Thursday, July 3, 2014

Save the Muslim Girl

"Save the Muslim Girl" by Ozlem Sensoy & Elizabeth Marshall
(pg 120-128 of Rethinking Popular Culture & Media)
Does popular young adult fiction about Muslim girls build understanding or reinforce stereotypes?

I chose to read this article because, as I've said many times in class, I have many Muslim students (Saudi Muslims and Chinese Muslims.) I have a deep curiosity about the Islamic religion and those who live in Islamic parts of the world. I ask my students questions as frequently as possible and allow them to teach me, but I still have much to learn. I read this chapter because I was curious what options teachers have in helping open the eyes of young people to the good and the bad of Muslim life. From my experience, sure there are parts of Muslim life that are (in my eyes) negative, but there are many positive & admirable aspects too.

It seems, from this chapter, that there are many options if teachers would like to start a conversation about life in a Muslim state, but the options are not very good. From the writers perspective, the young adult books that tell stories of Muslim girls mostly retell the story we all expect to hear (and yes, perpetuate stereotypes.)

The writing starts out by first introducing the authors of best-selling books about Muslim girls for young adults: white, Western women. Because of this, readers must constantly be reminded that the authors are marketing and writing for a Western audience and this will change the perspective of the story.

Common themes in the books described in the article are about the heroine and her tumultuous past. The heroine is typically trapped in a violent Middle East and wants to escape. Typically her life experience is sad, poor, with hopes for Western freedoms because she is about to be married (in an arranged marriage.)

There are good intentions in these stories, however, we must remind ourselves constantly that these books are "written for & marketed primarily to a Western audience..." so we must constantly keep in check "...what ideas do they teach young adult readers about Muslim girls, Islam and the Middle East?"

The authors argue that these well known texts teach 3 ideas about Muslim girls.

1) Muslim girls are veiled, nameless and silent.
This lesson can be learned from looking at the cover images. Typically, cover image feature a veiled female with only her eyes showing and commonly her hands covering her mouth (ie: Parvana's Journey, Broken Moon and Mud City.)

This image is familiar and tells us, "This is the Muslim girl story we expect to read." By the girls covering their mouths, it perpetuates what we think about Muslim girls being silenced. These images portrayed by Western authors help Westerner readers think we can save these voiceless girls.

When teaching with texts like these, important to discuss with students: What ideas are learned when students see a very limited image of Muslim girls?

2) Veiled girls mean oppressed girls
A common plot in these popular texts is that the good guy (father or brother) is taken away leaving the heroine vulnerable and unprotected. A common solution is for the heroine to dress as a boy because it is the only option apart from wearing a burqa. In these stories, burqa is used to mean oppression and without it, freedom. 

The authors say that in reality, the burqa has many meanings - tradition, resistance or for disguise. However, in Western texts, the burqa almost exclusively represents oppression and negativity. 

In these stories, heroines don their burqa to be "like 'free' girls in the West, wear pants and experience freedom of movement." Additionally, if a female in these texts is portrayed as free and successful, she is also described as wearing Western clothes, as oppose to the veiled females who live in violent, regulated, supervised environments. 
These texts tell us a victim narrative. The Muslim female is either a victim of societal oppression or domestic abuse and she needs to be protected and saved from Islamic systems by outside forces. The texts also tell us that Western females do not have to deal with these types of issues (which is not true.)

3) Muslim girls & women want to be saved
The authors argue that there are many examples of strong Muslim females, however, these are largely ignored in order to tell a story that Westerns are familiar with. 

Also, the authors portray themselves as experts and credible due to their time, experience, life in Middle East or linguistic ability, however, the authors fail to capture true complexities of the Islamic history.

Overall, one could argue that there is a hidden curriculum in these text - one that helps Americans feel better about fighting the "good fight" in Afghanistan and "saving the Muslim girl."

Lastly, the authors offer Tips for using these texts in class
Though the authors critique the books negatively, they also offer that an OK story about Muslim girls is better than no story about Muslim girls - but that in these cases, deep critique & analysis is especially important. The authors finish by suggesting many critically minded questions (page 127), here are a few of them:

  • How are Muslim girls visually depicted on the cover?  Who made this image? How accurate are the details in the image? Use the curriculum Scarves of Many Colors as a resource for image-message lesson.
  • Who is the author of this story? How do authors tell you they are "experts"? What might be their motivations? Who are they speaking to/for?
  • Who's story is missing? Whose story is this? Whose stories are not here and where might we go to learn about their stories?


  1. Such a great post, Laura. :)

  2. Thank you! And thanks for adding a great text to my library.