Sixteen-year-old Amal is just your average Australian teenager. Like most girls her age she loves fashion, make up, and she worries about getting good grades. Then one day, while watching an episode of Friends, the realisation suddenly hits her: she’s ready to wear the hijab. Since she used to attend an Islamic middle school she was already used to wearing it for a few hours a day, but now she’s decided she’s ready to start wearing it full-time. When she tells her parents about her decision they’re hesitant, and wonder whether she’s truly ready. They also try to make her understand that it might be difficult at first, and that people might see and treat her differently. Amal isn’t worried. After all, it is a personal decision that only affects her. She’s doing this because she feels it’s the right thing for her to do, but as it won’t change her beyond her physical appearance, why should anyone treat her differently?
On her first day of school wearing the hijab, her first hurdle is the headmistress. Amal attends a rather posh private school, and her headmistress seems mostly concerned with the fact that the hijab is not in accordance with the school’s strict dress code. In addition to this she automatically jumps to the conclusion that Amal’s parents forced her to wear it, and is highly surprised when Amal tells her that her parents, in fact, tried to talk her out of it. Luckily Amal’s friends don’t make a big thing of it, but she does get subjected to a lot stares and shocked looks from other pupils, as well as a lot of talking behind her back. After 9/11 things only get worse, as people suddenly start treating her as the in-house expert on terrorism.
In spite of this Amal tries to stay positive. Surely everyone will turn round once they realise her hijab hasn’t changed her? It’s just a piece of fabric, nothing more. Gradually some people do start to treat her normally again, and Amal feels that life can in fact be as it once was. During the rest of the school year she does face some hurdles, some of which are related to her religious beliefs, whereas others are just your typical teenage problems. But the open ending of the book gives off an overall positive message.
What I really liked about the book is the fact that it strikes the right balance between humorous and more serious passages. It starts off light-hearted and funny, giving the impression that what you’re about to read fits the “chick-lit” category. Though the story definitely has some serious undertones, but because it’s intertwined with humorous passages it doesn’t get too heavy and is enjoyable to read from start to finish. In my view the story paints a realistic picture of what “hyphenated” people (in this case Palestinian-Muslim-Australian), as Amal calls it, go through in their teenage years.
The book confronts and explores a lot of stereotypes, not just about Muslims, but about many of Amal’s friends as well. Her friend Eileen, for instance, is Japanese-Australian, and her background comes with its own set of expectations and stereotypes. And another friend, Josh, is Jewish, and some of his family members don’t like him being friends with a Muslim girl.
The only downside to the book I could think of is that, at times, it can come across as a bit preachy. The author seems to feel the need to emphasise time and time again what Islam and being a Muslim is truly about, and these sometimes long-winded explanations by Amal to her friends did halt the flow of the story. But this is only a minor thing that I felt I needed to point out, because I can’t say it really tainted my overall impression of the book.
All in all I thought it was an enjoyable read, and a must-read for teenagers from all walks of life.