Novelist reveals what life is like for a teenage girl under the hijab

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The Independent Culture

Most novels aimed at teenage girls deal with first kisses, friendship and problems with parents.

But a new book to be published later this month will tackle the thorny issue of wearing the hijab, in one of the first novels to portray the experiences of a Muslim girl growing up in a Western society.

Does My Head Look Big in This? is the story of Amal, a 16-year-old Australian Muslim girl who one day decides out of the blue that she wants to wear the hijab at her secondary school. Her decision shocks her parents and friends but gives her a sense of inner calm and conviction.

The author, Randa Abdel-Fattah, 26, a lawyer from Sydney, based the novel on her own experiences as a teenager growing up in Australia where she wore the hijab between the ages of 14 and 17.

"I wanted to debunk the myths about Muslims, and particularly about Muslim women. Muslim women and girls are often looked at as aliens. They are greatly misunderstood," she said.

"I wanted to write a book that allowed readers to enter the world of the average Muslim teenage girl and see past the headlines and stereotypes.

"There has been a shocking lack of books that tell the story of what it's like to grow a Muslim teenager."

Her book portrays the hostility that Amal faces as well as the assumption that she is being forced to cover her head and that it is not a decision she has made herself.

Ms Abdel-Fattah, who grew up in Melbourne of Palestinian and Egyptian parentage, said: "I experienced a lot of racism and prejudice when I used to wear the hijab and once my head scarf was pulled from the back of my head. The most frequent taunt would be 'go back where you came from'. There was often an assumption that I could not be Australian because I was wearing the hijab. There was an assumption that I must be Middle Eastern or a terrorist.

However, the book, Ms Abdel-Fattah's first novel, also covers the usual teenage territory of rebellion, eating disorders, spots, smoking and alcohol.

"Muslim teenagers have said to me that it is the only book they have found that tells the story of normal teenage life as well as being about a Muslim," she said.

"When I first started trying to find an agent for my book and explained it was about a Muslim teenager the question I would be constantly asked was - is there an honour killing in it? Every time you read a book about Muslims it's always either about the Saudi royal family, the Taliban or an honour killing. This is about the average Muslim experience and being a normal teenager."

Ms Abdel-Fattah said she no longer wore the hijab but had been forced to make the "agonising" decision to stop because she saw how difficult it was for her hijab-wearing friends to get jobs as lawyers.