Randa Abdel Fattah’s ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?‘ was for me an unsettling book. Ever since I was a child I am used to seeing young children walking to school with the scarves on their head. Chattering and chirping, walking in groups we saw them on our annual drive into Kerala. It never occurred to me to question why, just as I never questioned why Sardars wore the turbans around their head. I did admire the colours and prints in some cases. Perhaps I had a classic case of religion blindness.
So to be presented with this book about a young girl Amal who has a spiritual awakening about her religion Islam and decides to wear the hijab, it seems the perfect case of self-expression. It manifests in children of different faith’s differently, this understanding of a higher power and surrendering to it. Imagine then to my surprise to read about Amal wrangle over, worry about wearing a hijab to school. Adding further to my chagrin was that she had to get approval from the school board to wear it.
Somewhere after the first few chapters, I started to think “Isn’t this much ado about a scarf?”. Why should anyone question or stare at Amal for wearing a hijab? She has every right to practice her faith. How is she offending anyone or hurting anyone? Amal seems just like any other happy teenager on the planet with papers to worry about, friends to laugh and fight with, a crush to swoon over, supportive parents, a good home in a good neighbourhood. Yet when she decides to wear the hijab, her parents are concerned, friends too, other students look at her quizzically. It might seem like Amal was abducted by aliens and sent back to earth with fur all over her body!
She lists her concerns about wearing the hijab.
“My top three greatest fears, of which (1) makes me slightly incontinent just thinking about it and (3) gives me a twitchy eye, are these. (Hijab or not Amal is hilarious, even when she is worried)
- smart-ass comments (e.g I’m standing on the escalator and a group of guys yellout “nappy head” or some equally original comment);
- humiliation(e.g toilet paper on my shoes, tripping on my heels, the painful public moments made even more excruciating when you already stand out like a Big Mac in a health food store);
- fixated staring(e.g I’m trying to order chips at the food court and the girl at the counter can’t register that I don’t want sauce because she’s too preoccupied burning her retina).”
You would assume that Amal simply agrees with all that passes under the cover of Islam but it’s not so. Cosmopolitan, educated Amal gets angry for her friend Leila whose mother comes from a remote mountain village. She keeps Leila under a tight rein and wants to get her married at 16. Leila resents this. Amal’s mother though is more sympathetic, explaining to Amal that sometimes people are paralysed by their traditions and customs.
It’s all they know, so you can’t judge them for following and believing what they know.
Leila dreams of being a lawyer, but her mother thinks that makes her a bad Muslim because it means Leila does not want to marry, she wants to talk to boys and lie for a living. Leila, Amal and their friends know for a fact this is not true. The author weaves in the thread of an ultra-traditional Muslim family through Leila and her family.
On the other hand, there are Joe and Mandy (originally Ismail and Ayesha) who fancy themselves as modern Muslims. They are Amal’s aunt and uncle. Amal describes them.
They’re more into changing their names, peroxiding their hair and acting like they were born in Wagga Wagga and not Jerusalem. They’re always freaking about us being “fanatics”. For example, in Ramadan, we’re mad to fast. When it’s prayer time, they ask us why we bother. When we buy halal food, we’re “too extreme”.
Bit by bit Randa Abdel-Fattah reveals her characters. Strong, muscular Adam who Amal has a crush on tells her his mum abandoned him and his brother. He is however well taken care of and loves his step-mother. He thinks Amal is superb and her wearing the hijab only makes him curious for a little bit.
Amal’s friend Simone who is lovely as a rose hates being plump. She focuses on her weight and not her awesomeness and good cheer. She starts to smoke to kill her appetite.
Mrs.Vaselli her Greek orthodox neighbour feels free to call Amal and her parents’ names. Amal and she end up becoming friends, thanks to a hidden sadness.
When a bombing by Islamic terrorists occurs in Bali, Amal and her other Muslim friends can feel the heat. Amal feels isolated and threatened. She learns to find a way out.
Debating, quizzes, school parties are laid out for the reader to join in and feel the excitement. Someone runs away from home and someone gets their first kiss. This Young Adult book will resonate with youngsters and bring back memories to those of us who have walked in that lane some time ago. This book is suitable for 16 and up.
Amal emerges from it all as a confident teen, fully aware of her identity and proud of it. She has faced prejudice and discrimination and learns that they do not define her. Her dreams, her aspirations, her happy circle of family and friends, her country, her teachers and her parents define her.
No, Amal it does not.
You can buy Does My Head Look Big In This by clicking here.