First published on 4th February, 2007 in StarMag
DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS?
Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
Publisher: Marion Lloyd Books, 368 pages
Isn’t that title a gas? I love it! It’s witty and a little smart-alecky, like the heroine of the book, 16-year-old Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, a Muslim Palestinian-Australian who decides that she’s ready to wear the hijab (veil) fulltime.
Amal is inspired by Rachel, from the sitcom Friends, to take this life-altering step. Power-walking on the treadmill, she watches Rachel jump on stage at a wedding dinner and belt out Copacabana. Somehow, Amal feels empowered by this scene and decides to ‘shawl-up’.
No biggie, huh? Well, perhaps not in Malaysia where we’re all quite used to Muslim women of all ages wearing headscarves, but in predominantly white-Christian Australia, it’s a major undertaking (Amal in her hijab has to deal with everything from raised eyebrows to dumb questions to racial slurs, but she manages to take most of it in her stride).
It does occur to me though that although a female Muslim in a tudung (scarf or veil) is a common sight in this country, the reasons for choosing to wear one might not be known to many non-Muslim Malaysians. The blurb on the book’s cover says: ‘Every teenager in Britain should read this book’. Well, make that every Malaysian teenager too.
For me, it’s good to see a teenage novel in which the central character isn’t white, but I wonder how encouraged or otherwise Malaysian teens will be to purchase My Head. Will the hijab-wearing model on its cover intrigue or repel?
I’ve been told that when beauty magazines feature dark-skinned cover girls, the sales dip, whether here or in the States and Britain. And I know teenagers who say that they prefer reading about white characters and that they would not bother to even pick up a book with a black or Asian character on the cover.
I wonder how popular TV series The OC would be if they had an all-black cast!
Well, books are supposed to allow us to explore new worlds and so it would be a shame to limit the experience to white middle-class America or Britain (or Australia), right?
Although My Head, written by Australian-born Palestinian Randa Abdel Fattah, raises interesting and serious questions about faith, tolerance and acceptance of different beliefs and cultures, and racial and religious identity, these potentially heavy topics are presented in a wholly accessible way, thanks to their context: the life of a healthy, well-adjusted teenager who spends as much (if not more) time and energy stressing about clothes and boys as she does about her religion.
Amal takes her beliefs very seriously, but she is not above laughing at herself and the way she sometimes gets her head-scarf in a twist when dealing with anyone unsupportive or insensitive.
Of course, being only human, she has her moments of doubt, indecision and self-righteous rage, but these simply make her a more believable and likeable character.
I would be interested to hear from any Malaysian Muslim girl who has read this book. Does she identify with Amal?
Does she face the same problems and challenges? If the teenage Malaysian Muslim experience with the tudung is totally different from Amal’s with the hijab, wouldn’t it be great if someone wrote a book about it?
In fact, I would love to read anyone’s (preferably any Malaysian’s) take on the life of Malaysian teenagers of any sex, race, religion, shape or form.
Actually, I know a couple of people who are working on something. Hey, guys, don’t take too long. I’m getting impatient!