I try really hard to keep an open mind when reading Islamic YA romance books knowing that certain standards are probably not going to exist to move the story along, and of course I’m fully cognizant that Islam is practiced in a myriad of ways and chances are, I will disagree with a fair amount of any book in this genre. This particular book though, was hard to read. Ultimately I just didn’t like the protagonist, she was shallow and flimsy and her grasp on reality seemed lacking at times. The premise of the book is that you can have a boyfriend, if the boyfriend is Muslim. So by not agreeing with the very foundation; made the rest of the book hard to wrap my head around. The book is largely about hijab, and the author starts the book thanking the individuals that “educated her about the hijab,” yes, the article “the” is often used, and thus so much of the nuanced lived OWN voice experience of wearing hijab, is lacking. The book features language, lying, kissing, making out, talk of wanking, condoms, groping, and a scene that nearly concludes with sex, but stops short, barely. Perhaps high school seniors and college age teens could read this 231 page book, but I don’t know that the book is worth their time. Practicing Muslims will be irritated by the lack of mirroring, cultural readers will be annoyed that the protagonist didn’t push back on toxic assumptions, and non religious readers will be left confused at what the book hopes to accomplish by including religion and culture to no real definitive purpose in a romance novel.
High school student Aisha wears hijab much to her parents protests, and tries to avoid the Islamophobic aggressions that she endures in her white Kent neighborhood. She learns more about Islam than cultural superficiality from a family friend, an aunty, and she goes through her daily life largely unnoticed. She has a close friend, who is popular and likes to party, but Aisha doesn’t go out much, yet Isabelle still finds ways to include her. Everything starts to change however, when Darren moves in to town, defends Aisha at the bus stop and seems to be interested in being more than just friends. Aisha doesn’t date, but reasons if Darren were a Muslim, nothing would stop her. She devises a 10 step plan to make it all work, she just has to convert him.
While she sets her plan in motion, she finds herself lying to Isabelle, who has a crush on Darren, lying to her parents so that she can sneak around with Darren, and lying to Shafqat Aunty about her relationship with Darren. Along the way, she will lose her friendship with Isabelle, uncover dangers of equating culture and religion, remove and reconsider her hijab, nearly lose her virginity, and have to decide where her boundaries are. By the end of the book, nothing is clearly articulated for Aisha’s future or what she has decided regarding her relationship with Islam, hijab, and future boyfriends.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I struggled with the book. I like the flipped stereotype of the family not supporting hijab, but Aisha wearing it for her self anyway, unfortunately, I never felt that I understood why she felt strong enough to wear it, what brought her closer to Islam, and learning about Islam, and what the catalyst of it all was. I think knowing more of Aisha’s backstory might have made her more like-able. Throughout the book Shafqat Aunty is her whole Islamic touchstone. She doesn’t seem to have any other way of learning, or studying Islam. It seems that to come to Islam in high school would mean a level of maturity would exist that the character simply does not exhibit. I started wearing hijab at 16, I was the first in my family, I did it for me, I was actively trying to be a better Muslim and understand Islam, and hijab was simply a physical, tangible manifestation of that. So to see a character so passive in the learning, was a bit of a disconnect for me. I’m not saying that everyone has an experience like mine, but her grasp of basic Islamic tenants seems so weak, and she doesn’t seem to have a way to acquire understanding, or even a desire to obtain it. Often Darren seems to know more about Islam than she does.
I really struggled with the conceptual thread that her hijab prevents her from feeling comfortable making-out with Darren, so she hides it when clothing starts falling off. Shouldn’t hijab be the reminder to not have gotten in that situation in the first place? Perhaps if she would have had some depth, or the relationship wasn’t “love at first sight” I would feel a bit more invested in her trying to sort out her beliefs while in the midst of such strong lust, but it wasn’t developed to that level.
I liked the initial idea of sorting through cultural and religious views on divorce especially considering the woman involved is being abused, but I didn’t think the book exerted a strong enough stance that divorce in Islam is absolutely ok, that abuse is not ok, and anything otherwise is backwards culture. The book set itself up to make a strong statement, but then it abandoned it. I’m not sure why the author didn’t get up on a soap box and preach, I mean it would have given the book something really powerful to highlight and given Aisha some growth in understanding where culture has undermined the power of women’s rights in Islam.
The book dismisses understanding one’s faith, and falls into predictable troupes despite setting itself up to be “different,” when Aisha fears being shipped off to Pakistan when her parents find out about her and Darren. The writing feels forced at times, and a few times He when referencing God is not capitalized. I appreciate that some surahs, and duas, and Ramadan are included, but they don’t seem to shape Aisha, it seems like she is simply going through the motions.
The book ends on a “cliff hanger” of her either placing her scarf in the hamper or the garbage.
Language, talk of sex, fairly vivid make-out scene that stops short of sex when they pause to acquire a condom and then Aisha changes her mind. There is a lot of lying, normalizing relationships if both are Muslim, even if both are not, talk of domestic violence, slut-shaming, hickies, crude jokes.
TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:
There is no way I would encourage this book in an Islamic school setting.