My life, my choice

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Whether it's drug dealers and backslang from estates around Paris or a Melbourne schoolgirl wondering how much eyeliner to wear with her hijab, Victoria Neumark is riveted by two novels written from the perspectives of young Muslim women

She's a thoroughly modern woman. She works as a lawyer, and has an adoring husband and small daughter, with whom she travels the world publicising her novel. She is as forthright as any citizen of her native Australia, dresses with style and care, is an entertaining and eloquent conversationalist.

Only one thing is unusual: as a teenager, Randa Abdel-Fattah chose to wear the veil, the Islamic hijab.

Her novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (Marion Lloyd pound;5.99), is sure to ring bells of all kinds in the heads of non-Muslim readers. There will be those who sigh in despair: how subjugated Muslim women are! There will be those who stare in fascination: how strange these Muslim women seem! And there will be those - the majority, if they read the book with unblinkered eyes - who come away with new understanding and respect for her decision and that of many thousands like her.

And, of course, there will also be many young Muslim women who read the book, aimed chiefly at teenagers, with recognition and enjoyment. At last, a novel which shows the real everyday dilemmas, relationships, joys and fears of someone like them, someone from a traditional background (Abdel-Fattah's parents are from Palestine and Egypt) growing up in a modern society (she was born and educated inAustralia) who wants to find her own path between competing sets of values.

Does My Head Look Big In This? follows the first year in which its Melbourne heroine, Amal, aged 15, decides to wear the hijab full-time. As the book explains, the hijab is more than just a scarf. In clothing terms, it ought to mean fully concealing the hair and neck and covering the rest of the body except for hands and feet with loose clothing in the presence of anyone of the opposite sex who is not close family. In behaviour terms, it means not kissing or relating sexually or provocatively to anyone. In spiritual terms, it means trying to live according to the dictates of the Koran, including praying, fasting in Ramadan, giving to charity, obeying one's parents, being honest.

It's not a fashion statement, although, as Abdel-Fattah herself makes clear, "there's no reason to look awful just because you're wearing hijab".

Hence, during a visit last month to Brampton Manor school, in London's multicultural East Ham, she met plenty of girls who spoke of their mums'

"seven", "whole tray-full" and "whole shelf-full" stacks of scarves, all in colours and fabrics to match their overgarments.

Girls such as Nadia,14, happy to wear the hijab to school (in a navy blue that matches her uniform), understand the fictional Amal's life. "My mum said to me when I was 13, 'why don't you wear this now?'" says Nadia, who wants to be "a businesswoman. I like power". At first she didn't want to, but her mum said, "You choose. Are you proud to be a Muslim?" So, as it was her own choice, and as her mum, "who's my best friend, she would never ask me to do something that was wrong for me", suggested it, Nadia did so and feels comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that her friends Maniola, 13, and Ning, 14, who are from Jamaican and Chinese families, seem slightly to envy her. "It can make people respect you," says Maniola. "It can help if you don't want boys to look at you," agrees Ning.

All the pupils in the reading group fostered by English teacher and photographer Prodeepta Das agree on one thing. "The book tells you Muslims are not just terrorists," says Joseph, 14. It's an important message for young people in London as the anniversary of the bombings of 77 approaches.

Abdel-Fattah says: "I wanted readers to be able to explore the world of a Muslim teenage girl and realise that she has the same issues as them and also has to face being seen as a stereotype." Much of the book is straight teen "does he like me, does he not?" comedy, with added doses of friends being bullied, running away from home to escape arranged marriages, and extra zing from Arab family dynamics (a bit like My Big Fat Greek Wedding with added kebabs and minus the alcohol).

Like her creator, Amal is a feisty female who gives as good as she gets when people call her "nappy head", but who also extends kindness to her elderly Greek neighbour, winning her friendship. More controversially, Amal flirts with romance with one of her classmates, in a relationship that ends abruptly when she rejects physical contact at his birthday party.

Abdel-Fattah, 26, is unabashed on the subject of sex. "Physical intimacy is only for one's marriage partner," she declares. And that includes kissing or hand-holding... one thing leads to another, after all. In her own life, her husband Ibrahim was introduced by a friend of the family and "I knew, within a day I knew, I was one of the lucky ones". There followed a year's courtship, "mostly by computer and telephone, which takes the lust out of it. That can cloud your judgment when you are trying to see if this is a person you can spend your life with." Interestingly, in her novel many enjoyably dramatic exchanges between characters take place via text or email. Thoroughly modern, yet timeless.

Like the young people at Brampton Manor, Abdel-Fattah is close to her parents.She remains fully involved in family life, as well as highly independent in earning her own living, campaigning for Palestinian human rights. She sees her own journey into wearing the hijab and out again (she wore it for four years, giving it up only reluctantly as an obstacle to her legal career) as deeply spiritual. "I remember the day I walked out without it. I felt I was compromising my beliefs," she says. "I see it as an indictment of our society that, just like Amal in the book, I would find it hard even to get a job at a fast-food outlet, let alone in a law firm, just because of a private decision that I saw as making me nearer to God."

God may not feature overtly for many teens in our secular society, but issues such as boys getting away with more than girls ("It's really unfair," chorus the students at Brampton Manor) and gossip about sex ("It's all over the school about some girls") are universal. "My girls are not asexual," says Abdel-Fattah of the book she spent 10 years writing. "They are full of raging hormones, too; they have temptations. But I wanted to question the assumption that you have to have a boyfriend. It's more important to feel good about yourself, from inside."

Another young Muslim author has created a slightly more streetwise heroine in her new novel. "It's not my life, it's not my facts, but, yes, she has some of my personality, some of my way of seeing the world," says Faiza Gu ne, a stunningly pretty, elegant 20-year-old Parisian, with a chic way of lighting a cigarette, a husky, charming voice and a no-nonsense take on life.

She has taken fashionable Paris by storm with her pacy novel of teenage life in the tough estates (banlieues) around Paris. Her heroine, 15-year-old Doria, is the only child of a depressed Moroccan woman, abandoned by her husband and making a precarious living working as a cleaner for less than the minimum wage. Harassed by social workers, yearning hopelessly for the love of the local drug dealer, unengaged by school and excluded from the mainstream culture of France, Doria is full of energy and compassion. Like her creator.

Kif Kif Demain, translated here as Just Like Tomorrow (Definitions Pounds 5.99), marks the emergence of a distinctive voice: the young Muslim woman who is neither a political activist nor a devout daughter of the mosque, but rather a questioning voice of power and panache. A young woman, too, who acts one way in traditional settings such as the home, and another on the streets, in the workplace. An existence which could be seen as hypocritical and drab; or as rich and many-nuanced, like the title of Gu ne's book.

"Kif" is an Arab word meaning "well-being". It's used in France as a synonym for "hashish" and "kiffer" means "to get high" or to fancy someone.

There is another meaning, though: "C'est du kif" means "more of the same".

So Guene's title, as translated by Sarah Adams, means both "tomorrow the same as today" and "tomorrow will be great", which rather encapsulates her own attitude.

Faiza Guene lives with her family (her parents are from Algeria) in a flat on the third floor of a tower block in the big housing estate at Courtilli res, north of Paris. It's an area which she loves for its liveliness, its multicultural shops and faces, its close-knit camaraderie. She is anxious to dispel the myths which surround life in such areas, like the stark black-and-white drama of Mathieu Kassovitz's film La Haine (1995). "Sure, violence exists and it is important that such a film exists," she says, "but everyday it is not people being shot and battles on rooftops."

When Guene was 13, she became involved in a local film project run by the principal of her school, and wrote and directed three short films. In the breaks between shooting she used to scribble her novel in notebooks, "It's what I do - I write," she says. "Since I was little, it's pleasure and pastime, but it was just for myself."

When Boris Seguin, who ran the film club, picked up the notebook and read it, he was so impressed that he showed it to his sister, an editor at the literary publishing house Hachette. Sensing a new phenomenon - and a new market - Hachette published it in 2004, when its author was 19. It has sold 200,000 copies.

The narrative is both moving and comic and works on two levels: a deadbeat girl finds happiness in her humdrum life by being nice to her mother, giving up unrealistic romantic dreams and kissing the nice nerdy boy who helps her with her homework, without losing any of her sharp-eyed realism about the difficulties of inner (or, in France, outer) city life. I particularly liked the detail about the reformed drug dealer and his single mother bride zooming happily off in the social worker's stolen car. It's not unlike The Catcher in the Rye, a book which Gu ne says is the first she read that was not "chiant" (shitty, boring).

More than this, though, it's a bold, compelling exercise in the language of the streets, a million kilometres away from the exquisite formal language of the Academie Francaise. "Verlan", or backslang, like many argots, began as tricks which the underdogs played with language to confuse their oppressors (mostly police and state employees). Now, though, it permeates everyday usage, from rap to newspapers to advertising, even clothing labels. Guene's talent is to mix just enough of it into her narrative to spice it, but not so much that it is obscure.

Interestingly, Guene does not see herself as a spokesperson for anything. The recent riots and the reaction to them ("It's what you would expect, it's the same thing as has been happening for 30 years," she shrugs); whether Muslim women should wear the hijab ("In the end, it is a piece of material"); religion ("Yes, of course I pray, when I can"); the position of women ("Women should choose for themselves, to come out into public life"). "I don't want to pronounce on these matters without knowing what I say," she explains. She lights another cigarette and shakes her head. "All I have done is write a story and find out what is a girl's relationship to this hard language, the language of men, of rappers, of today." She blows out smoke. Now she is reading Zola and finishing her second novel. "I'm trying to go deeper.

Things are changing."

Prodeepta Das has edited Children's Voices: poems by Newham secondary school children, pound;3.50 (inc pp) from Brampton Manor school, Roman Road, London E6 3SQ

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