Review for Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

does-my-head-look-big-in-this

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Amal, an Australian-Palestinian girl living in Melbourne, is about to start her junior year, and she has decided to start wearing the hijab full-time. After making this decision, she must confront judgment and prejudice from classmates, neighbors, strangers, and more. On top of that, she’s developed a crush on a classmate. Soon, junior year becomes the year for herself to struggle with and explore her identity and figure out how to remain true to herself and her principles in the face of social pressures to conform.

Review:

This book was first published in 2005, but it’s still relevant and important, given the current political climate and rise in Islamophobic sentiment. Amal’s story stands against hatred and prejudice by centering the perspective of a Muslim hijabi, someone who is very vulnerable to vitriol and violence due to her hypervisibility.

The book is very explicit in its handling of stereotypes and Islamophobia. It directly calls out the biases and assumptions that even well-meaning people hold. Since the narrative is in first-person, readers get to experience Amal’s visceral responses to prejudice and harassment. We get to empathize with her frustration, fear, and fury.

Amal is a great character. She’s snarky and strong-willed, but she has her flaws. She doubts herself sometimes, makes poor decisions, judges people unfairly and has to confront her own biases, etc. She’s capable of being sensitive and insightful, but she’s still a teenager who has a lot to learn.

Aside from having a strong protagonist, this book features a diverse supporting cast that add to the richness of the story. One of Amal’s two closest friends at school is Japanese, having bonded with her over shared experiences of blatant racism and classism from a horrible classmate. The other friend is fat and struggling with her body image, but supported by friends who love her unconditionally. Amal also manages to build a friendship with an elderly neighbor who’s a Greek Orthodox Christian immigrant.

The supporting cast showcases the diversity within Muslims and within Arabs. One of Amal’s Muslim friends, Yasmeen, has a Pakistani father and white British mother who converted to Islam. The other, Leila, has roots in Turkey, where her mother grew up. Amal’s family attends a family friend’s wedding where the bride is Syrian and the groom is Afghani. Beyond their ethnic differences, each of these characters has a different relationship with Islam and interprets and expresses it differently.

Amal’s thoughts, actions, and interactions with others actively debunk the notion that Muslim women are all oppressed and that Islam is inherently oppressive. Her agency and choice are emphasized throughout as she fights multiple people who assume her parents forced the hijab on her. The book very clearly calls out [white] feminists “who don’t get that this is me exercising my right to choose.”

Furthermore, Amal makes the distinction between cultural/social norms and religious doctrine, which are often conflated by people who are ignorant about Islam. She also reflects on the way culture and religion change over time, and how often immigrants cling to traditions and ideals that have become obsolete in their homeland since they left. These situations and thoughts bring nuance to Muslim identity.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. However, there were certain patterns I noticed that interfered with my ability to fully embrace the book. Specifically, there were several cases of ableism and [internalized] misogyny.

Humor and sass feature prominently in Amal’s character, but a number of her quips were dismissive of people with disabilities, especially mental illness. For example, she disdains her mother’s “neat freak” tendencies (which are never explicitly labeled as OCD or OCPD but could be interpreted as such), calling her “neurotic.” She also refers to her decision to don the hijab at her snobby prep school as “psychotic.” In facing down another girl’s prejudice and meanness, she thinks that the other girl was probably dropped on her head as a child. Those are just a few examples.

Although the book tries to champion the woman-power, it doesn’t succeed completely because there are still noticeable instances of misogyny. Despite Amal’s discussion of how wearing the hijab is her choice and not something she should be judged for, she judges other girls for showing too much skin. She disdains girls as “bimbos” if they seem to care too much about their appearance and dress to get attention (by her assumption), which is hypocritical given her own tendency to spend a long time getting dressed and made up and her own insecurities about how she looks to other people. Although one character called out a white girl for making a racist statement, his comeback fell flat for me because the implied insult hinged on slut-shaming based on the girl’s perceived promiscuity.

Recommendation: Despite its flaws, I’d recommend this book for its strong character voice and nuanced representation of Muslims.

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