This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
The story is about displaced and immigrant Middle-East young Muslim girls in Canada. Sadia Ahmadi is fifteen years old. She and her family left Syria when her father got a teaching post at a University in Winnipeg, which is the capital city of Manitoba, a Canadian province. Winnipeg sits some seventy miles north of the North Dakota-Minnesota state line. It's cold up there at this time of year! it's 5° Fahrenheit, or minus fifteen Celsius as I write this! The average low in January is minus twenty one! Even in August it doesn't breach eighty (25°C), and it's down to the fifties (12°C) at night. Call me a wuss, but that's way too cold for me! You have to be tough to live in Canada!
By moving when they did, Sadia's family missed the Syrian civil war. Sadia has some mixed feelings about the move and her new homeland, but she gets a real education as to how lucky she is when Amira Nasser, a refugee, ends up at Sadia's school having left everything behind in Syria to escape the not-so-civil war. Now she's in a strange land with different customs and language and she's expected to integrate and learn. Sadia is assigned by her school (Laura Secord High School) to help her get up to speed. Laura Secord is (or was) a real person - a Canadian hero of the 1812 war.
But the story isn't about Amira; neither is it about Sadia's best friend Nazreen Hussani who originally hailed from Egypt. Instead, these two are rather employed to represent the trope angel and the devil sitting on Sadia's shoulders. Amira is very much a traditional Muslim girl. Nazreen is a rebel who removes her hijab and conservative clothing as soon as she gets to school, replacing them only before she leaves to head home. Sadia has issues with this and while she tries to maintain their friendship, she also feels increasing tension, dissent, and distance between herself and Nazreen. She feels pulled between these two extremes, yet tries to find her own path.
The thing which seems to erode the rough edges, and bring all these girls together is basketball. It is Sadia's passion. She has the chance to be on a co-ed team which enters a small tournament. Everything seems to be going great until the finals, when one of the teams objects to Sadia wearing what is a suitable outfit for a strict Muslim girl to play a sport in public, but which the opposing team finds objectionable, and which we're told is contrary to the official rules of the game.
On a point of order, it really isn't. The problem is that there is a slow turn-around time for professional publishing houses - a lag between the author finishing a novel and it being published. I don't know when the author wrote this or how long it was between her signing-off on the finished copy and the publishing date (which is this month) but as it happens, the rules in basketball got changed early last year in Canada to allow religious headwear (with certain restrictions), so I chose to assume that events in this novel took place before that date! Full disclosure here: the publisher, Dundurn, is the largest Canadian-owned publisher, and I am on their auto approved list on Net Galley, for which I am grateful since I tend to like what they publish.
Just as importantly, a young girl named Amina Mohamed of the Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg came up with a design for headwear that meets both Muslim restrictions and basketball regulations. In the novel, it's Nazreen who comes up with this idea. There's no acknowledgement to Amina, so I'm wondering if this book was locked-down before that item got into the news. Perhaps in future editions, the author can acknowledge Amina Mohamed's accomplishment.
The story itself, though, was well-told and moving. It did bring to the fore the issues Muslims have when trying to live in Western society and stay true to their faith: the restrictions, the difficulties, the prejudices and the outright racism in some cases. I'm not religious at all, so some of these issues struck me as trivial, but that's certainly not how they feel to people who are invested in faith, so I let that go, but what did bother me is that there are deeper issues which the author did not explore. The most outrageous of these is the appalling gender bias that seems to go hand-in-hand with far too many organized religions (and not a few disorganized ones as well, for that matter).
If the purpose of covering a woman's body is to prevent inciting passions, then it seems to me to be doomed from the off, because when a woman is completely covered, doesn't that in a way inflame an embarrassing number of the male half of the population with curiosity and desire to know what's under there? Of course you could argue that no matter how a woman dresses, but this is actually the other half of this problem: while all the pressure is placed upon women to tone down their dress (whether it's Muslim dress or even western dress as it happens), none is placed upon men to tone down their behavior and it was this which the Quran addressed first!
The whole idea of covering a woman up isn't only an insult to the woman, it's also an insult to the men in its implicit assertion that they're so lacking in self-control that women need to be hidden under blankets lest their very appearance cause the men to become serial rapists. That whole idea is absurdist and wrong-headed to me and says far more about the men who promote these ideas than ever it does about the women who have suffered and continue to suffer under this oppressive and cruel patriarchal hegemony.
The Quran is quite explicit in terms of modesty, but this requirement did not so much address clothing as partition between the genders, and it does not apply solely to women! It applies to men, too, yet in this story, we find no issues raised over the boys, only over the girls. I thought this ought to have been delved into a little. What;s good for the goose is worth taking a gander!
Why must girls wear a head covering (which technically is a khimar, 'hijab' having a more general meaning) and not the boys? I think there is some mileage to be had there, especially when telling a story of this nature. On a related, but slightly different topic, one of the things Nazreen did in her little rebellion against conformity was to wear (when she did wear them!) very colorful Khumur (the plural of khimar).
Personally, I have no problem with what women wear (or don't wear!), it's their choice, but I can't help wonder how making a Khimar more attractive meets the stated purpose of the garment in the first place, which as I understand it, is to promote a modest appearance. Isn't it less modest to make yourself stand out? Indeed, in western society, wearing a Khimar in the first place is rare enough that it makes a woman stand out more than if she went bare-headed, so this seems to me to be in conflict with the whole purpose of a head covering if it's to detract from attention! That's all I'm going to say on that topic, although I certainly reserve the right to go into it in some future novel of mine!
On a minor technical issue, and prefacing this by saying that I'm not a basketball fan and I certainly don't pretend to be an expert on rules: as far as I know in regular play, once a basket is sunk, the ball goes to the other team! There's no rebound to be had and you certainly can't try to score again. So when we read that Jillian scored a trhee-pointer and then "Allan grabbed the rebound to shoot again" I had to ask: what rebound? There's no rebound from a sunk basket! And even if there were, you can't just grab the ball and shoot again! The possession devolves to the defending team. I'm thinking that the author was conflating regular play here with taking a free throw during which - if the ball rebounds - a player can grab it and take a shot. But like I said, it's a minor issue and we all manage to let a few of those get by if we're honest!
So in conclusion, the novel felt maybe a little young for high school, but then the students were only on the cusp of the high school experience, so perhaps I'm being too judgmental there. Or maybe just mental! I felt there were some issues with this as I've mentioned, more in the omission than the commission, but overall, the novel was a worthy read and I recommend it, especially for the intended age range.