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.