Written by Sanober Umar.
Ishara Deen’s novel, “God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems,” skilfully demonstrates the tense and tender dynamics of being a member of the Muslim community as a young girl in contemporary times in a laugh-out-loud, coming-of-age mystery that I wish I had as a teen. Conversations on religion and performances of religiosity abound the book as it cleverly introspects on issues of organized religion, community belonging and the essence of faith.
Deen balances her narrative of “Muslim girl problems” through her main character, Asiya Haq’s formerly mundane life (prior to discovering a dead body in the woods with a boy she has a crush on) effortlessly, in a way that does not reify existing stereotypes of Muslim women. She manages to discuss the everyday oppression of patriarchy within diaspora Muslim communities and the Islamophobia that Muslim women face as racialized and gendered minorities with political adeptness and sharp humour.
Things are not simple in Asiya’s universe. Take for example, Asiya Haq’s annoyance with people in the mosque expecting and shaming her to perform her faith by wearing the hijab, but also her recognition of the fact that her mother and elder sister face more racism because of their adorning of the garment.
She manages to discuss the everyday oppression of patriarchy within diaspora Muslim communities and the Islamophobia that Muslim women face as racialized and gendered minorities with political adeptness and sharp humour.
The rebellious teenager is not one who defies their parents openly, but one who has the temperance to pick their battles (and guerrilla battles!) wisely – “choice” revolves around when to exercise their own will, even if slyly, and when to submit to the decisions of their parents, even when perceived as unfair. But controlling, well-meaning, fearful parents are not the only figures to navigate around for Muslim teenagers, because the very real danger of institutional racism is all too present in their lives. Nowhere does this stressful reality surface more than Asiya’s interactions with the police.
“I was too young to remember, but in the years after 9/11, Muslims were interrogated like they had warts and extra big broom closets during the witch hunt for terrorists.”
Asiya’s encounters with “Constable Keith’s gaze” is the stuff that reverberates with Muslims, across age. Many of us as immigrants know that even petty crimes by members of our community will be particularly scrutinized. Suspicions can unwind into something implying a lot more danger and become bigger than they ought to be – this of course is especially true for Black minorities, and doubly so for Black Muslims. Muslim children born post-9/11, or who are teenagers today, have not known a world other than one where their bodies, and that of the social body of their religious community, has been marked as exceptionally dangerous and unwanted. The concerns and fears of Asiya’s community at the mosque and her parents, with their flaws, cannot be understood or extrapolated from this reality.
Muslim children born post-9/11, or who are teenagers today, have not known a world other than one where their bodies, and that of the social body of their religious community, has been marked as exceptionally dangerous and unwanted.
Asiya’s nemesis is a racist, misogynistic and culturally insensitive cop, and “having a cop for an enemy did not seem like a good thing” for anyone, but especially a Muslim woman who faces the risk of greater control from both the State and her family in the form of more restrictions on her mobility. The book interweaves the connections between these realities and their implications in subtle ways. Keith is full of disdainful assumptions about Asiya’s Muslim girlhood, and takes delight in shaming her in a manner not dissimilar from other actors in her life, but with more power at his end; and one that is not just directed to her as an individual but a community already dubbed as the culprit in its entirety.
Despite being a light-hearted witty novel, the dread for Asiya’s well-being when odds of institutional discrimination against her are heavily placed is painfully relatable. Including the fact that her family’s urge to control her can be misconstrued to make them out to be whom they are not, a reality that White parents similar to that of Asiya’s do not have to confront. Asiya observes her despair impeccably, “Between Keith’s certainty I was a criminal groupie, Ma’s conviction I had one up on virginal saints, and my need to cover for Michael, I felt trapped to do or say anything.”
Countering that heaviness is an agency where Allah’s presence is with Asiya throughout her journey and the importance of Islamic discourse – be it to challenge patriarchy within the community, dissociating one’s relationship with Allah from the Imam/organized and coercive ideas of religious enforcement, and even holding the community accountable to justice – remain pertinent points of focus in the book. Asiya’s Abbu, the more fair and open-minded of her parents’, also wistfully observes, “When no one takes responsibility, the whole community becomes responsible before Allah.”
“God Smites and Muslim Girl Problems” is a celebration of young Muslim girls and their resilience as they navigate difficult worlds with heroism and kindness. It is a celebration, not of the individual making choices independent of context, but the individual recognizing the community and environment that shapes her. It is the story of a Muslim girl with the wisdom to see religion, as it is presented to her, and know the difference between its importance and obstruction in her life, as she finds the courage to overcome the latter with compassion and fierceness. For Muslim girls and women alike, I would highly recommend this book.
Sanober Umar is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Queen’s University. Her areas of interest include Muslim women’s representational politics and minority identity positioning in liberal democracies.