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!