Title: Does My Head Look Big In This?
Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
Young Adult Contemporary Fiction ♦ 400 pages ♦ Scholastic Books, 2005
“I pray that Ms. Walsh lets me wear the hijab and that Leila’s parents stop pressuring her about marriage. That Simone’s next diet works, Adam and I become the best of friends, and that Ms. Walsh lets me wear the hijab. I pray that Palestinians are granted the same rights and freedom and dignity that Israelis enjoy and that the streets fill with Israelis and Palestinians walking side by side in peace. And that Ms. Walsh lets me wear my hijab.”
Does My Head Look Big in This? captures the essence of the teenager experience, that is, with the additional complexities of belonging to not one, not two, but multiple marginalized groups. Author Randa Abdel-Fattah explores with keen insight the intersection of these identities with her novel about a Muslim-Palestinian girl in Melbourne whose decision to wear the hijab full-time changes her life in both expected and unexpected ways.
Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim has a pretty priviledged life. Both her parents are medical professionals, and she is able to attend one of the most prestigious prep schools in Melbourne. As an only child, she is naturally precocious and able to do whatever she pleases (within reason). Her parents encourage openness and discourse over authoritarianism, and Amal knows that she is total control of her own destiny. Though her family is religious, and her mother wears the hijab, both her parents understand that this is a personal choice, and the only time Amal was ever required to wear hers was during the two years she spent at a religious school. Now that she’s at a prep school, with an entirely different social order to navigate, her religious life begins taking on new meaning.
In a sudden burst of insight during winter holiday, Amal discovers that she feels called to wear her hijab full-time at her new school. She’s already an oddball–her parents are well-off enough to send her to this school, but not so wealthy to keep other girls from making jokes about her living off welfare based on her neighborhood. She understands that by wearing the hijab, she will further mark herself as different, but her motivations are from the desire to live a more earnest spiritual life. Her parents are concerned with her decision and the backlash it may cause, but Amal is adamant–and on her first day back to school, she sets off wearing the hijab.
But for as much as she thought her decision though, she never expected it to be this hard. All of a sudden, she feels coerced into being the spokesperson for all of Islam. The local mean girls drop passive-aggressive comments that increasingly grow more pointed. Several of her classmates stop speaking to her for a while, and when they do talk to her again, it’s to exoticize her decision or ask her if her parents are oppressing her. Her head of school even contends that by wearing the hijab she’s breaking the uniform of the school and almost doesn’t allow her to wear it on school grounds. Amal knew her life would be different, but it took taking this step for her to fully appreciate just how different that life would be.
This book was a joy to read. Amal’s struggles to bring her religious conviction into the light of day for all to see highlights many of the issues facing modern Muslims around the world. I’m reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, where she said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This is definitely the case for Amal’s experience, and the author draws attention to this over and over again. Amal becomes exhausted with requests to explain Islam, to explain terrorism, to explain female genetic mutilation, to be the “voice of all Islam” at her school.
And the world that Abdel-Fattah creates for Amal is rich and complex with religious diversity, in a spectacular antidote to the single-story-problem. There’s no ignoring of a more fundamentalist approach to religion. Amal’s best friend Leila lives the reality of her parents’ views. While Leila’s brother suffers no consequences at home for his drinking, drugs, and sexual promiscuity, Leila is forced to meet young men at her home in hopes she will marry, isn’t allowed out after dark, cleans up after her brother, and isn’t sure if she’ll even be able to finish high school before her parents marry her off. On the other side of things, Amal’s friend Yasmeen is obsessed with makeup and shopping and doesn’t wear the hijab outside of school. All three of these girls wear (or don’t wear) the hijab for their own reasons, and yet it’s clearly shown how the hijab is often erroneously viewed (by non-Muslims) as a symbol of oppression rather than religious conviction.
Other issues confronted in this story are body-shaming, bullying, consent issues, prejudice, and the complexity of the human experience. One of the most moving subplots is the unlikely friendship that springs up between Amal and her next-door neighbor, a crotchety, racist, old Greek woman with massive heartaches of her own.
Perhaps the best part of this story is how Amal develops and matures emotionally. At the beginning of the story, she behaves like a stereotypical only child of wealthy parents. Honestly, I didn’t like her too much. But she changes with her experiences, and begins to see the world and all its people as trying to make it through the best they can. Consistently sassy and confident, she often wonders where that confidence goes in public as she becomes the target of staring and whispered comments, which helps her learn empathy for others. She begins to understand that harsh judgments and flippant remarks aren’t the ways that true progress is created. She learns, in a word, to listen. And through listening, she is able to reflect on what parts of her life need change, and which ones need strength.
This is a great read for anyone at all interested in having a greater appreciation of the courage it might take to dare to be different in today’s world.
About the Author
Randa Abdel-Fattah was born in Sydney Australia and is of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage. She has worked as a lawyer, human rights advocate, and volunteer with local refugee and immigrant organisations. She has written several books, most recently When Michael Met Mina, about a boy whose conservative family is against immigration and a girl who is a refugee. Does My Head Look Big in This? is her debut novel. You can follow her on Twitter or Goodreads or visit her webpage for more information!