“Save the Muslim Girl!”

Does popular young adult fiction about Muslim girls build understanding or reinforce stereotypes?

By Elizabeth Marshall, Özlem Sensoy

Illustrator: Katherine Streeter

"Save the Muslim Girl!"
Illustration: Katherine Streeter

Young adult titles that focus on the lives of Muslim girls in the Middle East, written predominantly by white women, have appeared in increasing numbers since Sept. 11, 2001. A short list includes Deborah Ellis’s trilogy The BreadwinnerParvana’s Journey, and Mud City; Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Under the Persimmon Tree; and, more recently, Kim Antieau’s Broken Moon. These titles received high praise and starred reviews from publications like Horn Book and Publishers Weekly. Each features a young heroine trapped in a violent Middle East from which she must escape or save herself, her family, and other innocents in the region. Authors portray Muslim girls overwhelmingly as characters haunted by a sad past, on the cusp of a (usually arranged) marriage, or impoverished and wishing for the freedoms that are often assigned to the West, such as education, safety, and prosperity.

Young adult literature about the Middle East cannot be separated from the post-9/11 context in which these books are marketed and increasingly published. Deborah Ellis’ The Breadwinner, for instance, was originally published in 2000, but Groundwood publishers rushed to re-release a paperback reprint of it in the United States after 9/11 (Roback & Britton, 2001). Since that time it has been translated into 17 languages and has become an international bestseller (Atkinson, 2003); in 2004 it was selling an estimated 15,000 copies a month in the United States (Baker & Atkinson, 2004). “Save the Muslim girl” stories emerge alongside a preoccupation with Islam in mainstream news media and a surge in U.S. and Canadian military, political, and economic activities in the Middle East and West Asia.The texts are framed and packaged to sell in a marketplace at a particular moment when military interventions are centered on Afghanistan and other predominantly Muslim countries.

As many teachers have found, these stories offer an enticing way for students to engage with current events, language arts, and social studies curricula. However, given that these books are written for and marketed primarily to a Western audience, what ideas do they teach young adult readers about Muslim girls, Islam, and the Middle East? In what follows, we detail three lessons that dominate the “save the Muslim girl” stories.

Our interest here is not to defend any particular doctrine (fundamentalist Christian or Islamic). Rather, in this article we identify how these books reproduce–and offer opportunities to challenge—longstanding ideas commonly associated with Islam: backwardness, oppression, and cultural decay. We believe that these novels can best be used to teach about the common Western stereotypes that are universalized in these books rather than to teach about Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Islamic cultures.

Learning a Stereotype Lesson #1: Muslim Girls Are Veiled, Nameless, and Silent

Young adult books about the Muslim girl usually feature a veiled adolescent on the cover. Her face is cropped and concealed, usually by her own hands or her veil. Much of her face is covered, including, most significantly, her mouth. Images serve as a shorthand vocabulary. Consider how iconic images—a white or black cowboy hat, a scientist wearing a white lab coat, a princess—set up a stock plot. The repeated images of veiled girls reinforce familiar, mainstream ideas about the confined existence of Muslim women and girls. This is the Muslim girl story we expect to read.

These kinds of images have a long history in the West. Steve McCurry’s famous 1985 photo of 13-year-old Sharbat Gula on the cover of National Geographic provides the most well-known example. When we show the photo of the famous green-eyed Afghani girl in our education courses and ask students to write what they know about her, every student recognizes her image, yet few if any know her name, where she comes from, or that her photograph was “captured” in a refugee camp by a white U.S. journalist. Interestingly, the 2004 Oxford edition of Deborah Ellis’s Mud City reproduces a photo of Sharbat Gula on its front cover, taken from the same series of photographs McCurry captured in the mid-1980s (see Figure 1). The cover of Antieau’s Broken Moon has a virtually identical image: a close shot of a young girl with a veil covering her mouth, and her hands cupping her lower face (see Figure 2). What ideas about Muslim or Middle Eastern girls—specifically Afghani girls—are we as audience invited to imagine?

Just about every book in this genre features such an image on its cover. These are familiar metaphors for how the Muslim girl’s life will be presented within the novel. The way the girls’ mouths are covered reinforces existing ideas about their silence and suggests that we in the West (conceptualized as “free” and “liberated”) need to help unveil and “give” them voice. The images also invite ideas about girlhood innocence and vulnerability, and invite Western readers to protect, save, and speak for these oppressed girls.

But, is it not true that Muslim girls are oppressed and voiceless? We would argue that all women experience gender discrimination in different ways and with different consequences. The experiences of a U.S. woman (for example) will vary greatly if she is heterosexual or a lesbian, living in an urban center or a rural area.

Imagine this rural lesbian is black, or black and Muslim, or black, Muslim, and a non-native English speaker. In this way, her experiences are determined not simply by her gender, but also by her racial, ethnic, and sexual identity. What strikes us about the books that we review here is that they are written by white Western women who author, organize, and interpret stories about Middle Eastern girlhoods for Western consumption. This raises questions about the politics of storytelling. For instance, how do (white) Western women decide for “global” women what their issues and oppressions are? Who tells whose story and in what ways?

Richard Dyer reminds us that while we may believe that stereotypes are derived from a limited truth about particular people, we actually get our ideas about people from stereotypic images. So it isn’t the kernel of truth that results in stereotypes. Stereotypes are created and reinforced by the repeated appearance of particular images and the exclusion of others. Thus, the repeated circulation of the image of the veiled, sad Muslim girl reinforces the stereotype that allMuslim girls are oppressed.

Stereotypes are particularly powerful in the case of groups with which one has little or no personal relationship. Thus, for young people who get most of their ideas about “others” from textbooks or from media, we need to ask what ideas are learned when they “see” a very limited image of Muslim girls.

Learning a Stereotype Lesson #2: Veiled = Oppressed

Gendered violence in Middle Eastern countries, or the threat of it, organizes many of the books’ plots. With few exceptions, the “good” civilized men in the girl’s family are taken from her. In Under the Persimmon Tree, a brother and father are forced to join the Taliban as fighters, while in The Breadwinner, the Taliban places the father in jail because he was educated in England. Parvana’s Journey opens with the father’s funeral, and a deceased dad also figures in Broken Moon. This absence leaves the heroine vulnerable to the roving, indiscriminate, uncivilized “bad” men who will beat her for going out without a male escort (The Breadwinner and Broken Moon), confine her to the house (The Breadwinner), or beat her to preserve the honor of the community (Broken Moon).

In this context of an absent/immobilized parent, the girl is placed at the center of the plot, further emphasizing the danger and vulnerability of her existence. Parvana in The Breadwinner and Parvana’s Journey, Nadira in Broken Moon, and Najmah in Under the Persimmon Tree each cut their hair and disguise themselves as boys. This cross-dressing draws heavily on Western ideas that girls should be unfettered by the requirement to cover themselves, and authors present this type of transformation as the only humane alternative to wearing a burqa and the only way to travel safely outside the domestic sphere.

The veil or burqa, which has exclusively functioned as the short-hand marker of women’s oppression, is a much more complicated thing. To give you a sense of the range of meaning of the veil, consider for instance that in Turkey—a predominantly Muslim country—the veil (or “religious dress”) is outlawed in public spaces as a means to underline the government’s commitments to Kemalism, a “modern,” secularist stance. In response and as a sign of resistance, some women, especially young university students and those in urban areas, consider the veil to be a marker of protest against government regulation of their bodies and the artificial division of “modern” versus “faithful.” Similar acts of resistance are taken up by feminists in Egypt who wear the veil as a conscious act of resistance against Western imperialism. As another example, before 9/11, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) documented the Taliban’s crimes against girls and women by hiding video cameras under their burqas and transformed the burqa from simply a marker of oppression to a tool of resistance.

It is problematic to wholly and simplistically equate women’s oppression with the burqa, just as it would be problematic to claim that once Western women stop using make-up to cover their faces, it will mean an end to domestic violence in the United States and Canada. While veiling has different meanings in different contexts, it exclusively carries a negative connotation in the “save the Muslim girl” texts. For example, in The Breadwinner, the reader is educated about the burqa through the main character, Parvana:

“How do women in burqas manage to walk along the streets?” Paravana asked her father. “How do they see where they are going?” “They fall down a lot,” her father replied.

Nusrat, the American aid worker in Staples’s Under the Persimmon Tree, describes the burqa similarly: “In the cool autumn air, Nusrat forgets how suffocating the folds of the burqa’s synthetic fabric can be in hot weather, and how peering through the crocheted latticework eye piece can feel like looking through the bars of a prison.”

In contrast to these confined women, the heroines of these novels, like “free” girls in the West, wear pants and experience freedom of movement. The freedoms associated with Western women are further emphasized in these texts by the addition of non-Muslim characters. The French nurse in Parvana’s Journey (who works in Pakistan for a relief agency) and the American Nusrat in Under the Persimmon Tree (who establishes and runs a school for refugees) each choose to come to the Middle East to help. A white woman veterinarian who “wore the clothes of a Westerner” tends to the camels in Broken Moon. These “choices” that enable non-Muslim women to move and to work are placed in contrast to the experiences of the girls/women in the story who are at the mercy of violent events and settings in which their mobility (not to mention their way of dress) is strictly regulated and supervised.

There is a compelling character in The Breadwinner who offers the potential to represent Afghani women’s liberation in more complex ways. This is Mrs. Weera, who leads a women’s resistance group. She also convinces Parvana’s mother to join her in running a covert school for girls. It is regrettable that Mrs. Weera does not occupy a more central place in the story since, unlike any other adult woman in the “save the Muslim girl” literature, she offers a transformative representation of activism among Muslim women in Afghanistan.

Again, we want to reiterate that we are not arguing that women and girls in the Middle East or predominantly Islamic societies do not experience domestic violence. In fact, we believe that domestic violence is a global epidemic that most countries, including predominantly Christian countries such as Canada and the United States, have neglected to face head on. Rather, we are arguing that the victim narrative that is so often a part of these young adult novels about Middle Eastern women reinforces the idea that the region is inherently violent and that women must be protected by outside forces. These young adult novels serve as de-facto legitimization for the U.S.-led incursions in the region as a project of women’s emancipation. As Laura Bush argued in her radio address on Nov. 17, 2001: “The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.” In this way, the complexities of Afghanistan’s history, as well as U.S. interest in the region and ties to violence, escape attention.

That girls in the Middle East are consistently at risk of gendered violence implicitly suggests that girls in the “civilized” West are immune to such threats. The education students with whom we work are very familiar and comfortable with the stereotype that the lives of Muslim women are inherently scary, that they cannot work or vote or walk around without the threat of violence. Of course there are Muslim women who live in oppressive or patriarchal regimes (in the Middle East and elsewhere). What we contend is that young adult novels written by white women and marketed and consumed in the West consistently reinforce the idea that Muslim women are inherently oppressed, that they are oppressed in ways that Western women are not, and that this oppression is a function of Islam. By positioning “Eastern” women as the women who are truly oppressed, those in the West pass up a rich opportunity to engage in complex questions about oppression, patriarchy, war, families, displacement, and the role of values (imperialist or faith-based) in these relations.

While some might argue that an author’s literary imagination is her own, we suggest that these representations of Muslim girls do not—and cannot—exist independent of a social context. That these “save the Muslim girl” stories continue to be marketed by major publishers, reviewed favorably by literary and educational gatekeepers, and/or achieve bestseller status like The Breadwinner suggests an intimate connection to the current ideological climate within which these stories are told, marketed, and consumed.

Learning a Stereotype Lesson #3: Muslim Girls and Women Want To Be Saved by the West

For many in the West, the plight of Afghanistan is framed exclusively within a post 9/11, U.S.-led “war on terror.” While radical women’s organizations like RAWA have condemned brutality against women in Afghanistan for decades, their voices were absent, and are now muted, in a landscape of storytelling that is dominated by white Western women representing them. In an open letter to Ms. magazine, for instance, a U.S.-based supporter of RAWA notes that U.S.-centric women’s organizations such as the Feminist Majority fail to give “credit to the independent Afghan women who stayed in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 23-year (and counting) crisis in Afghanistan and provided relief, education, resistance and hope to the women and men of their country.” Novels like Broken Moon play on popular scripts in which the West saves the people of the “East.” These stories cannot be seen as simply works of fiction. They ultimately influence real world experiences of girls in the Middle East and (most relevant to us) of Muslim and non-Muslim girls in our schools in the West.

Deborah Ellis and Suzanne Fisher Staples gain legitimacy as authors because they have visited, lived, and/or spoken to real girls and women in the Middle East. The Breadwinner trilogy and Under the Persimmon Tree each include a map and an author’s note that touches on the “tumultuous” history of Afghanistan and a glossary. The history offered in the end matter and in the texts themselves glosses over the history of colonization in the region. The authors dilute what is an extremely complex history that has led up to the current violence in the Middle East, particularly the role of U.S. foreign policy and military interventions that contributed to the rise of the Taliban.

The authors fail to capture the complexities of U.S. involvement and intervention in favor of stereotypical lessons about educating and saving Muslim girls. As Sonali Kolhatkar, vice president of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and Mariam Rawi, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), argue: “Feminists and other humanitarians should learn from history. This isn’t the first time the welfare of women has been trotted out as a pretext for imperialist military aggression.” (2009) On one level these texts are part of a larger public pedagogy in which the United States and its allies are framed as fighting a good fight in Afghanistan and other regions of the Middle East. Readers are encouraged to continue to empathize with the lead character and the ideas that are associated with her: saving wounded children rather than critiquing U.S. policy, “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” rather than organizing together, fighting against all odds—ideas firmly rooted in mainstream U.S. ideals of exceptionalism and Western values of individuality.

Teaching a More Complicated Truth

We support teachers using books like The Breadwinner with the pedagogical goals of critical examination. We are not advocating for the one “right” Muslim girl story, nor do we suggest that teachers avoid using these books in classrooms (for we recognize that in many cases, decisions about what books teachers have access to are made by economic constraints at the school and district levels). We would, however, like to offer suggestions for the kinds of questions teachers could ask in order to use these resources in ways that are critically minded:

  • How are Muslim girls visually depicted on the cover? You might ask students to generate a list of adjectives that describe the girl. The curriculum Scarves of Many Colors is a terrific resource for exploring the relationship between graphics and students’ ideas about people. Consider questions of accuracy, context, and motivation. For example: How accurate are the details in the image? When and how will this image be “made sense of”? Who produced this image and why?
  • Which parts of the novel are you absolutely certain are true? How do you know? Where did you learn this information? Students can try to pinpoint the resources they rely upon to get their “facts.”
  • Who is the author of this story? How do they legitimize themselves as an expert? What might be their motivations? Who are they speaking to and for?
  • How is the book marketed and what does it intend to teach Western readers? Students might examine the description on the back of the book, the author’s note, the map, the glossary, and book reviews to make observations about what kinds of readers are being targeted.
  • How does Afghanistan (or Pakistan) fit into the region? In the author’s note, Deborah Ellis points out that Afghanistan has been at war for decades. Often we study one country at a time. A more critical approach would investigate the relationships among countries. Students could explore the historical and current relationships (economic, political, cultural) between Afghanistan and other nation-states such as the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran, and China.
  • Whose story is missing? Students can create visual representations of the social locations (e.g., the race, class, gender, education) of each of the characters. Given these details, whose story is this? Whose stories are not here, and where might we go to learn about their stories?

While these examples of young adult fictions do not offer much in the way of transformative education about the Middle East, they do offer the potential to educate us about our own assumptions and our pedagogical purposes when we teach the “oppressed Muslim girl” stories. It is in this capacity that we hope educators will take up these novels.n


Antieau, Kim. Broken Moon. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007.

Bigelow, Bill, Sandra Childs, Norm Diamond, Diana Dickerson, and Jan Haaken. Scarves of Many Colors: Muslim Women and the Veil. Washington, D.C.: Teaching for Change, 2000.

Dyer, Richard. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Ellis, Deborah. The Breadwinner. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2000.

Ellis, Deborah. Parvana’s Journey. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2002.

Ellis, Deborah. Mud City. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2003.

Kolhatkar, Sonali & Rawi, Mariam. “Why Is a Leading Feminist Organization Lending Its Name to Support Escalation in Afghanistan?” July 8, 2009: www.alternet.org/world/141165.

Miller, Elizabeth. “An Open Letter to the Editors of Ms. Magazine.” Off Our Backs. September/March 2002: 59-61.

Sensoy, Özlem. “Ickity Ackity Open Sesame: Learning About the Middle East in Images.” Rethinking Curricular Knowledge on Global Societies. Ed. Binaya Subedi. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, 2009: 39-55.

Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Under the Persimmon Tree. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Özlem Sensoy teaches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She recently published Muslim Voices in School: Narratives of Identity and Pluralism.
Elizabeth Marshall, a former elementary school teacher, teaches courses on children’s and young adult literature at Simon Fraser University.