Friday, February 3, 2012

Review: Does My Head Look Big In This?

Book cover

Yesterday I picked up a book that promised to be very interesting: Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah.

This is a story about Amal, an 11th grader in Australia who happens to be Muslim, and how things go for her after she decides to start wearing the hijab* full time. Amal makes the decision during winter break, and wears it on her first day back to school.

 Does My Head Look Big In This? has a strong opening with Amal's sudden conviction that she wants to wear the hijab full time, and her immediate doubts about her decision. She knows that wearing the hijab will leave her open to taunting and prejudice, and knows that it will be about as attention getting as walking into school naked. (An interesting comparison, I thought.) Yet she becomes determined to wear it, as a sign of faith and to be close to Allah.

Things get off to a rocky start when Amal reports to the principle on her first day back to school to explain that she will be adding a hijab to her strict school uniform. The principle's response is not enthusiastic, to put it mildly. Very mildly. Yet in the end she gives Amal permission to wear her hijab.

I lapped up about the first third of the book, cheering Amal on when she stood up for herself and delighting in her two close friends at school who stood by her through everything, and who didn't care how she dressed. Best of all, Amal also defended her friends when they were picked on by the popular girls.

But eventually...the book got a little dull. The problem? It was mostly more of the same. And more. And more.

I guess that's how it is in life. In life, if you're a minority (ok, and even if you aren't) you are constantly confronted by stereotypes. Especially if you do something like wearing a hijab, that marks you as different and draws attention. Yet even though the plot did move along, with things like new developments where Amal's major crush is concerned, it eventually felt more like Abdel-Fattah was more trying to make a point than tell a story. I felt like the story ended about 1/3 of the way into the book, even though there are new things happening even in the middle of the book. And although there is quite a bit of excitement at the end, that excitement feels like a different story.

I would give the first 1/3 of Does My Head Look Big In This? 5 out of 5 stars. But for the whole book overall, I would have to go with 3 of 5. Sorry, but it's so.

And yet I wonder...would my rating of this book be different if the hijab hadn't been presented on the back cover as THE major point of the plot, but rather as part of a larger story? I don't know.

*The hijab covers a woman's hair, and the woman wearing a hijab also keeps her arms and legs covered. As Amal says, she only needs to use sunscreen on her face and hands.

EDIT ON 2/18/2012: I was impressed with the way Randa Abdel-Fattah handled stereotypes in Does My Head Look Big In This?  Just about every stereotype about Islam is confronted in the book, and it's either pointed out that it's just a stereotype (such as all Muslims being terrorists) or a cultural norm for some places that has gotten confused with being part of the religion (such as female genital mutilation).

It took me a week or so after finishing the book to realize that there was one issue not addressed in the novel: that the hijab and burka are used in some places to keep women in their place. In the novel Amal dons the hijab as part of embracing her religion, and that is the reason that my friends who have happened to be Muslim wore the hijab. Those of my friends who chose to wear the hijab, that is. But in some places women are forced to wear it, and I think the book would have been stronger if that had been acknowledged.

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