CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 29. . . .March 30, 2012
The Hijab Boutique.
Michelle Khan. Illustrated by Eman Salem.
Markfield, Leicestershire, UK: (Distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada), 2011.
52 pp., pbk., $8.95.
Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.
Review by Jocelyn Reekie.
"Hey, Ashanti!" Tammi says, poking my BFF on her shoulder with her sharp, fiery-red nails.
Ashanti turns around to face her. "Yeah?"
Tammi crosses her arms. "I want you to bring in a script from the Blinding Light show," she orders, arching her overly-plucked eyebrow in a challenge.
I can tell Ashanti is trying to hide a cringe. More often than not, she doesn't like the awkward situations she gets into because of her mom's very public job.
Stacy nods her pin-straight, midnight-black mane. "Yeah, my grandma would love to know what's going to happen next on her favourite soap opera. She taught herself English just so she could keep up with the show."
Ashanti purses her shapely, thick lips. "I know for a fact that the writers on the 'Blinding Light' keep the show's storyline top secret," she says with authority.
Nobody argues with this. It would be silly to. Everyone knows that Ashanti has a lot of insider info about the world of television.
"Getting my hands on a script definitely won't happen," Ashanti continues. "But I can do the next best thing, and bring in autographed pictures of all the actors."
Now I turn to see the reactions of the 'Cool as Ice' girls. My eyes dart from Juliet to Tammi, to Stacy's face. Just as I predicted, they are melting with excitement. I'm happy for my best friend's triumph, but secretly I wish my classmates would react the same way to something I could bring in about my hijab-wearing mother.
When 10-year-old Farah Khan was eight, she and her best friend, Ashanti, saw an ad in a local newspaper that touted a prestigious, private girls' school noted state-wide for its art programmes. The school had students from kindergarten to grade five. Farah and Ashanti had been taking Saturday morning art classes since they were toddlers and they wanted their artistic talents to bloom, so they decided to apply to Miss Peabody's Academy. On the basis of their art portfolios, completing successful interviews, and their single mothers' ability to pay the tuition fees, both girls were accepted to the school. Now they are in grade five, and their teacher has just assigned them a project to celebrate International Women's Day. Over the course of the next three classes, each girl in the class must present something that symbolizes her mother to the rest of the class. As soon as the assignment is announced, Farah knows she's doomed to fail.
Her hijab-wearing mother is not like the other girls' mothers. She doesn't have amazing things. In fact, she's 'b-o-r-i-n-g,' and Farah has no idea what she can present. At home, the problem worsens as one week becomes the next, and the time Farah is called on to make her presentation finally arrives. Forced to admit she has nothing to show, she is given one more week to come up with something, or she'll be punished with a detention. 'I swallow a gulp the size of a football. I've never been in any teacher's bad books before.'
In the opening chapters of The Hijab Boutique, Michelle Khan sets up an internal conflict in the protagonist concerning her mother and the project her teacher has assigned . What will keep young readers interested is the relationship between Farah and the three most popular girls in her class, whom she calls the 'Cool as Ice girls,' and a problem introduced later: what is going to happen when Farah and her mother are forced to move?
Farah thinks of her own mother as b-o-r-i-n-g, especially when compared to her classmates' mothers who all seem to Farah to have exotic careers and interests. Not that Farah doesn't love her mother. She does – which makes the problem more painful. And it's very plain when readers meet Ms. Khan that Farah's mother loves her daughter more than anything.
This storyline could have been developed fully and involved the reader in a series of problems Farah must solve, but the author chose instead to all but abandon it as Farah's three troublesome classmates disappear, and we become immersed in an essay sort of lecture, in the form of a dialogue between Farah and her mother, where Ms. Khan tells Farah about Islam and the hijab, which, Farah's mother says, is not just the head covering Muslim women wear; it includes the loose dresses, long sleeves and flat, noiseless shoes meant to cover all but the wearers' hands and face and prevent them from becoming 'objects' in the sight of men and strangers, and because Islam values inner beauty over outer appearances, which can be a distraction.
However, this latter statement is contradicted when Farah's mother also tells her there are hijab fashion magazines and fashion shows for all female audiences, and she solves her daughter's problem concerning her school project by introducing her to the Hijab Boutique.
Through the story, the reader sees a warm and loving relationship between Farah and her widowed mother, and glimpses the same between Farah and her best friend. These relationships are credible as far as they go. The dialogue between and among the three is also realistic and put to good use as Farah learns exactly what the circumstances are in her home and to view her mother in a different light.
The reason behind Farah's mother becoming involved in the boutique is another source of potential conflict for Farah. Her father died more than two years ago, and her mother tells her that finances have become very tight.
Enter Farah's father, a stereotypical character who, Farah tells us, was a highly successful business man—Mr. Textile Mogul—who viewed his home as his castle, a supportive husband, a loving father, and a generous philanthropist. But for some reason, though Farah tells us he worked hard to make the homeless shelters in our area beautiful, safe havens, his own home became run down. The wrought iron gates are crying out for paint, the paint on the walls of the bathroom and the kitchen is peeling, and the yard is a jungle of weeds. Farah's mother asks her why she thinks this happened, and Farah thinks that her mother's hectic schedule kept her from taking care of it. But her mother replies it has happened because stock market down-turns and limited savings have kept her from doing anything about it. And because of the lack of money, they will have to sell the home and move.
All of this brings questions to mind, such as: what does Farah's mother's hectic schedule include as we're only told she has one child who's in school all day and she is not employed outside the home, and how does paint peel from the walls of rooms in two years in the house of a man who viewed his home as his castle and was concerned about keeping things beautiful? However, young readers will not likely focus on details such as these.
Young readers will be interested in the details and feel the excitement Farah feels when her mother takes her to the place that will become the Hijab Boutique. With a dawning sense of their own bodies and appearance, colour, fashion, and bling are things most 10-year-old girls naturally gravitate to.
When Farah does get to her presentation, there are some interesting questions posed by her classmates. Key among these is the question of whether or not hijabis (Muslim women who wear the hijab clothing) are forced to do so. Farah answers "Mostly not" and goes on to describe how some children are dressed in the clothing by their parents when they're very little "so they can get used to it;" while others start later, at a time they choose themselves. And though the author would have us believe Farah throws away her cue cards and answers from her heart, her replies to the above question and to others her classmates ask are textbook answers from the Qur'an and information Farah has been given by her mother that applies to women in democratic countries such as the United States. The reader never sees Farah do any research of her own.
Farah's teacher brings the debate to a rapid end when one classmate spits out a rude remark about hijabis having zero fashion sense. In the end, just as Farah has become enthralled with the array of fashions available in hijabs shown to her by her mother, so do her classmates get caught up in them when Farah brings out the collection she has brought to school and asks for models.
The biggest problem for this reader is that, while tension is introduced in a number of ways, it quickly flattens out as problems, such as Farah's relationship with the Cool as Ice classmates and her fear about hers and her mother's impending move, are easily solved, and important questions, such as those concerning places where women are indeed forced to wear the hijab clothing, are completely avoided. Together, the facile solutions and avoidance of real issues renders the climax anti-climactic and turns the story into a lecture on Islam and a fashion show.
The six black and white pencil illustrations are somewhat lacking in correct perspective from a strictly art point of view, but they will give young readers a sense of Farah's classmates, her home, and hijab fashions. Seeing them, discerning young readers may ask the question: if the Qur'an states Muslim women should wear clothing that covers everything except their hands and face, why do some hijabs completely cover up the face?
Recommended with reservations.
Jocelyn Reekie is an author, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
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