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.