Monday, November 18, 2013

DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Abdel-Fattah, Randa.  (2005).  Does My Head Look Big in This?  New York:  Orchard Books.
ISBN 978-0-439-91947-0


Amal is sixteen, Australian, Pakistani and Muslim.  She decides she is finally ready to wear the hijab, Muslim head scarf, full-time as a mark of her faith.  This means wearing it even to her upscale prep school.  As predicted by her concerned parents, she attracts all kinds of attention, good and bad, and struggles against stereotypes and ignorance.  Amal works hard to determine what it means to be a young Muslim woman today in a society that does not always understand what her faith means to her and why she chooses to wear the hijab.  Through Amal’s experiences, readers are given a helpful understanding of the vast points of view within the Muslim community about the role of women, and what it means to be a young Muslim girl in a predominantly non-Muslim area.


Abdel-Fattah uses the first person voice of Amal to share an insider’s view of being a Palestinian- Muslim-Australian.  She uses humor to keep the book from getting too heavy, but she deftly touches on topics such as prejudice, 9-11, dating, job career choices, marrying and more.  The story is definitely about a teenager learning who she is and who she wants to be as a person of faith, and it weaves in cultural authenticity constantly, from what she eats to what she wears. 

Given that the hijab is a major plot point of the story, the question of clothing comes up very frequently.  Abdel-Fattah skillfully avoids stereotypes by showing instead the many ways girls and women approach the hijab.  Some of her friends wear it; some do not.  Her mother, the dentist, wears the hijab, but her aunt does not and bleaches her hair blond.  When Josh asks why her hijab is not colorful as some he has seen, Amal explains, “…every girl is going to interpret the hijab differently.  It depends on their culture, or their fashion sense, you know?  There’s no one uniform for it” (72). 

Amal speaks casually with plenty of slang and drama, making sure readers never forget this is a story about a teen, not a dissertation on Islam.  “So when you’re a non-pork eating, Eid-celebrating Mossie (as in taunting nickname for  Muslim, not mosquito) with an unpronounceable last name and a mother who picks up you from school wearing a hijab and Gucci shades, and drives a car with an “Islam means peace” bumper sticker, a quiet existence is impossible” (10).    Her sassy, sarcastic remarks keep her real and human and very much a teenager in the reader’s eyes.   When people ask about her hijab, she jokes with them, “I’ve gone bald” (71) or “My dad told me if I don’t wear it he’ll marry me off to a sixty-five-year-old camel owner in Egypt” (70).  The pace of the story moves quickly thanks to her liberal use of humor.

As mentioned in our book (Smolen and Oswald, 274), a number of Middle Eastern books deal with the theme of immigrant experiences.  This is not a traditional immigrant kind of story, but it touches on this theme nonetheless.  Australia is Amal’s home—she was born in Australia.  Her parents were “both born in Bethlehem, but there are fifty-two years of Australian citizenship between them” (3).  However, the Catholic neighbor, in particular, has a touching, poignant story of moving to Australia from Greece, not speaking English, not meeting people, being so afraid of losing their store, of having many miscarriages.  It is heavy material, but because Amal always manages to make people laugh, the readers are able to take breaks and laugh with them, even when we have just witnessed how hard it can be to be an immigrant.  And though Amal is not technically an immigrant, she is still an outsider.  As she puts it, “I’m an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian.  That means I was born an Aussie and whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens…I mean, it’s hard enough being an Arab Muslim at a new school with your hair tumbling down your shoulders.  Shawling up is just plain psychotic” (6).

Amal mentions the derogatory words she has faced while living in Melbourne and she knows she’ll be called names if she wears the hijab (“towelhead” is mentioned, pg 27), but she also describes beautifully the reasons a woman would choose to wear the veil.  “…I want that identity. You know, the symbol of my faith.  I want to know what it means to be strong enough to walk around with it and stick up for my right to wear it” (24).  She is afraid of the consequences of her choice, “So you can understand why I’m walking around the stores in combat mode, avoiding eye-contact…” (27), but ultimately decides to do what she believes is right.  After a trip to the mall where she greets a few other girls wearing the hijab, Amal reflects, “I’m sharing something with millions of other women around the world and it feel so exciting.  I know some people might find it hard to believe but walking around the mall tonight I’d never felt so free and sure of who I am.  …I was looking and feeling good on my own terms, and boy did that feel awesome” (29). 

Later, she discusses boys and food and general life with her friends—showing very clearly that she is still a typical teenager despite her choice to take her faith more seriously.  She finds a place to pray; she already has been participating fully in Ramadan.  She wears the hijab—but still takes an hour to situate it perfectly around her face without any sags or creases.  She’s definitely still a regular teenage girl.  The book title itself is amusing and perfect, showing her concern about her appearance even while putting on the mark of her faith.

Readers are treated to sprinkles of Arabic throughout the passage, adding the authenticity and credibility of the storyline.  “Yallah!” is probably the word we see the most of, which means, “Come on” or “Hurry up!” We see her nickname is “Ya Amal” which means “Oh Amal.”  And we see words related to their culture, such as the morning fajr, or prayer.  She performs the wuduh, the ablution, and readers are able to follow along to see what these traditions look like in the daily life of a middle income family (29).  The authenticity is strengthened by the fact that the author is Australian, Muslim and of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage.

The theme of being true to who you are is strong throughout the novel.  The author does not hide from the barriers to standing up as a Muslim.  Amal says to her crush, “Do you have any idea how it feels to be me, a Muslim, today?  I mean, just turn on the television, open a newspaper.  There will be some feature article analyzing, deconstructing, whipping up some theory about Islam and Muslims.  Another chance to make sense of this phenomenon called ‘the Muslim’  It feels like I’m drowning in it all” (156). She is even asked by the class president to explain Islam and why the bombers who were suspected to be Muslims would do such a thing. Amal explains that they have nothing to do with her faith, but the class president never seems to understand why Amal does not want to be associated with the bombers in this way and finds it offensive to be asked to speak on their behalf.   

The theme of being true to yourself and embracing your heritage and faith is developed also in the side-characters such as Leila, who runs away from home rather than marry early.  For Leila, the Koran clearly says it is her duty to get an education.  Her mother does not read the Koran, but was raised as a Muslim in a little village and believes what she was told about the role of the woman—and living as a wife and mother has made her happy.  Through Leila, readers are able to better understand a mother who sees an early marriage as the best thing for her daughter.  For those of us in America who generally do not value arranged marriages, it offers a helpful insight into why a parent would find such a thing appealing for a child.  And Amal’s aunt and uncle illustrate the theme by how hard they try to NOT be Pakistani.  When the uncle has his boss over, he goes out of his way to use Australian slang (“Hey there, mate!”) and when the guest compliments the food, saying how much he loves Middle Eastern food, the uncle explains how his wife cooks many types of food, not just Middle Eastern food.

Amal’s friend Eileen is Japanese-Australian and says, “My parents emigrated from Japan about twenty years ago and they’re still going on about the traditions and cultural norms they were following when they left, all those years back”  (150).  She speaks Japanese at home and her mom wears old-fashioned kimonos.  She shares the experience of being torn between two cultures and she chooses a path from both that works for her.

Vardell states, “It can be challenging to locate children’s books which authentically reflect the experiences of immigrants from the Middle East” (overview, n.p)  Even though this book is not about an immigrant from the Middle East, as Amal is also Australian, it does serve as a wonderful book to expand children’s horizons when it comes to Arabic culture and understanding Islam, “one of the most misunderstood religions” (Smolen and Oswald, 270).  Vardell states, “Indeed, what we really need is books for young people about growing up in AMERICA with Middle Eastern backgrounds” (Overview, n.p.)  Even though this book is set in Melbourne, Australia, the description of the city (majority white, middle class, shopping malls, private schools, suburbs) could just as easily be some middle-sized city in America.  It is a worthy addition to any library.

The cover is upbeat and funky-fun, with bright colored circles and the top half of an Arabic girl’s face, wearing a red hijab, with her eyes looking upward at her veil.  The hijab has center stage.  The cover does a perfect job of representing the central idea of the story and Amal’s focus on what putting on the hijab means for her and her life.


“The sight of Jennifer Aniston in a bridesmaid's dress creates an urge to change the channel for most viewers, but for witty, academically talented Amal Abdel-Hakim, it inspires the confidence to wear the hijab full time. …Throughout the book, Amal makes candid yet astute observations on what it means to be a Muslim, a modern woman, and a good friend and daughter. Although the book addresses many teen issues including identity, family, religious traditions, and body image, it rarely strays into the realm of didactic. There is plenty of gentle humor, and strong female relationships balance Amal's racist classmates and a friend's crushingly traditional Muslim parent. In addition to her friendships, Amal also tries to deal with a crush that she knows will never develop into a romance and the hypocritical behaviors of some of her cousins. This novel is an excellent addition to the multicultural and chick-lit genres, and it is recommended for most collections”- Voice of Youth Advocates, Aug 1, 1007.

“"*Starred Review* Like the author of this breakthrough debut novel, Amal is an Australian-born, Muslim Palestinian whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens. … Without heavy preaching, the issues of faith and culture are part of the story, from fasting at Ramadan to refusing sex before marriage. More than the usual story of the immigrant teen's conflict with her traditional parents, the funny, touching contemporary narrative will grab teens everywhere."-Booklist, July 1, 2007.
"With an engaging narrator at the helm, Abdel-Fattah's debut novel should open the eyes of many a reader. … As Amal struggles with her identity in a post-9/11 world …her faith-and an array of ever-ready quips-help her navigate an often-unforgiving world. Using a winning mix of humor and sensitivity, Abdel-Fattah ably demonstrates that her heroine is, at heart, a teen like any other. This debut should speak to anyone who has felt like an outsider for any reason. Ages 12-up. “- Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2007.

"Gr 7 Up-Australian 11th-grader Amal is smart, funny, outspoken, a good student, and a loyal friend. She is also a devout Muslim who decides to wear the hijab, or head covering, full-time. …While the novel deals with a number of serious issues, it is extremely funny and entertaining, and never preachy or forced. The details of Amal's family and social life are spot-on, and the book is wonderful at showing the diversity within Muslim communities and in explaining why so many women choose to wear the hijab. Amal is an appealing and believable character. She trades verbal jibes with another girl, she is impetuous and even arrogant at times, and she makes some serious errors of judgment. And by the end of the story, she and readers come to realize that ‘Putting on the hijab isn't the end of the journey. It's just the beginning of it.’”-School Library Journal, June 1, 2007.

  •  Read other books by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me, which deals with the same sort of theme of choosing to be publically Muslim.
  • Read poems by Naomi Shihab Nye The Flag of Childhood: Poems from the Middle East.  Compare a poem to the experiences of Amal in Australia as a Muslim girl of Palestinian descent.
  • Read informational books about Arabic or Muslim culture and compare the cultural markers described to what is seen in this book.
  • Read a fiction book set in a Middle Eastern culture. Perhaps consider Where the Streets Had a Name, also by Randa Abdel-Fattah.  How are the experiences of the girl as Palestinian Muslim girl in a Middle Eastern country different than Amal’s as a Palestinian-Australian Muslim?
  • Explore Randa Abdel-Fattah’s website, which is at


The book taught me a lot about Islam and Muslim females, for which I’m thankful. I did not know, for example, that “Islamic” is not how you refer to a Muslim person.  So I’m glad I learned that.  However, I will add that while I would buy this book for a library, I personally did not feel that Amal was truly believable as a teenager because she was just too wise, too kind to the mean old neighbor, too understanding of too many people (excluding the required Mean Girls in the high school.)  I also wish she would have explained more about why she could not even date, because it was like an assumption was made that because she was choosing to abstain from sexual intimacy, that meant no dating, when there seems to be a wide spectrum of behaviors in dating.  She says, “Nah, you know I don’t know the whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing” (74) and then immediately mentions how she’d never “cross the line” for him and “you know the whole thing about no sex and physical intimacy before marriage” (75) which I understand.  But I guess I found it strange that she automatically equates dating with having sex, when I have known quite a few teens who do not believe in casual sex like that, or even no sex before marriage.  I did not like that it implied all dating people are sleeping together.  It just sort of confused me. I would have liked to hear more about her reasons for not dating at all.  

Works Referenced:

Abdel-Fattah, Randa.  (2010).  Where the Streets Had a Name.  New York:  Scholastic Press.

Abdel-Fattah, Randa.  (2010).  Ten Things I Hate About Me.  New York:  Orchard Books.

Nye, Naomi Shihab.  (2002).  The Flag of Childhood:  Poems from the Middle East.  New York:  Simon and Schuster. 

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  (2011).  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008.)  “Overview” Culture 6 Inclusion Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 14, 2013. 

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