DISCUSSION: Muslims In YA

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Hello everyone! So today is Monday June 6 2016. For many of you that means another day of work or another day of summer but, for Muslims around the world, it means the first day of Ramadan aka the month of fasting. Now of course you can fast any other day but this is a mandatory month of fasting for Muslims and as such is huge to us! Yes, I’m a Muslim. And with me being a Muslim, and it being the first month of Ramadan, I thought I’d reflect on Muslims in YA…..

The first time I saw a Muslim in a YA book was in fifth grade when I was at the library and saw Does My Head Look Big In This* by Randa Abdel-Fattah on the shelf. I remember asking my mom if I could read this but she said no after reading what it’s about (for reasons I still don’t know tbh). Anyway, it would only be many years later when I actually saw/read about the first Muslim in any book and that was the Ms. Marvel* comics and God, are those comics perfect! They showed a young, Pakistani-American-Muslim woman named Kamala Khan who deals with living in America as a Pakistani and Muslim and superhero and it was all so real. I mean I’m Egyptian and not a superhero so it’s slightly different but essentially the problems are the same and all too real. There are problems like being in high school and being around people who have bfs/gfs, like to drink, have sex and maybe do drugs and how to balance being around all that and still be modest and have fun and stay true to Islam. Believe me, it’s hard: I never went to parties in HS (unless they were birthday parties) bc the next day I’d hear about all the alcohol and drugs and sex….aka all the things not allowed in Islam. Well sex is allowed when your married but you get what I mean. Thankfully, my friends all know I’m a Muslim so they kinda tone it down and understand why I don’t go to these parties and they’re cool with it. Unfortunately, some people aren’t so understanding and used to tease me and make jokes about Muslims and terrorists and, as I remember, Ms. Marvel showed that too. To this day I still think the Ms. Marvel comics are the best representation of Muslims in any sort of genre. Granted I haven’t read the last couple issues so I don’t know if they drastically changed or something but so far they’ve been really good about Muslim representation.

[Related Post: Top Ten Books By/With Muslims]

During this last winter break I got my second taste of actually reading Muslims in YA fiction and that was through Scarlett Undercover* by Jennifer Latham. Then I read The Tyrant’s Daughter* by J.C. Carleson and in May I read (and DNFed) And I Darken* by Kiersten White. The common theme in all three of these books, other than that they involve Muslim MCs? They’re sooooo unrepresentative of Islam and show things like the Muslims having boyfriends, kissing boys before being married and being a gay Muslim, all of which is wrong/discouraged in Islam. The worst thing of all? If you’re not a Muslim, none of these are bad things at all and you’ll think this is what Islam is and that it’s all okay (hint: it’s not).

Anyways, other than those books, I’d never heard of any other Muslims in YA, misrepresented or not. Count that: 5! 5 books with Muslims! Against the hundreds of thousands out there about literally everything else! That’s a problem, a big problem actually. Even bigger though? The misrepresentation. Misrepresentation is huge – bigger than not having a lot of Muslims in YA – because then your misinforming people about Islam and for people who usually aren’t around Muslims, the only way to learn about Muslims is through the media like books. So if you’re misinforming people about Muslims, you’re influencing a ton of people the wrong way which can lead to bad decisions and bullying and deaths etc etc etc….

So then what do we do? How do we fix this? Because you can write a novel about Muslims and it can sound all fine and dandy to you when really it’s not *cough American Terrorist cough*. Here’s the one-word solution: research. Research Islam/Muslims by reading articles about us, reading translations of the Quran, going to mosques and talking to the people there, and actually asking us! I love love love genuine, curious questions about my religion and am happy to answer! And if I don’t know something or am unsure, I’ll try my hardest to refer you to someone or something that actually does!

So all in all, the point is, we need more Muslims in YA and it needs to be done correctly. It’s not right at all that the only books I can name from my entire life that include Muslims in them are only 5. It’s even worse that 3 or 4 of the 5 novels have misrepresentation in them. So please, write more Muslims into books and research Islam/Muslims so that no misinformation happens. And you can totally ask me any questions you may have; my DMs and comments section is always open! Thanks, have a great day/night and tata for now!

*This is an affiliate link I have with Amazon 🙂

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14 thoughts on “DISCUSSION: Muslims In YA

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  5. This is a really interesting discussion! I wholeheartedly agree that misrepresentation is dangerous, especially in the current political climate. I’ve yet to read a book with Muslim characters that I can relate to, but I never really considered this to a problem. I just accepted that and tried to relate more to the characters I read about. When I hear about books like American Terrorist, I’m beyond angered and frustrated that we have inflammatory books like that published, which only propagate stereotypes, as opposed to books with Muslims characters I can actually understand. This is exactly what I’m trying to do with my own book: I’m writing a character I’ve wanted to read about all these years.
    May I ask why you DNFed And I Darken?

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  7. This is a very interesting topic. I hadn’t realised Muslims were so unrepresented. I’m starting a web serial in August (I’m pre writing, and researching, right now) and one of the characters is Muslim – I’ve been worrying I’d get something wrong but even I know about the not drinking.

    If you’re available to answer questions, I’m sure I’ll find some I can’t research an answer to – would that be cool?

    For what it’s worth… my story is about 5 young women who have superpowers. But because they don’t have offensive superpowers, they get Rejected from superhero training. Then they decide to solve the murder of a famous superhero, which they suspect is being covered up.

    My Muslim character is called Zaheera. She is a total geek, obsesses over computer games, and likes to quote obscure movies. She’s also a pacifist. She’s a Shia Muslim. I’m thinking she might end up being a computer hacker, too. Her power might take her that way.

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  8. I have to agree with Hollie, in that some of the issues you mentioned as not being true to Islam are nevertheless practiced by some Muslims (at least outside of the borders of Islamic states). Certainly in a European and North American context, there are Muslims who drink, party, have pre-marital sex, and are gay. Where there might be a problem (as far as portraits of Muslims in fiction go) is if writers portray this as generally accepted behavior within the Muslim community (especially within Islamic countries). I do feel, however, that for the North American market it would be wrong not to address this reality and to suggest that all Muslims living in countries like Canada and the United States are strict adherents to their faith. While the majority may well be, there are nevertheless those who (as with many other faiths) are “blown away” practitioners – which is to say they may still regard themselves as Muslim, but they don’t follow the tenets of their faith “religiously.” I know this to be true, because I lived next door (in Ottawa) to a couple from Turkey who, while admittedly Muslim, did not actually practice their faith.

    I spent several years of my youth growing up in Pakistan and Iran, and even within those countries there were Muslims (at that time) who drank, went to parties, and, yes, were gay. Most (particularly, I daresay, with regard to homosexuality) were not overt about this. Drinking alcohol was almost never done out in the open – except perhaps in gatherings where Westerners predominated (and sometimes at hotels where, again, the clientele was often largely of Western origin). Certainly this was true in Karachi, but less so in say Hyderabad, which was a more religious city. There I can recall that when my father wanted a beer he had to order “special tea” at the hotel restaurant. The beer arrived in a teapot, with tea cups.
    In Isfahan liquor stores abounded, and given the small number of expatriates who lived in the city at the time I was there, I very much doubt that all that booze was being imbibed by foreigners. I can remember quite well an Iranian army general sitting and drinking beer with my father. A Muslim girl who lived across from us had a boyfriend, was in a band, wore make-up, did not wear a hijab, and often went out to parties. Miniskirts were a common sight in Tehran at the time.

    Of course, a lot has changed in both Pakistan and Iran since I lived there back in the late sixties and early seventies. I very much doubt you’d presently find Muslims engaged in the activities I described above; both Pakistan and Iran have become much stricter Islamic states in the intervening years.

    Having said all this, I agree that readers like you want to see themselves accurately represented in books. Unfortunately, writers are up against the fact that publishing is a business, and businesses have to make money. Until agents and publishers can be convinced there is a genuine market for such books, it’s likely they’ll continue to pass on them. As unfair as it is, a book focused around a truly Muslim character is likely to be regarded as too niche market for most publishers. Frankly, I don’t agree, since I have always found it interesting to immerse myself in other cultures (but then, that’s my upbringing, and my good fortune to have had parents who embraced such things and encouraged their children to do likewise). Unfortunately, I’m not sure – particularly in today’s climate – that there are enough open-minded people out there to persuade publishers to take the plunge.

    The truth is, diversity (in whatever context you may wish to regard it) is something lacking in YA – though it is changing, and things will almost certainly be markedly different in a few years. Like many things, however, it takes time for all this to filter down and transform the landscape. Personally, I think the best person to write a YA novel of the sort you would like to see is, in fact, someone like you. All the research in the world cannot give a non-Muslim writer a true sense of what it is to be Muslim in a pluralistic society like Canada or the United States where the majority are, nevertheless, of a different religion from you and engage in practices that are common but are definitely not a part of your faith.

    Oddly enough, I have had for some time plans to write a YA novel in which one of the main characters is Muslim – but whether this ever sees the light of day depends upon a lot of factors. As a traditionally published writer, I’m well aware of how picky agents are these days, and most are only interested in books they believe will be big sellers. They work on commission, after all, which means they only make money if the author makes money. I am, however, hopeful that at some point my project will get off the ground.

    Anyway, this is a great topic and I hope it engenders much discussion. The more non-Muslims are made aware of the thoughts and concerns of Muslims within their society, the better and more tolerant I hope we will all become. We need to stop seeing people who are not like us as “the other” and as a threat, and move consciously forward to embracing differences. Because it is those differences that make this world such a wonderful, fascinating, and thoroughly exhilarating place in which to live. The last thing we need are ideas like those of Donald Trump, which would push us apart rather than bring us together.

    (Sorry for the long post; I tend to get carried away about things that mean a great deal to me.)

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  9. The only Muslim I’ve read about is in Ms Marvel, as far as I know. I hadn’t even realised that until I read through this post and saw I hadn’t read any of the books you’d mentioned. In high school, we did study Islam very briefly and went to a mosque, but I went to a Christian school so it wasn’t discussed nearly enough, nor was anything else for that matter. I wish we’d gotten to learn more about other religions, than the week we did leading up to our visit to a mosque, synagogue and Buddhist temple. I think representation is incredibly important—not just races, religions, but all different human experiences too.

    Thank you for this post, Angel. I hope we see some more accurate representations cropping up in YA very soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a really interesting topic and I completely agree. Muslims are ultimately underrepresented in YA fiction and can often be (and are a LOT) portrayed inaccurately. However, this bit made me stop for a second:

    “They’re sooooo unrepresentative of Islam and show things like the Muslims having boyfriends, kissing boys before being married and being a gay Muslim, all of which is wrong in Islam.”

    While you mention that these things are wrong in Islam, I feel that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Muslims do kiss people before being married, and there are definitely Muslims who are also gay. There are Muslims who do not believe that homosexuality is against their religion and have even supported same sex marriage laws.

    Religion, to me, is a very subjective and diverse thing which, despite having rules and beliefs, these beliefs are still your own and do not often represent another person of the same religion. I think this blog post is very important and, as a Muslim yourself, have expressed why the under representation of Muslims in YA is a problem and needs to be talked about. But while some portrayals may be inaccurate, I think the ones you mentioned aren’t exactly inaccurate or offensive, but just different.

    Ahh I hope this wasn’t too long! Great post! 🙂

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  11. I fully agree. My first book had a Muslim main character (a girl). This was almost fifteen years ago. The MS suffered a lot in the hands of agents, so I got heart broken and decided to write adult stories instead, and I got pretty good at it. Kind of gave up on YA because of replies like “Would you be willing to change your main character’s religious orientation?”

    So now I’m a self-published writer but I write adult, which means to sell YA I’d have to re-brand *sigh* I don’t care, I WILL return to that story one day, because it’s my baby and it has been with me for the longest time.

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  12. So. I’m not a Muslim. So I don’t think I can say this objectively, but I agree. Overall, we need accurate representation. Personally, I’m atheist, so religious matters aren’t on my mind, but I can see why you’d be upset over this. A lack of representation says something about our culture, and it really shows how we need to change. We need characters who are true. And research is super important. (My friend in newspaper has really hammered this in to me.) We can’t show the upcoming generations that we don’t want equal representation or whatnots. We need equal representation and ACCURATE representation.
    So yeah…just my thoughts

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  13. I know how you feel about parties and the lifestyle, I’m Catholic living in Scotland and watching my religion struggle to continue and dealt with a large amount of teasing at school and abuse in the streets because I openly wear a crucifix. But I don’t think I’ve read a book that looked into a catholic and both being true to their religion and whatever the story entails. I raid a graphic novel called blankets that sort of dealt with it.

    My school was a catholic school but half the pupils were actually muslim and I think that was the best way for me to learn about other religions and coming from a very diverse and ethnic area i understand the ideals and way of life but I still don’t think I could accurately portray a character and don’t think I would do the character or religion justice. Have you ever read muslim authors as a portrayal and do you think that is a good way to address the issue?

    I know I wrote a lot but I find it a really interesting subject.

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