“Save the Muslim girl!”

A colleague sent me this article from Rethinking Schools: “Save the Muslim girl!”, about the presentation of Afghan and Pakistani girls in modern YA lit. The most popular and critically acclaimed include Deborah Ellis’ Breadwinner trilogy and Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Under the Persimmon Tree, both written by white women and “featur[ing] a young heroine trapped in a violent Middle East from which she must escape or save herself, her family, and other innocents in the region.”

This article is full of rich ideas to unpack. Here’s a particularly interesting bit:

That girls in the Middle East are consistently at risk of gendered violence implicitly suggests that girls in the “civilized” West are immune to such threats. The education students with whom we work are very familiar and comfortable with the stereotype that the lives of Muslim women are inherently scary, that they cannot work or vote or walk around without the threat of violence. Of course there are Muslim women who live in oppressive or patriarchal regimes (in the Middle East and elsewhere). What we contend is that young adult novels written by white women and marketed and consumed in the West consistently reinforce the idea that Muslim women are inherently oppressed, that they are oppressed in ways that Western women are not, and that this oppression is a function of Islam. By positioning “Eastern” women as the women who are truly oppressed, those in the West pass up a rich opportunity to engage in complex questions about oppression, patriarchy, war, families, displacement, and the role of values (imperialist or faith-based) in these relations.

I also love the discussion questions the authors suggest for teachers using these books in their classrooms. A sample:

• Which parts of the novel are you absolutely certain are true? How do you know? Where did you learn this information? Students can try to pinpoint the resources they rely upon to get their “facts.”
• Who is the author of this story? How do they legitimize themselves as an expert? What might be their motivations? Who are they speaking to and for?
• How is the book marketed and what does it intend to teach Western readers? Students might examine the description on the back of the book, the author’s note, the map, the glossary, and book reviews to make observations about what kinds of readers are being targeted.

These are librarian questions! These are the sort of media literacy questions I encourage my students to ask about every source they work with. Who is giving you this information? Why do you believe it? Why are they a trustworthy source, or not? We don’t discuss these nearly often enough (in school or elsewhere), particular not in relation to fiction.

I’ve seen a lot of this sort of novel (written by white women about Middle Eastern Muslim teen girls), and I’m starting to see more novels written by Western Muslim women about Western Muslim teen girls. But I see almost no books by Muslim women about Middle Eastern Muslim teens, particularly not for the YA market. If you have a recommendation, I’d love to hear it!

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9 Responses to “Save the Muslim girl!”

  1. Pingback: Review: Beneath My Mother’s Feet, by Amjed Qamar

  2. Sam says:

    Thanks, Beth! I also just checked out BENEATH MY MOTHER’S FEET, by Amjed Qamar.

    Also, here’s a fascinating look at Patricia McCormick’s SOLD from the perspective of these issues at YA Subscription.

  3. Beth says:

    Oh, another book is Wanting Mor, by Rukhsana Khan. I remember it as a book with a confident strong protagonist who doesn’t feel like a victim, even though her circumstances would appall most Americans. My take on it is at http://libraryfrog.blogspot.com/2010/01/wanting-mor-hard-times-in-afghanistan.html

  4. Sam says:

    @Greg — Yup, it’s a good point — a lot of YA novels are about a protagonist in danger. It’s exciting, and it puts the main character in a situation where she gets to be the hero.

    But there are also a lot of YA novels set in the real world in which the conflict is way less traumatic — friendship, family, school, growing-up stuff. All of that happens in the Muslim Middle East too, and I’d like to see that reflected in YA lit available for Americans.

    We have a couple of girls at my school from Middle Eastern countries, and even among my affluent, worldly students, there are a lot of “Do you ride camels to school?”/”Aren’t you glad to be in America where you aren’t oppressed anymore?” misperceptions. Fiction can be really good for building a more complete picture.

  5. Sam says:

    @Beth — Exactly: all those problems are real, but they aren’t the complete picture. And I bet that our Western cultural perceptions of Islam and the Middle East are affecting what gets published and what doesn’t. It’s probably not even conscious a lot of the time.

  6. Greg says:

    One of the things I liked about The Kite Runner (despite finding it overall a little too pat) was that it showed that there were times when the Afghani society, despite being Muslim, was progressive and urbane. Thus it holds out the hope that it can be again. Same sort of thing with Persepolis (the film – I haven’t read the graphic novel). Things in Iran went to hell, but it didn’t mean that every single Muslim person was an evil oppressor.

    But I wonder how much of the problem is simply that so many teen novels are all about a protagonist in danger. The Hunger Games, The Lightning Thief, His Dark Materials… Of course the problem when the setting is real is the impression that real teens are in real danger. This may sometimes be the case, but it’s hard to explain in the context of the novel to what extent this is a rarity and to what extent it reflects real problematic issues in the culture.

  7. Beth says:

    It definitely fits a lot of the models the article complained about, although the cover I had showed her full face. I guess the problem is that all those problems are real, even if they aren’t the complete picture.

    The girl was saved by progressive Yemenese, not Westerners. She was hassled by media, which probably included foreigners. What I wasn’t sure was how much was her voice and how much the adult who was also listed as an author, and who I think was French.

  8. Sam says:

    Oh, I hadn’t been thinking about non-fic, but good call! I know about that one, though I haven’t read it.

    (Of course, depending on her story, it could still fit the model of “abused girl saved by the West.” But either way it’s by a Middle Eastern Muslim woman in her own voice, which is definitely lacking.)

  9. Beth says:

    The closest I can think of off-hand is I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, which is the story of Nujood, a Yemonese child who successfully obtained a divorce. Nujood Ali is listed as one of the authors.

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