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Q&A: Kidlit scholar Heba Elsherief on the problematic representation of Muslim girls in children’s literature

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In her work as a PhD student at University of Toronto and as a children’s literature teacher at Seneca College, Heba Elsherief has turned her attention toward the representations of Muslim characters in children’s literature. What she’s found is a “one-story” situation. Not only are there very few books with young Muslim characters, the ones that do exist mostly show Muslim women and girls needing to be saved. Elsherief recently wrote a thought-provoking article about this problematic dominant narrative for The Conversation – a website that features news and commentary written by academics – which was picked up by the National Post and other publications in the U.S. She spoke to Quill & Quire about her work.

How did you come to study representations of Muslim characters in children’s literature?

I used to teach high school English at an Islamic school in the GTA and in Grade 11 the girls and boys would read Frankenstein. It has this Muslim-Turkish character, Safie, who runs away from her Turkish-Muslim background and she gets saved by a white family. Historically, her character has been seen as empowered. But interestingly, she never actually speaks in the novel. One of the girls that I was teaching said, ‘Why are Muslim representations always so bad – here’s this weak girl running away from this oppressive guy.’ I had been teaching the book for a couple years and this question was mind-blowing for me. So now my PhD research actually takes Safie from Frankenstein and gives her a new story.

Moving beyond Frankenstein, you’ve found that the “one story” of Muslim girls needing to be saved and being oppressed continues to be the norm? You cite both 1,000 Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, and The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis, in your article.

Yes, these books tell a story according to how the West perceives what happens to women in Afghanistan, which isn’t the only story. It might be for some, for sure. But this has become the one story that’s privileged and the message has become so ingrained in us – it’s stereotypical. Until my Grade 11 student pointed it out, I had been reading Frankenstein for years and hadn’t seen it. This conditioning happens to Muslim girls in the West and others in the West and even non-Muslims, and these are the stories that we just come to accept. Unless we challenge those stories by telling other ones, than I’m afraid Islamophobia increases, and Muslim women are always perceived as less than they can be or less than they are.

When it comes to The Breadwinner, which is often found in North American classrooms and will soon to be an animated film, executive produced by Angelina Jolie, what would you say to teachers using the text?

My research on The Breadwinner is cursory, but I do know that if you’re a teacher who wants inclusivity than you get The Breadwinner [about an 11-year-old girl living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan]. Others have done research on how it reinforces the care ethic and the plight narrative of Muslim girls in children’s literature. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be on the syllabus, but if you’re going to critique these books, you have to ask yourself how the book is working on you as a teacher and how you can demonstrate to your students a form of critical reading, questioning and problematizing the text – especially when it’s a narrative that is so popular and so taken up in non-interdisciplinary ways. You don’t have black women, poor women, intersectional feminism endorsing a book like that.

Is there a time and place for narratives about Muslim women, girls, and children who are living in difficult situations in the Middle East and do, for lack of better wording, “need saving”?

Is there a place for these narratives? That stumps me. When people ask, ‘well, what’s the alternative?’ a lot of times I don’t know. I think we need more books. We need to have a proliferation of multi-layered texts, and then the plight narrative wouldn’t stand out as “the story.” There are things coming out of the publishing industry that are exciting for me: S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits, which has been called My So-Called Life for a Muslim Girl is one. But then there are others stories you just don’t hear. There was recently a group of girls from Afghanistan who after the travel ban couldn’t get a visa to come to the U.S. for a robotics competition. Trump intervened and the girls made it to the competition and won the silver medal. Here is a good counter-narrative – it’s got math, girls and STEM, Afghan girls going to school, learning, competing on a world stage – but you don’t see books with these kinds of stories.

How do you think Simon & Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint is addressing Muslim representations in children’s lit?

The works I’ve read so far are really great: Saints and Misfits and The Gauntlet for middle-grade readers, which features a hijabi girl as the hero in a fantasy novel. Another one that is coming soon [The Weight of Our Sky] is set during the race riots in Malaysia in 1969 and is about a Muslim girl who is battling mental illness. Now, that’s a different type of narrative.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.