangers of categorization, she also placed the religious and non-religious in two distinct categories.

The book is also blatantly pro-hijab. The good and “real” Muslim women cover the proper way. It seems to me that Robert has a particular vision of what it means to be Muslim, and does not really encourage the reader to critically engage with this definition. A character can’t be an intellectual, reflective, strong female, without also embodying sexual purity and morality.

This expectation is incredibly infuriating. The fact of the matter is that religious curiosity and experimentation is just as important to one’s development as the other. It really aggravates me that Roberts is committed to uprooting the idea that a hijab means you are docile and passive, but reinforces the stereotype that a “wayward” woman is uncovered.

The book also takes a shot at young women that are “fashionable hijabis,” trying to reiterate the point that hijab is about modesty. And yet the conflicts that Farhana has about the hijab mainly relate to thinking boys won’t find her attractive and the fact that her mother sees it as far too religious, thus making her as vapid as the other female characters in the book. Robert makes the conflict of wanting to wear hijab a completely external one.

Robert’s motive was clear: in showing the messy cultural problems that teens face, a “pure” version of Islam is the compass for staying on the straight and religious path. Unfortunately, in trying to push her agenda, Robert manages to trivialize the conflicts that teenagers struggle with.  Had I read this book when I was sixteen, I would have felt insulted by its trite and patronizing tone, not to mention its clumsy delivery.

While Robert acknowledges the struggles that teens face today, she does not attempt to realistically address them.  Her solution to the gray complications that only culture seems to produce is to become more “purely religious.”  Complications go beyond the “temptation to stray from the right path;” teens need to know that there is room for them to explore and question things.

While a nice effort, if one actually wants to read about the struggles of trying to negotiate multi-cultural identities against the backdrop of Britain, I would suggest picking up “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith instead.

Review – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Refusing the Veil
#SuitablyDressed: A hijab is perfectly suitable attire for a courtroom
Review – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Refusing the Veil
Happy New Year! + Taking a Break
  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Nooo! White Teeth is a bloody awful book, it’s hideously overwritten and as any Jehovah’s Witness will tell you, full of errors itself.

    This review seems to have the same disconnect with modern British Muslim life that the author is accused of. Last week I watched ‘Scenes from a Teenage Killing’ an astounding programme which documented every teenage murder within the UK in 2009. It featured an interview with an Muslimah undertaker who explained, that from being a rare occurence, she is now regularly burying young Muslim, male murder victims.

    Rates of drug addiction and criminality are sky high within our community. With a backdrop of that, I do not blame anyone wanting to promote a very observant religious lifestyle, because our young people are already ‘experimenting’ and it’s killing them.

  • Dina

    “While the conflict between changing cultures is a reality that I could definitely relate to, I am completely sick of this idea that one can actually separate culture from religion. I believe that this prevents us from critically engaging with religion. The notion of religion, just like culture, should be deconstructed, particularly because the interpretation and lived reality of religion has always been reflective of cultural rules.”

    Bravo. I could not possibly agree more.

    Will pick up your book recommendation “white teeth”, thanks!

  • Sara

    Lara, the disconnect i am talking about is in understanding how hard it is to negotiate multiple identities, not violence and gangs. I am aware that that is a reality in many communities. Robert just takes a really simplistic approach to ‘solving’ the difficulties that teenagers face.

  • Ines

    @ Laura: For someone who is criticizing generalities, you seem to promote quite a few of them. Yes, there is a serious problem with gang activity and associated drug activity, but no one goes into what causes these phenomena. Instead, we prefer to attribute it to the proverbial “other”, as opposed to cultural dichotomies between parents and children, socio-economic realities of different neighborhoods and families, and other complicating factors –anything to separate us from the responsibility we all bear in the creation of this problem. This vague notion that “experimentation” is responsible is ridiculous. Proclaiming a religiously observant lifestyle as the solution is both unrealistic and patronizing.

  • Aliya

    Never heard of the book, but it sounds pretty sanctimonious. I do want to ask though, has MMW ever done a review on The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf? I really liked it (though I do have some criticisms) and I’d love to see you all’s take on it.

  • Krista

    Aliya, I actually read that book over the summer and had been thinking of writing a review of it for MMW (since we haven’t done one) – thanks for the reminder! I’d borrowed it from a friend, but I’ll try and get my hands on another copy of it so that I can write a review.

  • Heather

    As a white Muslimah and hijabi/sometimes niqabi who just moved back to Ohio after two years in Indianapolis, I have to say that “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” felt quite accurate in her depiction of what it’s like to be Visibly Different in that locale. I will, for one, be very interested in your take on the book.

  • Atiyya

    What a one-dimensional review.Its as if you got the book with preconceived ideas about the culture-religion dichotomy and that is all you found. You have failed to mention that the entire story takes place in Ramadhan, which forms a backdrop to their heightened interest in matters of spirituality and faith. Najma’s mentoring her nephew and niece is a very believable role if you consider the small age gap between a young aunt and her teenage nephew and niece – and that doesn’t make her “exist to inspire others to follow the straight and narrow religious path.” Farhana vapid? You do her a great disservice! You have also failed to mention that Najma is a foil not to Rubina’s sister, but to Farhana’s own mother who is ignorant of the pressures her children face and aloof from the mainstream society in which they live. Far from being a book that is only “blatanty pro-hijaab (and so what if it is? who says being pro-hijab means you cannot have a voice), it is a book that flags to the older generation the need for dialogue with their teens and to understand the conflicts that they face every time they leave their cultural turf of the home.

    My teen son and his friends have read the book and they have given it sterling reviews. Another friend has used it as the theme for a youth camp, and it served as a catalyst for the book club discussions that they had. If this book only gets parents and their teens, or even just teens talking about the issues their generation faces, Roberts will have fulfilled her purpose.

    I am disappointed that a group who is anti-bias and stereotypes and one-dimensional depictions of women, will do reviews while wearing their own biases. You can do better than this!

  • Sara

    Dear Atiyya: Actually, I went into reading this book with high hopes,I really wanted to like it. As someone who probably faced a lot of the struggles that Farhana struggles with, I thought that this book was one-dimensional, not my review. I didn’t see a single example of Farhana as anything incredibly substantial, and this was annoying because I think that girls grapple with just as many problems as boys.

    As far as this flagging a dialogue for older generations–I never said that this was not the case. What I mean is the type of dialogue that it produces. Robert still reinforces the idea that Western society is this wild west of temptation that can only be braved with religion, which still does not solve any problems. It’s not that clear cut, and surely, becoming more religious does not solve these problems, nor does that suggestion encourage teens to be candid.

    Keeping teenagers safe is not synonymous with keeping them religious.

  • Rusane

    If you are remotely familar with Naima B. Robert, then none of this is unexpected. She’s a salafi – of course she is blatantly pro-hijab and is going to simplify things. Her non-fiction book was very black and white and simplistic, just like her magazine is. Perhaps she, like other conservatively Muslim writers, struggles with portraying “haram” and “doubtful” things in a realistic context or manner, lest she come under censure / fire from those within her chosen community for doing so. And Muslim writers – especially women – have. Islamic-themed books that are well written, not sanctimonious and engaging are few and far between. It’s a disappointment every time and I stopped shelling out money for these things years ago.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Ines – Who is this ‘no one’? There are many community programmes involved with Muslim youth, especially since 7/7 and the problems faced by this group are clear to anyone who’s been paying attention.

    Say what you like about Salafis (and btw, to label someone’s Islam in order to dismiss them is very unpleasant, no matter who does it), but certainly in the UK, they are often the people doing the most community outreach with young people, especially those in prison and therefore have a very good insight into the problems facing youth. Most Salafi mosques are decidedly working class. So the idea that being Salafi means you are isolated from and ignorant about society, is not accurate.

    Sara – I’m not sure how religion offers no solutions. As an example, abstaining from drugs and alcohol means you avoid a major source of harm for young people. At the risk of sounding like Spongebob SquareHijab, by being religious (as in actually living by it), you avoid a whole heap of problems such a substance abuse, underage pregnancy, becoming involved in crime etc. I can’t see how that is in any way a bad thing.

    I agree that there is often a big question surrounding how to live as an observant Muslim in a generally secular society and that the sub-Amish utopia held up as an ideal by some is unhelpful and undesirable.

    However, among the young British Muslims I know, there has been a definite shift towrds becoming more religious as compared to their parents, for them it provides a space between their cultural identities, to move away from parental expectations, while avoiding having to completely assimilate. There is also the use of religion as a tool to build self worth, which again often crops up when speaking to young Muslimahs.

    Yes, it’s complex, maybe Robert’s book doesn’t handle the issues well, but I do not think her ideas are entirely lacking in merit.

  • Sara

    Honestly, Rusane, that was a mistake I made—I didn’t research Robert herself very much. Thank you for that! I wish there were a Muslim teen novel that was actually more of a comfort rather than a sermon.

  • Humayra

    @Lara–”At the risk of sounding like Spongebob SquareHijab, by being religious (as in actually living by it), you avoid a whole heap of problems such a substance abuse, underage pregnancy, becoming involved in crime etc. I can’t see how that is in any way a bad thing.”

    LOL. No, unfortunately what you often get is “Islamic” versions of these problems. People who religiously stay off alcohol but find other substances or ideologies to get high on. Underage pregnancy taking place in underage marriages/quasi-marriages. Illegal activities being justified by the claim that it’s only secular law (the law of the kuffar) which prohibits it while Islamic law doesn’t.

    Same problems, different labeling.

  • Lara A

    Humayra – Yes some people twist Islamic rulings to suit themselves. Does that make Islam any less valid?

  • Sara

    @Lara: I grew up in a Muslim community where we had all of these things–sex, drugs, and all of the above. We had religion shoved down our throats. We had straight-talkin’ Najma types trying to connect with us. Nothing changed. The reason? Because spirituality isn’t the same as therapy. While it has its merits, I haven’t seen a single bit of evidence in Robert’s work, or within this kind of dialogue that encourages teenagers to actually work through the problems that lead them to things like drugs. The fact is that coming in, and merely preaching the importance of religion is not only patronizing, but also a slap in the face. As a preventative tool? Unrealistic. Because of how multi-layered these problems are, religion is, at best, an overly idealistic solution that does not work in practice.

    I think the worst thing is that we seem to say to teenagers, “We understand what you are going through”, but we don’t actually listen to their experiences…merely telling them to be more religious doesn’t respect the types of problems that many face. being a good Muslim doesn’t mean that you are all of the sudden going to be shielded from all of society’s ills. this is also problematic, because this encourages the idea of attaching the ‘bad’ to being outside of the Muslim community, which is hardly the case.

  • Ines

    @Lara: Instead of letting young people explore within themselves what causes these problems, and helping them deal with it by a means they ask of you, would you really rather use the opportunity to proclaim YOUR vision of how to use YOUR coping mechanism (in this case, that mechanism being your take on Islam)? When adults use Islam as a means for shameless attempts at self-importance and promotion in these matters, it does nothing to help troubled youth. Shoving Islam down their throats this way does nothing short of make it revolting to many of them further down the road. In a twist of irony, by shoving Islam-as-panacea solutions at them, you run the risk of alienating them from ever having their faith as a coping mechanism.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Sara and Ines- Who said anything about shoving? I feel that neither of you are actually engaging with what I’ve said, but are on a ‘All Salafis Are Bad And No Good Can Come From Them’ trip.

    When did I say you shouldn’t listen to young people and work with them? Or that services aimed at young people shouldn’t be user led? When did I say that talking about religion should be devoid of any spirituality and merely fiqh dominated finger waving?

    If we’re talking about substance abuse, then considering the link between socio economic status and drug usage, it’s obvious that therapy in itself isn’t of massive help, but I’m not going to bust out the block capitals and state that it won’t help anyone, after all it takes different tools to build a house.

    As I stated above, religion (note, by religion I do not just mean rules but the spirituality underpinning those rules) can be very helpful, but how to use it to help people, particularly young people to empower themselves is a complex issue, as is Islam and young people generally. I believe religion should be an organic part of life, not something to be boxed away until you are older, nor should it be a one size fits all spoon feeding. Surely there’s a middle ground in need of further exploration?

  • Sara

    Lara: I was responding based on what Robert said in her book. She doesn’t make any of the points that you have made within the story, otherwise it would have looked very different.

    I agree with you, religion should be an organic part of life, but Boy vs. Girl does not encourage that in the least. I was not convinced that any of the young characters in the book turned towards Islam because of their own convictions or mistakes, but more because they were afraid of how things would look if they DIDN’T have Islam.

    I think there should be a middle ground for exploration, I just don’t think that this is the platform for starting that dialogue (this book).

  • Aisha

    As salaam aleikum

    I do not agree with Atiyya that this is a one-dimensional review. In fact, I have noticed that whenever any review of Robert’s books have appeared online, she posts the link on Facebook so that her “fans” can respond and reassure her that her book is great (to give her an ego boost). This is by far the most interesting review to have been written about the book and interestingly enough she didn’t post this link on Facebook.

    Yes there will be many who will like this book and be satisfied with the way she pushes Islam down the readers’ throats (like she did in her holier-than-thou way in From My Sister’s Lips) and there will be those who will question her ability to produce fiction for Muslims that does not solely rely on her having to produce characters that are so extreme in their “religiosity”. Islam is not just about the external covering and donning an abaya does not automatically grant you a higher state of faith.

    I’ve read other Muslim fiction and Jamila Koloctronis’ Echoes series does a brilliant job of showing Muslim characters struggling with their nafs, and she does this in a gentle and non-patronizing manner. Perhaps Roberts should read other Muslim fiction to get an idea of how to achieve such an effect.

  • Pam

    After reading this last week, I just came across the book today in one of the publisher catalogues (my day job is at a bookstore, and one of my responsibilities is buying kid’s/ya books for the store). Thanks for the review; definitely gonna pass this up.

  • Asiya

    Assalaamu alaykum,

    Thank you for the review and the excellent and thought-provoking discussion which followed. From the sounds of it, this is a book I might recommend to my 13 year-old sister, who is young enough to be idealist, and not quite at the age to find herself actually facing any of the dilemmas the characters face. Sort of a cautionary tale, if you will. It seems the simplistic characterizations and thematic treatments are good for pre-teens because it matches their development.

    I might NOT, on the other hand, give it to my 19 year-old sister, who is in “the thick of things” and would probably find the sermon-style narrative unhelpful to the real complexities and heartbreaks of the problems young girls face.

    Rusane makes a valid point about the possibility that the author is struggling with the attempt to balance her religious views with her artistic impulses. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, in the millenias previous, it has created whole genres of art unique to Muslims. Moja Kahf has a beautiful article on the struggle of muslim women writers to create valid stories that do not portray muslim women as “escapee” or “oppressed” and still receive some exposure or opportunity to be published. Perhaps Ms. Roberts needs to pen something palatable to too many different tastes, including that of her publisher?

  • AnonyMouse

    I find it strange and somewhat ironic that just because “conservative/ orthodox/ Salafi” religious values are espoused by this book, the book, the characters, and the author herself are completely written off as being “one-dimensional” and “vapid”!

    Can a Muslim writer and a Muslim book only be “good” and “complex” if the characters rebel against Islam itself? Against things like hijaab, which the vast majority of Islamic scholars and indeed Muslims themselves agree are an uncompromisable part of the religion?
    By so critically dismissing someone’s writings because of their “Salafi” views, I believe that you are indeed perpetuating your own stereotypes against “religious” Muslims.

    Furthermore, your criticism of the book not “accurately portraying” the “real conflicts” that the characters are going through, and relating that to the author’s promotion of religion as a way of combating genuine social ills (and no, Robert does not paint the West as “the wild wild west of temptation” but instead very accurately, in my opinion – and I’ve grown up in Canada and I love it but still recognize the issues that it has), is by itself vapid.

    As well, the majority of books written for the age group that Boy vs. Girl has been written for, on similar subjects (say, cultural dichtonomy, drugs and gangs, self-esteem/ self image), do not go into every tiny nuance of what might be contributing to those problems. As an avid reader myself, who devoured hundreds of books ever since I could read, I’d say that Boy Vs. Girl is in fact in keeping with the current standard quo of quality writing for a book of its general subject (excluding religion) and for its intended age group.

    It seems that what the reviewer is most critical about is the author’s religious views and how she chooses to express those views via the characters. Perhaps you are unaware that the vast majority of writers do in fact use their written works to express their views – religious, moral, or otherwise. Thus, it is absolutely nothing strange that an “orthodox” religious woman should do the same, to address an audience of similar beliefs who do wish for fictional characters they can relate to and derive hope from (even if it’s idealistic and simplistic in your view).

  • AnonyMouse

    “I have noticed that whenever any review of Robert’s books have appeared online, she posts the link on Facebook so that her “fans” can respond and reassure her that her book is great (to give her an ego boost).”
    Wow, that’s harsh! Considering that, you know, MOST writers do try to publicize their own works!!!! Will you say that all writers are therefore only seeking “ego boosts” rather than, I dunno, feedback?!

    “interestingly enough she didn’t post this link on Facebook. ”
    Yes she has, actually, which is how I came to this review in the first place!

  • rsa

    whats wrong with a simplistic approach? the world needs more simplicity in its thinking because obviously the complicated approach is not working. those who cannnot pen a book to change a life/lives ,will criticise. the book was a feel good read with a strong moral sense,and that can only be commended.

  • Naimah

    @Sara, salam alaykum, I can’t really comment on the book as I haven’t read it, but regarding your comment ”

    The fact is that coming in, and merely preaching the importance of religion is not only patronizing, but also a slap in the face. As a preventative tool? Unrealistic. Because of how multi-layered these problems are, religion is, at best, an overly idealistic solution that does not work in practice”

    I disagree with what you say, Islam IS a solution, it’s not about shoving it down people’s throats, when a person builds his/her eemaan, naturally it becomes easier to stay away from haram, we know that eemaan increases and decreases, and when it is down a person views things in a completely different way, that action you wouldn’t have indulged in when your eemaan was a bit higher, now doesn’t seem so bad.
    Teenagers do have to deal with alot in today’s society, but when they have tawheed in their heart and build upon that, it CAN make a big difference. And it also comes down to how these kids have been raised, and taught about Islam, not just don’t do this, don’t do that! they need explanations why they shouldn’t do that, and also not be allowed to just hang around the streets from a young age when the parents haven’t got a clue what they’re up to, that’s when it becomes easy to fall into things like gangs etc… To say that Islam is an ‘unrealistic’ preventative tool and an ‘overly idealistic solution’ coming from a muslim is quite shocking to be honest.

  • Sara

    @Naimah: I don’t see how what you are saying is NOT shoving Islam down the throats of people. Being a Muslim in America is not about religion anymore, it is about grappling with a cultural identity. If someone is on drugs, telling them to just find God is a temporary fix, because being an addict is representative of a much larger problem.

    As far as your self-righteous comment about your shock about my views, I’m appalled that you think that you have the right to tell me what I should or should not believe in. That is the whole point, being a Muslim is not a static identity, and assuming that it is one rigid identity is part of the problem. I’d appreciate it if you left your personal assumptions about me at the door if you want to actually discuss these issues.

  • sarah F

    ‘As a preventative tool? Unrealistic. Because of how multi-layered these problems are, religion is, at best, an overly idealistic solution that does not work in practice.’

    Religion is more than just praying and fasting or whatever people associate spirituality in Islam to. It is the way you live your life. Religion- Islam is what made the people of Mecca and Medinah during the time of the prophet drop their evil ways. It might not have happened overnight, but it did happen eventually because they believed it was the solution they needed.
    It is what separates us from animals as we learn to control our base instincts and fight our soul.


    This comment has been modified to fit within moderation guidelines. Note that personal judgements about Sara and her relationship to Islam are not acceptable in this space.

  • Sara

    @Sarah/anonymouse/et al. :

    please read my article rather than cherry picking random quotes from my article and using them to attack me and make assumptions about me.

    Since you seem to be so keen on finding a short summary of what I have to say, it is this: many of the problems that teenagers face today are really complex, and religion alone can’t solve them. You seem to be under the impression that I am at war with Islam. That is far from the truth.

    The beauty of MMW is that it is a place where many different views can meet and discuss contemporary issues that relate to Muslim women. I think you will see that there was some great dialogue earlier on in this thread, that reflected many different views and insights, and did not rely on personal attacks to get their point across.

  • Naimah

    Nobody is attacking you, I’m sorry if you feel that way, in my above comment I stated that the state of a person’s eemaan can play a big part in how they handle living in today’s society, and which things they indulge and choose not to indulge in. Yes, It was a shock for me to hear another muslim saying that they don’t believe Islam to be a solution to these problems, with things like drug addiction, yes, often medical help etc.. needs to be sought, and Islam is not against this, but we don’t give up turning to Allaah, because maybe that’s when Allaah can turn his back on us. who else do we have to rely on?

    There are many people who have come away from lifestyles which included drug dealing etc.. and embraced Islam, because it was a solution to their problems, and alot of the time it helps a person focus on how short and trivial this life is and helps them put things into perspective.
    We are living in the 21st Century, but let’s not get so caught up in this dunya that we end up forgetting our true identity, and yes it should first be as a muslim, a believer, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.

  • Bushra

    “Since you seem to be so keen on finding a short summary of what I have to say, it is this: many of the problems that teenagers face today are really complex, and religion alone can’t solve them. You seem to be under the impression that I am at war with Islam. That is far from the truth.”

    Of course religion alone can’t solve these problems. No one is saying that, least of all Na’ima. I think what you failed to pick up on was that the ending was left open-ended to show that Islam isn’t going to bridge the gap between parents and children, nor will it solve ALL the problems faced by the twins.

    The point that you seemed to have missed is that the book is there for parents and teens to engage in discussion with each other about their relationships. The age it is aimed at is 12-17. I gave this book to my nieces to read, both aged 15 and 17. They both thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree that teens face more complex issues than just gang culture and boys. But the issues faced by the twins are just a prelude to what can happen later on. You didn’t mention Anwar – Najma’s old friend (yes, shock horror, Najma the Niqabi once had a male friend!) who fell into drugs despite being overtly religious. How did you then come to the conclusion that Islam alone is a solution for every single youth issue in the book?

    You also didn’t mention the life Najma once had. And you also didn’t mention how Najma engages with her local community. She isn’t there to be the ‘ideal’ Muslim woman, but as a communication buffer between the twins and the parents. This is why Najma is an AUNT, and not a family friend, the neighbour or a friendly teacher at school. Oh, and what about the bit where Farhana stands up for Muslim women who cover against her teacher? Why did you not bring that up in your review? Could it be that you didn’t want to contradict yourself about her so-called portrayal as a shallow character?

    I find this review to be less about the story itself, and more about its use and portrayal of Islam. It’s inaccurate, unbiased and doesn’t mention the stronger, slightly darker aspects of the book. You decided to focus on the ‘religiousness’ of the book in your review as well as the author, as opposed to the complexity of the characters. And yes, they are complex compared to your mention of them in the review…they come from the average Pakistani background where parents refuse to understand their children’s identity crises. Faraz is may not be intelligently gifted in the traditional sense, but has an artistic ability which can overcome him at the best of times. ANOTHER point you failed to mention. Whilst Farhana comes across as relatively shallow and less complicated than her brother, she is far more willing to open her mouth and stand up for what she believes in. That’s called empowerment.

    Sadly, you missed out all these important parts of the book and have attacked it in all the places that suit your belief/agenda/principles. If that’s not biased, then I don’t know what is.

  • Sara


    I don’t feel like I missed any of the important parts of the book. I acknowledge what you mentioned, but they don’t really change my points. The things you mention don’t change my opinion, and in fact they were a part of what influenced it. Yes, Robert mentions dark elements, and the characters getting mixed up in them, but what untangles them (even if it is slowly) is religion or becoming more religious. For example, Najma’s past. Najma was mixed up in the wrong crowd in her past, but then she runs off and becomes religious, thus solving her problems. Anwar, yes he is religious, but his un-religious brother is the one that screws him up. Robert has a very clear message, and I don’t really think that the book is much of a spring board for dialogue, it has a very single minded mission. But, as with any review, this is merely my own opinion.

    Thank you for writing such thorough points, but a few things I’d like to clarify:

    1. I had absolutely no agenda when I read this book. Writing this review did hit on quite a few nerves for me, because the book really disappointed me in many ways, which I pointed out above. Along with this, I thought about my own experiences as a teenager as a part of an immigrant community. I also have worked a great deal with young Muslim teenagers that have felt like they could not get along within the community, and such a topic is something that I am passionate about.

    2. I was in no way familiar with Robert’s work, or even her personal views for that matter. In fact, I knew nothing of her views until someone mentioned them in the comments. As I mentioned in previous comments, I had high hopes for this book. I really wanted to like it, but unfortunately, I thought the delivery was clumsy and that it missed an important opportunity for dialogue. That is merely my opinion.

    3. Some of the comments above, laid out charges against my relationship with faith or Iman, and I think it is out of line for such things to be put into question here.If such feelings about my views were not clearly conveyed on this page (which can be seen from one of the comments edited), they were clearly displayed on Naima’s facebook page, where the link to this review was posted. I just think it is unfair to pass judgment on me because I have a different view.

    4. Of course what I write about is influenced by my own personal views and experiences. Everything that we write is influenced by such things, and that is what draws you to write about certain issues. That doesn’t make my opinion less important or relevant. I was a teenager not too long ago. I know many Muslim teenagers. The issues you face are tough, particularly post-9/11. There MUST be a change in the way that the older generation communicates with teens. Being a Muslim today reaches beyond merely becoming more religious, it is grappling with many other issues within the public sphere. It is a lot to handle. Honestly? until I see a teen novel with this kind of a message:

    The point is that merely bringing up the dark sides is not enough. Everyone in the novel had clear roles and boundaries. you can’t convince me that Boy vs. Girl could actually make an impact on teenagers that are actually troubled. It wasn’t an effective story, and in my opinion, not very surprising at the end of the day.

  • Sara

    Whoops! Bad internet connection:

    Until I see a teen novel with this kind of a message:
    I am not convinced that there is a Muslim teen novel that can open the line of communication between children and their parents about tough issues. I don’t doubt that Robert attempts to bring certain things in the open, and in my review I commended her for the effort, but I simply disagree with her message.

  • Aisha

    At the time I made the comment, she didn’t post the link. Obviously, given the mixed reviews of her book here, she had to post it, so that her fans can respond and provide a balanced opinion of her book on this site.