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  • Freak Show:Religiously Marginalized Female Bodies as Spectacle in Second-Generation Literature

This article takes as its focus representations of covered Muslim girls' bodies as deviant spectacles in Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big In This? and S.K. Ali's Saints and Misfits. These novels expose American society's treatment of the hijab as a site of discipline, wherein Muslim girls' identity markers are made visible in an attempt to freak Islamic traditions and thereby normalize Western, white femininity. I also address the ways in which this ties into longer traditions found in both nineteenth-century Western orientalist discourse and freak show culture, wherein non-Western women's bodies are put on display as ideological tools to perpetuate normative femininity and justify colonialism.

In Randa Abdel-Fattah's young adult novel Does My Head Look Big in This? (2005), Australian teenager Amal decides over winter break that she will wear the hijab (head covering) the following semester and confronts her principal, Ms. Walsh, on the first morning that school is back in session. Amal decides to wear the hijab "to prove to myself that I'm strong enough to wear a badge of my faith" despite her anxiety over her decision (7). As she notes, "it's hard enough being an Arab Muslim at a new school with your hair tumbling down your shoulders. Shawling up is just plain psychotic" (6). After recovering from her cough and "awkward ahem" upon first seeing Amal in the hijab (37), Ms. Walsh says, "Well, Amal. I'm not sure what to do here. … This is a reputable educational establishment. We have more than one hundred years of proud history. A history of tradition, Amal. Of conformity" (39). Ms. Walsh's association of the hijab with "nonconformity" encapsulates the larger narrative of the immigrant experience in Western culture: ethnically and religiously different bodies are marked as Other and so treated as anomalies that violate the established values and "tradition(s)" of the dominant (white) culture. In making a distinction between her "reputable educational establishment" and Amal's head covering, Ms. Walsh also promotes a cultural narrative of the hijab as "uncivilized" or, essentially, not human enough. While Abdel-Fattah places this conflict within the realm of normal teenage life, and what may seem a typical generational conflict over appropriate clothing, the scene taps into a longer history of pernicious representations of ethnic bodies and the signifiers that mark them as Other.

As Edward Said elucidates in Orientalism (1978), Western discourse represents and interprets the East in dehumanizing and prejudiced ways, shaped by the cultural attitudes of European imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in order to construct an imaginary Other.1 In addition to nineteenth-century [End Page 4] colonialist discourse, the successful commercial enterprise of the freak show in America and Europe displayed the racial and cultural differences of non-Western people, similarly marking them as deviant and Other. In fact, history shows our troubled fascination with the "different" body: from the Early Modern England marketplace to the freak shows of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, human oddities have always been a source of exploitation and economic interest (Garland-Thomson, "Introduction" 1). In the eighteenth century, naturalists attempted to categorize all of the species of the Earth; those that "failed to match a perceived average" were labeled "freak"—and, while this list included deformed or exotic animals, it also comprised human beings who were thought to deviate from expected norms, such as individuals with disabilities (Chemers 6). At this time, naturalists toured the United States and charged admission to view their "Cabinets of Curiosities"; this form of animal and human display was later commercialized into the freak show, which included people with atypical bodies or disabilities. Among the prime attractions of the freak show were also people from non-Western ethnicities, transformed into spectacles for economic profit and popular consumption. Beyond simply entertaining audience members, "ethnically different bodies helped society define what it was through what it was not" (Craton 27; orig. emphasis). That is, in an era of racial subjugation, displaying racial and cultural differences allowed the freak show to establish the spectator's legitimacy and power over the spectacle on display and therefore shaped and reinforced Western values. "Normal" was then linked to whiteness and the West, and "freak" became associated with ethnic bodies. Essentially, the freak show overwhelmingly validated the exploitation and colonization of non-Western people and their homes. In what follows, I will often turn the noun "freak" into a verb, using forms of "to freak" to emphasize this spectacle and deviance-making in the dominant culture as an active process.

Although they are no longer restricted to the space of the sideshow, ethnic bodies are nonetheless still on display in Western culture in violent ways that mark them as deviant, Other, and freak. As Robert Bogdan notes, the freak show tradition continues even as "Human differences are now framed in other modes and by different institutions" ("Social Construction" 35). Contemporary young adult fiction reveals Western culture's continued interest in the racial freak, reappropriating centuries-old narratives of the Other found in both freak shows and orientalist discourse. I will look at Abdel-Fattah's novel and S. K. Ali's Saints and Misfits (2017) to demonstrate the ways in which Western culture puts religiously marginalized female bodies on display in an attempt to freak Islamic traditions. Adopting a traditional premise of young adult novels, both of these works feature female protagonists who face the pressures that society places on girls' bodies. Beyond this convention, however, Abdel-Fattah's Amal and Ali's Janna are both "hijabis" (a colloquial term that refers to women who wear the hijab) who must also negotiate the difficulties in making their own informed decisions regarding their bodies as Muslim girls—particularly in [End Page 5] wearing the hijab—in a Western society that largely represents Muslims through stereotypes of the violent and dehumanized Other.2 Both Abdel-Fattah's and Ali's novels showcase how Western culture creates spectacles of veiled Muslim women's bodies in ways that alienate, demean, and discipline them, therefore characterizing their differences as freak. Nonetheless, by reproducing these historical misrepresentations, the novels deconstruct and subvert traditional notions of Muslim women and the hijab, ultimately humanizing their protagonists despite the dominant culture's attempt to freak them. I will identify techniques of resistance, such as sarcasm and humor, employed to confront the power of Western discourse regarding veiling. In the end, both Amal and Janna regain agency over their identities; thus the novels reclaim a painful history of invisibility and distortion. Throughout this article, I will argue that the process of putting ethnic bodies on display in a way that highlights their ethnicity as a bizarre spectacle is a form of "making freak." By reappropriating what the dominant culture has deemed "deviant," both Abdel-Fattah and Ali are working against a long history of being othered and made spectacle.

The interest in and obsession with the Other can be traced back to the emergence of children's literature as a new genre in the eighteenth century. When the English version of the Arabian Nights circulated in 1706, two years after Antoine Galland's publication of Les Mille et Une Nuits, authors rewrote elements of the tales for a young audience in a number of works across that century.3 The presence of the Arabian Nights in children's literature of this period demonstrates the fascination with the Other as exotic spectacle (see figures 1 and 2). Contemporary young adult fiction demonstrates Western culture's continued freaking of ethnic bodies, reappropriating narratives on the Other found in early books for children.

Orientalism and the Freak Show

The freak shows of the past exhibited ethnic bodies in an attempt to establish and construct the audience's dominance and normalcy, thereby validating Western identity and colonial pursuits. Similarly, nineteenth-century Western orientalist discourse (particularly its emphasis on the hijab) highlighted Eastern identity markers to reinforce the perception of Easterners as inferior and therefore justify colonizing their countries. Essentially, the discourse on war and colonialism positions women's bodies at the center. As Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad notes, "The focus of colonial rules on the veil… did not arise out of the colonialists' concern for gender equality or the liberation of women. Rather it was a way to demean conquered subjects, justifying the occupation of their lands and the usurpation of their resources" (257). The justification of colonial pursuits heavily relied on the discourse of the hijab as "primitive" and "oppressive" for women. The West regarded veiling as a sign of Islam's "inferiority"; such discourse essentially justified colonial attacks on Muslim societies (Ahmed 152). At the time, European powers encouraged unveiling as a sign [End Page 6]

Figure 1. Illustration from Les Mille et Une Nuits, by Antoine Galland (1704).
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Figure 1.

Illustration from Les Mille et Une Nuits, by Antoine Galland (1704).

Figure 2. Illustration from Aladdin's Picture Book, illustrated by Walter Crane (1876).
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Figure 2.

Illustration from Aladdin's Picture Book, illustrated by Walter Crane (1876).

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of modernism. Today, the hijab continues to be at the center of this discourse on American and Western imperialism, echoing centuries-old European efforts to "liberate" women from Islam (Haddad 256).4 The desire to "liberate" Muslim women by encouraging their unveiling simultaneously perpetuates the ideology that white women in the West are models of femininity.5 As Neil Chakraborti and Irene Zempi note, the veil signifies "the border between the 'West' and 'Islam'. … The 'West' offers equality, rights, liberties and tolerance, whilst 'Islam' offers gender inequality, oppression, subordination and violence" (277). This misconception positions the veiled woman as the oppressed female body and, in turn, normalizes the unveiled woman.

Similarly, the obsession with bodies and revealing them characterized freak shows. Both the freak show and Western culture make spectacle of the non-normative body and, by contrast, normalize the spectator. In addition, ethnic women's bodies in freak shows were used as ideological instruments for the regulation of Western women. Part of the freak show's "rhetoric of civilization" was the belief that freak women's bodies could discipline white women while reinforcing normative femininity. For instance, Julia Pastrana, an Indigenous Mexican woman who had the genetic condition hypertrichosis terminalis (excessive facial and body hair), inspired fear and curiosity; this led her to travel across North America and Europe as a performing freak in the nineteenth century (see figure 3). The interest in Pastrana's body was rooted in both her disability and her racial and gender identity—her darker complexion, ethnic facial features, and hirsutism all challenged Western bodily aesthetics. Her hair-covered body also defied notions of femininity, further inviting curiosity. Rebecca Stern observes that "the exhibition could be mobilized as a disciplinary medium that taught its audience to Other the bodies on display" and thus "was a form of public entertainment with the potential to be a powerful ideological tool. … If one exceeded the parameters of civilized British behavioral codes, if one acted like a 'savage'[that is, like the ethnic freaks on display], these exhibits implicitly suggest, one might well become one" (210).

It was specifically through its exploitation and display of racialized and ethnic women's bodies that the nineteenth-century freak show reinforced normative femininity and created body hierarchies. In addition to Julia Pastrana, for instance, Sara "Saartjie" Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who had steatopygia (a genetic characteristic that causes enlarged buttocks) was brought to England from South Africa, performing at festivals and fairs in London and throughout the British Isles in the nineteenth century (see figure 4). According to reports from those who attended her exhibits, Baartman was presented to the public on a stage raised from the ground with a cage at the end of it, and spectators were invited to examine her body, touching and poking at her (Lindfors, "Show Business" 208). After her death, Baron Georges Cuvier, a notable contemporary naturalist, dissected her body and even arranged for parts of her (including her skull, skeleton, body hair, and brain) to be preserved for additional scientific inquiry, as well as making a waxen mold of her genitalia, which was on display [End Page 8] until as late as 1982 at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris (210).6 According to Bernth Lindfors, Cuvier compared Baartman to a monkey and an orangutan, thus "scientifically dehumanizing her" alongside her role as spectacle of popular culture (211).7 Baartman, who was billed as the "Hottentot Venus," also stood as a mockery of British ideals of beauty. In juxtaposing her "outlandish voluptuousness" with that of the classical Venus, the British public perpetuated the perception of Baartman's "female primitivism" (210). Both Pastrana and Baartman were displayed as examples of what women ought not to be.

Thus women's bodies were used as tools for social discipline in both the traditions of the freak show and Western orientalist discourse.8 I argue that Abdel-Fattah's and Ali's novels demonstrate the continued work in Western culture of representing ethnic women's identity markers as uncivilized in an attempt to perpetuate white femininity as ideal. Specifically, these novels demonstrate how the hijab, used as a disciplinary tool in the nineteenth century to validate colonialism, continues to be used as a means of policing women's bodies in Western culture. Both Abdel-Fattah and Ali deconstruct and then reappropriate Western hegemonic discourse on Muslim women and the hijab, subverting stereotypes and traditionally held beliefs in order to offer a counternarrative. Putting Muslim women's bodies on display to devalue them and thereby reinforce a specific kind of Western femininity is also linked to the freak show tradition of utilizing the visual spectacle to demarcate what is "normal" from what is "freak."

Does My Head Look Big in This? and the Muslim Girl as Freak

When Abdel-Fattah's sixteen-year-old protagonist decides to wear hijab, what ensues is a series of trials in which Amal negotiates her new identity as freak in a dominant-white culture. Amal's headscarf renders her body atypical because it does not conform to standard representations or images of femininity and womanhood in Western culture (e.g., thin body, fair skin, straight hair, unveiled). As Chakraborti and Zempi note, "the Muslim woman who veils becomes the object of the gaze in a non-Muslim milieu" (279). Therefore, Amal's act of covering her body makes it visibly different. Throughout the novel, Abdel-Fattah continually uses the rhetoric of the freak show to expose the view of covered Muslim women as oddities on display in Western culture. Amal's transformation from uncovered to covered not only marginalizes her from her peers—as she explains, she went "from getting along with everybody… to being a social outcast" (Abdel-Fattah 70)—but also transforms her into a freak. For instance, Amal says that a group of junior high boys "look at me like I'm a biology specimen" (35). Biology specimens are designed to be looked at under a microscope, in a cage, or on a dissecting table. Thus, as the term "specimen" connotes, Amal is not only marginalized, but her now "atypical" body also emphasizes her position as human (or even inhuman) oddity. Referring to someone as a "specimen" is making them into a freak. In fact, freak shows [End Page 9]

Figure 3. Photo of the embalmed body of Julia Pastrana, by George Wick. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
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Figure 3.

Photo of the embalmed body of Julia Pastrana, by George Wick. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Figure 4. Poster of "Sartjee, the Hottentot Venus." Courtesy of the British Library.
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Figure 4.

Poster of "Sartjee, the Hottentot Venus." Courtesy of the British Library.

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and the ethnological show business often featured human subjects in cages, essentially situating them as scientific marvels. It is no surprise that scientific exploration converged with freak shows in the nineteenth century.9 Bogdan explains, "Natural scientists were involved more directly with freak shows. Showmen asked scientists to authenticate the origin and credibility. … Some exhibits were presented to scientific societies for discussion and speculation. Showmen played up the science affiliation" (29). Amal's awareness of herself as a specimen on display demonstrates Abdel-Fattah's language of visual othering, one that pushes a specific kind of dehumanizing visual.

Amal's newly covered body garners stares and transforms her into a spectacle of interest, consequently marking her as a disempowered Other. As Garland-Thomson suggests, "Staring is a form of nonverbal behavior that can be used to enforce social hierarchies," thus "conferring subordination on a staree and ascendancy on a starer" (Staring 40). She adds, "Cultural othering in all its forms… depends upon looking as an act of domination. When persons in a position that grants them authority to stare take up that power, staring functions as a form of domination" (42). Staring as domination is what Garland-Thomson and other critics define as the "colonizing gaze," which "mark[s] the staree as the exotic, outlaw, alien, or other" and "occurs at myriad collective social staring rituals such as World Fairs and Expositions, museums, freak shows, drag shows, and the pages of National Geographic [sic]" (42).10 As a result, freak show performers were often the objects of this dominant gaze. Essentially, "The colonizing look marks its bearer as legitimate and its object as outsider" (42).

When Amal's classmates finally approach her and ask about her hijab, they huddle around her like audience members at freak show exhibits, thereby marking her as the Other/alien staree. They begin to ask questions: "Did your parents force you?"; "Doesn't it get hot?"; "Can I touch it?"; "Can you swim?"; "Do you wear it in the shower?"; "So is it like nuns? Are you married to Jesus now?" (Abdel-Fattah 70–71). Her classmates' questions demonstrate their marveling at Amal (as well as their misconceptions regarding Islam and the hijab), but also characterize her as an otherworldly presence. At the center of this attention, Amal mirrors freak show performers' roles as oddities on display. One classmate even asks to touch her hijab, further emphasizing her "strangeness." The desire to touch Amal is reminiscent of Baartman's audience members whose interest in touching her body reflected their view of her as exotic or alien.

Despite Abdel-Fattah's extensive reliance on freak show imagery to highlight Amal's feelings of being put on display, ultimately the exchange between Amal and her classmates destabilizes the traditional dynamics of freak shows, namely in that she is empowered because she responds to her classmates' questions and therefore engages with them in return. While women in freak shows were objects of the oppressive gaze and therefore largely silenced, Amal claims agency over her representation when she utilizes parody as a method of response.11 For instance, when her "wide-eyed" and "appalled" classmate Kristy asks, "Did your parents force you?," Amal responds, "My dad told me if I don't [End Page 11] wear it he'll marry me off to a sixty-five-year-old camel owner in Egypt," thus cleverly utilizing, and consequently reclaiming, the Western stereotype of the Muslim woman as a sexually enslaved body (70). So, while Amal is on display as a curious subject, she is not entirely disempowered by the gaze. Instead, she reappropriates agency through her ability to respond and interact with her starers, thereby undermining the colonizing gaze that characterized freak show dynamics between spectator and spectacle.

Amal continues to draw attention to how her own body is being treated as freak. In one scene, Adam, Amal's friend and crush, tries to excuse another classmate's racism toward her. As Adam explains that "You're probably the first Muslim—," Amal cuts him off: "It makes me sound like an alien. 'Oh, it was my first encounter with a Muslim! Wow! I even had my camera! Can't wait to call up the National Museum. I'm sure they'll be interested in putting on an exhibition'" (146, 147). Both a "camera" and an "exhibition" are tools that put subjects considered worthy of being looked at on display and therefore encourage viewers to inspect and dissect. It is also a reminder that freak show memorabilia included photographs of freaks, demonstrating their profitability as well as their role as entertainment. Photographs reinforced the freak's status as physical curiosity on display. As Rachel Adams notes in Sideshow U.S.A., "the photograph enhances the freak's Otherness because it facilitates a gaze unfettered by confrontation with another living person and the feelings of guilt, responsibility, or pleasure that might ensue" (113). Amal, who recognizes that her body is perceived as strange or unearthly (referring to herself as "alien"), therefore declares herself an appropriate subject for photography and an exhibit at the National Museum. However, she also uses sarcasm as a form of resistance to subvert Adam's justification of racism against her, echoing her earlier satirical response to Kristy's assumptions about the hijab.

Furthermore, Amal engages in what she calls an "anti-normal" protest with her friend Simone, who struggles with her own body image. Simone is bullied for her size by both her mother and her classmates and thus is obsessed with losing weight, ultimately becoming bulimic (82). When Simone derides herself as "abnormal," though, Amal responds,

You know what? Who cares about what normal is, Simone? Let's protest. From now on we're the anti-normal, anti-average, anti-standard. You can eat when you want to, I'll wear what I want, and we'll die with a bag of chips in our hand and a tablecloth on our head.

Amal once again utilizes exaggeration and humor, this time as a tool to expose the ridiculousness of policing girls' bodies, both in terms of their eating habits and what they choose to wear. As a result, through protest, Amal claims agency. In freaking her own self and encouraging Simone to do the same, she creates a community of "anti-normal" freaks who exercise their own bodily autonomy. This is an empowering discourse that refuses to embody the norm; while the novel mirrors the freak show display of ethnic bodies, it rewrites the historical, [End Page 12] oppressive narrative by giving its protagonist a voice of dissent. As Jo Lampert notes, Abdel-Fattah writes a novel "where the Australian Amal can be more visibly different, more resistant, and less compliant" (55).12 This voice is also used to encourage others who have non-normative bodies; thus the hijab stands as a symbol of social justice.

Saints and Misfits and the Hijab as Spectacle

The veiled Muslim girl as spectacle is also thematized in Ali's Saints and Misfits; high school sophomore Janna, an Arab-Indian American girl, faces difficulties in wearing the hijab, the complications that arise after her parents' divorce, and the trauma of being sexually assaulted at a party by a boy from her community mosque. Like Abdel-Fattah's Amal, Janna must learn to navigate the pressures of being a teenager in Western culture while also maintaining her own faith. Nonetheless, Amal's and Janna's experiences in wearing the hijab, while not disparate, are certainly distinct. Amal, for instance, wants to wear hijab "as a badge of my faith" but also says, "I'm sick of obsessing about my body, what guys are going to think about my cleavage and calves and shoulder-to-hip ratio. … I am really sick of worrying what people are going to think if I put on a few pounds or have a pimple" (Abdel-Fattah 8–9). Janna simply recalls that when she started trying out hijab, "I wanted to look like Mom" (Ali 29). Their journeys as hijabis are also quite different; while both books expose how covered Muslim girls' bodies are stare-worthy in Western culture, Ali's novel emphasizes the more toxic effects of the colonizing gaze.

Saints and Misfits opens with a beach scene that emphasizes the protagonist's fear of being looked at. Janna, submerged in the water, keeps an eye on the other beachgoers and waits for the right time to come out. As she notes, "The ideal time is when no one's around and no one's looking," emphasizing her concerns about being looked at (Ali 1). Readers learn that Janna is worried that her "burkini" (modest swimwear for women) will attract unwelcome attention. Like Amal, Janna also recognizes that her body is stare-worthy, especially in the context of a beach where most people are not covered. While both girls suffer from the colonizing gaze, the difference is in how they react to their positions as spectacles. Amal, a sassy and confident girl even before she wears the hijab, responds to her starers post-hijab with humor and wit. Abdel-Fattah therefore overthrows the notion that hijab silences or changes women. Amal continues to assert herself after she decides to veil. Janna, however, discovers agency through the hijab. Unlike Amal, she reacts to the gaze differently, as evident in this opening scene in which she demonstrates her fear of being looked at and thus works to deliberately avoid attention by staying submerged in the water. When she finally emerges, she says, "I refuse to look around in case I see someone, everyone, watching me" (2). Janna recognizes that in looking, she might discover that she is being looked at; her refusal to look emphasizes her anxiety at being on display while also situating her as disempowered. [End Page 13]

Ali's novel mirrors freak show culture when Janna's secular father, Haroon, who is now married to a non-Muslim white woman, puts her on display in ways that encourage an audience and thus makes a spectacle of her. When Janna apprehensively emerges from the water and approaches her father and his new wife, Linda, her earlier effort to remain unnoticed is crushed by her father's insistence on making her body (and her choices regarding it) visible. He asks, "Janna, why do you have to wear that thing? You could have said, No, I'm not wearing your burkini, Mom" (2; italics in orig.). This interrogation of Janna's body is happening in front of Linda, marking Janna as the object of attention, or staree. Even worse, as Janna notes, "Dad's gesticulating again and looking around—for what, I don't know. When he spies a woman unfolding a lounge chair nearby and starts talking louder, I realize it's for an audience. He wants an audience while he rants at me" (3). As he continues to question Janna and her bodily appearance, the scene recalls historical freak show exhibits in which the spectacle on display (here, Janna) receives an audience (her father, Linda, and the woman in the lounge chair nearby), thus emphasizing their stare-worthy, non-normative body. As I discuss earlier, this spectator/spectacle dynamic assigned value to certain bodies while denigrating others. Haroon desires an audience in order to similarly humiliate Janna; without an audience, he cannot make a show out of her body. As he lures an audience in (raising his voice and gesturing with his arms in exaggerated ways) he is able to draw attention to Janna, thus perpetuating her "strangeness" and the audience's normalcy in contrast. In addition, Haroon is conjuring an audience to distance himself from his own daughter, marking her as Other/weird and himself as "normal." Ironically, Haroon, who happens to be Indian, demonstrates his own internalization of Western values regarding the body. Despite his position as an ethnic minority (and as a Muslim, albeit nonpracticing), Haroon has adopted the Western view of hijab and, by extension, the burkini, as non-normative.

By freaking Islamic traditions, Janna's father perpetuates normative, Western femininity, recalling the freak show practice of idealizing white femininity. He does this by heightening Janna's differences in relation to others around her (like the freak show practice of emphasizing the spectacle's difference in relation to viewers), thus creating a hierarchy of body norms. Janna is rendered inferior by her father's rhetoric: calling her burkini a "thing" strips it of any normalcy, objectifies it as alien, and thus devalues Janna's choices regarding her body. In fact, Haroon assumes that Janna has no agency over her body when he asks, "why do you have to wear that thing?," recalling the historical narrative of the hijab as being forced upon women (2; emphasis added). Nonetheless, while freak show performers rarely engaged with their audience, Janna, like Amal, responds to her father. She says, "Mom didn't get it for me. I ordered it online," which validates her own decision to wear the burkini and reinforces her autonomy, a reimagining of freak show spectacle/spectator dynamics. However, Haroon persists: referring to his wife's one-piece bathing suit, he asks, "What's wrong with the way Linda's dressed?" This juxtaposition of Janna's presumably nonnormative [End Page 14] body with Linda's normative one renders Janna inferior and freak in relation to "civilized" Linda. In fact, freak shows utilized juxtaposition to further alienate the performer from the audience.13 For instance, photographs and cartes de visite would highlight physical differences among performers and between nonperformers and freaks.

Figure 5. An example of an image that juxtaposes physical differences. Collection of Robert Gould Shaw, Harvard Theatre Collection, The Houghton Library.
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Figure 5.

An example of an image that juxtaposes physical differences. Collection of Robert Gould Shaw, Harvard Theatre Collection, The Houghton Library.

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The image in figure 5 juxtaposes the stark difference between the "civilized" and "refined" white man and the "savage" black man (who is also costumed to appear more foreign and strange). Similarly, to further emphasize Janna's strangeness, Haroon puts her on display in ways that heighten her body's differences from Linda's white, uncovered, "normal" one. In doing so, he not only creates a binary of normal/freak similar to the ways in which freak shows perpetuated hierarchies of power, but also attempts to discipline her into normative femininity. In addition, by normalizing Linda's one-piece bathing suit, Haroon assigns value to one kind of body and dress over another, a rhetoric disempowering for all women. The veil, as in orientalist discourse, is at the center of this disciplining, demonstrating Ali's engagement with hijab as a tool to police girls' bodies in Western culture.

In addition to her father making a spectacle of her body, Janna's classmates violate her when they expose her without her hijab, demonstrating the Western desire to unveil the Muslim woman. As Meyda Yeǧenoǧlu notes, the desire to infiltrate behind the veil "is characterized by a desire to master, control, and reshape the body of the subjects by making them visible" (12). At one point in the novel, Janna has removed her hijab in an all-girls gym class when her best friend, Tats, interrupts her exercise routine to inform her that she has a visitor. Standing in the doorway of the weight room is Jeremy, Janna's crush, looking in her direction. Tats, who has sneaked Jeremy in to see Janna, explains, "This is his spare period, and I was like, perfect, an opportunity for Jeremy to see the real Janna!" (Ali 112). Tats's comment demonstrates the view of Muslim women as "alien," who are not their "authentic" selves in hijab.

Furthermore, Tats violates Janna's bodily autonomy when she invites Jeremy to see her unveiled. Saying, "it's just your hair," she demonstrates her internalized notions of normative Western femininity and, in disregarding Janna's choices, exposes and puts her on display without her permission (112). When Janna asks Tats to "get him out of here," she responds, "Jan, pretend you don't see him. … He has every right to use the weight room. And tomorrow, put some leave-in conditioner in your hair before class," completely dismissing Janna's wishes and demonstrating the desire to control Muslim women's bodies (113). Demanding that Janna pretend she does not have an audience recreates freak show dynamics, whereby the subject is simply there to be looked at and any governance over who looks and how is completely irrelevant. Tats desires to make a visual spectacle out of Janna while eradicating the latter's control over this visibility.

Along with exposing her in an all-female gym class, her classmates also post photos of Janna without the hijab on Facebook. At one point in the novel, Janna's gym teacher, Ms. Eisen, knowing that Janna wears the hijab in front of males, informs her that Jeremy will be helping out with their last few gym periods. Janna debates whether to wear her hijab to gym. When Ms. Eisen sees Janna without the hijab the next day, she blows her whistle and yells, "Janna Yusuf, get up! Did you forget there's a male present? Go get your hajeeb!" [End Page 16] (130).14 Janna, absolutely humiliated, leaves gym class and cries alone in the locker room shower. Ms. Eisen presumably thinks that she is doing the right thing because she is aware that Janna covers in front of males; nonetheless, like Tats, she succeeds only in regulating and drawing attention to Janna's body. Later that evening, Tats informs Janna that her classmate Lauren had taken photos of her unveiled in the gym and posted one on Facebook. While Janna chooses to veil in public, she nonetheless made the decision to remove the veil in a small, personal environment while aware that there was only one male present, therefore controlling her own visibility. However, because photographs can serve as a mode of control for the starer, photos of Janna on social media completely eradicate her control over her audience—online, almost anyone can see Janna's unveiled body. In fact, people begin commenting on Janna's photo and, unlike Amal who asserts agency in her ability to respond to her "audience," Janna is disempowered in her lack of engagement. Furthermore, Leila Ahmed notes that the desire to unveil the Muslim woman is twofold: it is the sexual desire to see what is beneath the veil and the desire to civilize Islam through its removal. Lauren captions the photo of Janna as "hotness uncovered," demonstrating the continued sexual desire to render Muslim women's bodies visible for the Western gaze. Yeǧenoǧlu says, "Since the veil prevents the colonial gaze from attaining such a visibility and hence mastery, its lifting becomes essential" (12). Whether it is Ms. Eisen who tells Janna to cover or her friends who encourage her uncovering and also force it, Janna's choices regarding her body and its visibility are overridden by others. Recalling my earlier discussion on freak show practice, this lack of control over the visibility and representation of Janna's body is reminiscent of freak show performers.

Nonetheless, it is precisely through the hijab that Janna reclaims her agency. While struggling to confront Lauren and another girl, Marjorie, who continue to post covered and uncovered photos of her online, Janna also has to negotiate the trauma of having been sexually assaulted by Farooq, a boy in her Muslim community admired for his displays of learning and piety. Sausun, a friend who wears the niqab, or face veil, helps Janna to come up with a plan to retaliate. Covered by the niqab and a full-body abaya, and therefore both inconspicuous and anonymous, Janna approaches Farooq at a local bookstore and, for the first time, confronts her assailant. While her complete covering garners attention in Western culture (drawing on the irony of making something visible that is meant to deflect attention), it nevertheless allows Janna to hide her identity and encourages her to reprimand Farooq. She screams, "This guy is a pervert! An attempted rapist! This guy here!… HOW DARE YOU ACT ALL HOLY? YOU DON'T KNOW HOLY! HOLY IS RESPECTING GIRLS! I AM NOT UGH! I AM NOT WORTHLESS! I'M A GIRL! A GIRL!" (Ali 304–05). Farooq runs off and Janna pursues him into the street, pausing at the curb. Suddenly, she feels liberated: "The disgust I feel at me is gone. The gunk of self-blame dissolves to leave just me standing there" (305; orig. emphasis). In the face veil, Janna was granted the power to reclaim herself from hate and blame. Thus, when Farooq, [End Page 17] on the other side of the street, turns to face Janna, she says, "And he sees me. Me, Janna Yusuf, because I lift up my face covering. He runs" (306). This time, Janna is in complete control of her visibility and her body, resulting in self-empowerment. In fact, when Janna asks, "Who am I, screaming uncontrollably now and blocking him as he tries to get away? I'm me and Sausan's sister and the thousands of women locked in the Harem" (304), she demonstrates the novel's reimagining of the veil as a tool for female empowerment, reclaiming it from Western political rhetoric that regards the veil as oppressive and Muslim women as in need of saving.

Janna's reference to the culturally specific term "Harem" also calls for an examination. Orientalist imaginary conceptions of the harem—an exotic space of sexual fantasy occupied by beautiful and glistening women lounging around nude and engaging in various acts of bathing, eating, and sometimes forbidden sexuality, essentially idle and waiting for the Sultan to call upon them—positions Eastern women as passive and subject to the discretion of Eastern men and the desire of white men. This dehumanizing narrative strips Eastern women of agency. In Janna's case, Farooq similarly enclosed her in a space of fear and disempowerment, having violated her body at his discretion. When she confronts him, Janna is essentially writing her own narrative, taking control of her own body, and thereby liberating herself and other women "locked in the Harem" from the conventional image of the sexually enslaved, oppressed, and disempowered Muslim woman. Janna's voice speaks for other Muslim women silenced by repressive Western discourse, and the hijab facilitates this power. Encouraged by Sausun to "wield that strength" (307), Janna reports the incident to her uncle, who is the leader of the mosque, and to the rest of her family.

In addition, when Janna is unsuccessful in demanding that Lauren and Marjorie remove her photos from the Internet, it is her best friend Tats who intervenes. She offers the two girls the key to the school's roof, which has served as Tats and Janna's quiet safe place, and they agree to remove all of Janna's photos in return. While this is certainly a form of bartering just so Janna can regain her self-worth, Tats nonetheless demonstrates her respect for her friend's bodily autonomy, demonstrating that cultural awareness and change are possible. Janna's final words also underline the importance of self-love, reclaiming a long history of dehumanizing ethnically and religiously marginalized people: "I can't imagine what it means to love everyone. But I'm just going to start right here, by loving a bit more of myself. And maybe then the rest will follow" (325). Ali's novel ends with the affirmation of so-called non-normative bodies as worthy of love, therefore drawing positive attention to bodies that are otherwise demeaned and made spectacle in freak show history and colonialist ideology. [End Page 18]

The Ramifications of Freaking Bodies in Actual Culture

Society's role in assigning value to certain bodies while disabling others has practical effects on its laws, attitudes, practices, and politics. In devaluing the customs and beliefs of Muslim women, Western colonialists rendered them inferior and uncivilized, and thus justified their own colonial pursuits. Recent young adult fiction makes clear that Western culture's work in devaluing ethnically and religiously marginalized bodies is ongoing. For instance, Ali's attention to Janna's burkini at the beginning of her novel evokes the conversation around France's banning of the burkini in 2016. When French police officers ordered a woman to remove hers on a beach in Nice, they demonstrated the continued policing of Muslim women's bodies and the attempt to eradicate the visibility of certain non-normative bodies from the public sphere (Allen, Thornhill, and Summers).15 Such discourse and policies would certainly intimidate young women like Janna from public display, hence her fear of being seen in the burkini. Beyond its validation of colonialism, Western culture's ongoing representation of ethnic people as dangerous, monstrous, oppressed, and uncivilized is what leads to violent acts "at home." While banning the burkini may seem trivial to some, it is on a continuum with brutal hate crimes. Nabra Hassanen, an American Muslim hijabi and high school sophomore, for example, was killed on her way to the mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in June 2017 (Ramirez). She was chased, hit with a baseball bat, put in the back of the killer's car, assaulted, murdered, and thrown into a pond. Despite the fact that police officers refused to investigate her murder as a hate crime, Nabra is just one example of the dangers of being a visibly Muslim woman in America.16

Nonetheless, real, nonfictional children and young people are certainly not passive participants in our world. For instance, after France passed a law banning headscarves in public schools in March 2004, one fifteen-year-old French Muslim girl in particular vocalized her resistance. Cennet Doganay, who was banned from class for wearing her hijab, responded by shaving her head. She told journalists, "I respect the law but the law doesn't respect me" ("Muslim Girl"). In shaving her head, Cennet denied the Western gaze's desire to unveil the Muslim woman and see her hair. Cennet's is just one example of such resistance. From influential hijabi fashion bloggers such as Leena Asad, who unapologetically wears her hijab and inspires other Muslim women and girls to embrace their bodies, to political activists such as Malala Yousafzai, who challenged the Taliban's attempt to silence her and now advocates for female education,17 Muslim girls worldwide have resisted dominant culture and discourse and claimed agency over their representation and choices.

The novels I explore here make visible the invisible structures of children as spectacles and therefore critique the cultural work of displaying ethnic bodies in ways that freak and marginalize them. While young adult novels engage with these cultural issues, they also offer spaces where non-normative characters learn to negotiate their identities in a white-dominant culture and [End Page 19] largely overcome many of its barriers. So while Amal struggles with being made alien in Western culture, she nonetheless chooses to embrace her herself and her identity, "To Be," by the end of the novel; as she notes, "To Be or Not To Be. … something tells me that I already know which side is going to win this one" (Abdel-Fattah 360). In reclaiming their bodies from misrepresentation and abuse, these characters proclaim their agency. In doing so, they and the authors of these novels join a history of protest against the racial freak.18

Nabilah Khachab

Nabilah Khachab earned her PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She is a lecturer at the University of Michigan– Dearborn. Her research interests include Muslim children's and young adult literature, Critical Race Theory, and freak studies.


1. Said exposes the structure of colonialism and the social relations between the "Occident" and the "Orient" to demonstrate how these practices and ideologies are replicated in the present. Abdel-Fattah's and S. K. Ali's novels demonstrate how Western culture continues to perpetuate the view of Eastern people as deviant, exotic, and subhuman.

2. The practice of veiling precedes the advent of Islam. In fact, veiling pre-dates all major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). In ancient Mesopotamia and the Byzantine, Greek, and Persian empires, for instance, women veiled as a sign of high social status (Ahmed 15). Women in Athens in the Classical period (500–323 BCE) wore shawls drawn over their heads in the presence of "strange men" (28). During the Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, in the seventh century CE, veiling already existed. Similarly to its use among Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Assyrians, veiling in Arabia was also "connected with social status" (55). After the arrival of Islam, veiling gradually spread throughout cities in the Middle East and many women who had not veiled before began to adopt the practice. The Quran instructs men and women to dress modestly and for women to draw their veils over their bosoms (24:31–32). Muslim women have interpreted this verse in different ways; thus the practice of hijab varies widely across the world today. Some women wear the hijab wrapped fully around their heads, covering their necks, while others place a shawl loosely over the head, leaving some hair exposed. Some wear turbans, covering only their hair and leaving their necks visible. Other types of veils, while not mandated by Islamic scripture, include a covering of the face (either in part or in full); for instance, a burqa covers the entire body, including the face, and a niqab covers a woman's face except for her eyes. Many women wear the hijab together with traditional conservative attire, including the abaya, a loose-fitting cloak or robe. Other women who observe the hijab simply opt for a pair of jeans. Hijab comes in different colors, fabrics, and patterns. In essence, the practices of wearing hijab are as varied as women's personal taste in clothing. In addition, the reasons Muslim women cover also vary. Some wear the hijab as a symbol of their faith, others in protest of Western culture's continued desire to unveil the Muslim woman (a practice that dates back to nineteenth-century colonialism and its view of Muslim women as oppressed), and some because it allows them to evade toxic societal expectations regarding women's bodies. Certainly, there are numerous other reasons for why women veil. Undoubtedly, I have only skimmed the surface of a complicated context in which wearing the hijab can carry symbolic and political meaning.

3. See "Princess Hebe," from Sarah Fielding's The Governess (1749); The Oriental Moralist, translated by Richard Johnson (1790); "Traveller's Wonders" and "The Travelled Ant," from John Aikin and Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Evenings at Home (1794–98); "Murad the Unlucky," from Maria Edgeworth's Popular Tales (1804); The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor (1805); "The Sea-Voyage" and "Margaret Green, or, The Young Mahometan" (1809), from Charles and Mary Lamb's Mrs. Leicester's School; and The History of Abou Casem (1825).

4. As Haddad says, "The Western focus on and apparent obsession with the veil was perceived by many Muslims as the re-emergence of a centuries-old Western effort to liberate Muslim women from Islam. Thus, the perennial issue of 'the veil' was placed once again in the center of the debate between Muslims and their 'tormentors'" (256).

5. In exploring the veil as a propagandist tool in the nineteenth century, Ahmed notes that "Victorian womanhood and mores with respect to women, along with other aspects of society at the colonial center, were regarded as the ideal and measure of civilization" (151). She adds, "those who first advocated [the removal of the veil] believed that Victorian mores and dress, and Victorian Christianity, represented the ideal to which Muslim women should aspire" (165–66). Nonetheless, she continues, although theories of superiority legitimized "domination of other societies"

they also served the dominant British colonial and androcentric order in another and internal project of domination. They provided evidence corroborating Victorian theories of the biological inferiority of women and the naturalness of the Victorian ideal of the female role of domesticity. Such theories were politically useful to the Victorian establishment as it confronted, internally, an increasingly vocal feminism.


Essentially, "Feminism on the home front and feminism directed against white men was to be resisted and suppressed; but taken abroad and directed against the cultures of colonized peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served and furthered the project of the dominance of the white man" (153).

6. In addition to the lusus naturae, ethnological show business, "the displaying of foreign peoples for commercial and/or educational purposes," also profited off of displaying nonwhite bodies and, as a result, preserved racial hierarchy (Lindfors, "Introduction" vii). The ethnological show business grew into an extremely popular form of public entertainment in the Western world. Bernth Lindfors examines the nineteenth-and twentieth-century European and American tradition of displaying Africans as ethnological specimens meant to "entertain as well as enlighten" at a time when "science and show business converge" (xii).

7. Lindfors argues, "It was this sort of biological slur that reinforced European beliefs that Africans were closer to the lower order of brutes than to human beings" ("Show Business" 211).

8. For instance, as Rebecca Stern notes,

exhibitions of Pastrana's dark-complexioned, hair-covered body crystallized in reverse a prescription for Victorian white womanhood, materializing literally the fabular consequences—ostracism, racial or species segregation, and an unappealing masculinity—with which Victorian culture threatened ostentatious women.


Thus freak shows supported a hierarchy of power that both allowed for the exploitation of nonwhite bodies and served as an ideological instrument that shaped normative femininity.

9. Bogdan notes, "The scientific reports and travelogues of the nineteenth and early twentieth century natural scientists were another important source of stories for the promotion of freaks. Pre- and post-Darwinian discussions about the place of human beings in the great order of things and the relationships of the various kinds of humans to each other and to baboons, chimps, and gorillas were in the air" (29).

10. See E. Ann Kaplan's "Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze" (1997), in which she introduced the concept of the "imperial gaze" whereby the observed is belittled by the observer's values. Also see Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1967).

11. Colin Haines argues in "Challenging Stereotypes: Randa Abdel-Fattah's Use of Parody in Does My Head Look Big in This?" that Abdel-Fattah's novel "engages in a practice of parody—an exaggerated, often funny, redeployment of anti-Muslim stereotypes in order to expose the ignorance wherein they originate" (31).

12. See Lampert's "'They Don't Know Us, What We Are': An Analysis of Two Young Adult Texts with Arab-Western Protagonists," which approaches the text in the context of 9/11 and its impact on teenagers in the West, utilizing postcolonial theories of border crossing and hybridity.

13. Garland-Thomson notes that juxtaposition was a common practice in freak show culture. For instance, autographed photographs or cartes de visite juxtaposed "giants with midgets… fat men with human skeletons to intensify by contrast their bodily differences." In addition, "Conventionalized stage names created parodic juxtapositions as well. Midgets always had inflated titles from 'high' society, such as Commodore Nutt, General Tom Thumb, Princess Wee-wee" ("Introduction" 10).

14. Despite Janna teaching Ms. Eisen how to correctly pronounce "hijab," she continues to mispronounce it. Janna says, "She told me some words were too hard for her to pronounce, so 'hajeeb' it is in gym class" (Ali 114).

15. In "The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A Philosophical Analysis," Alia Al-Saji argues, "That the image of the Muslim woman forms a kind of 'constitutive outside' (to use Judith Butler's term) explains the exclusionary and silencing function played by this representation… Hence, in diverse contexts from France to Quebec, images of the veil have as their counterpart policies that enact the exclusion of veiled women" (877).

16. We see, then, the violent consequences of visibility as a non-normative person. As Chakraborti and Zempi note, "Under Western eyes, the veil is read in a uniform, linear manner as a practice which is adopted by the Muslim 'other', and in this light the visibility of the veil disrupts the public space" (274).

17. See Leena Asad's fashion blog at and Malala Yousafzai's fund blog (now titled Assembly) at

18. Although freak shows were one of the most profitable and popular forms of entertainment, they were not always met with approval. Spectators expressed concern on numerous occasions. For instance, audience members who attended Saartjie Baartman's exhibit wrote letters of protest to the London press (Lindfors, "Show Business"). A petition was circulated to have Julia Pastrana's body (which was exhibited even after her death) returned to Mexico to receive a proper burial. This moral awareness demonstrates viewers' ability to "experience feelings of association or alliance that are engaged and ethically conscious" (Stern 225).

Works Cited

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Does My Head Look Big in This? Scholastic, 2005.
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Allen, Peter, Ted Thornhill, and Chris Summers. "Get 'em Off! Armed Police Order Muslim Woman to Remove Her Burkini on Packed Nice Beach—as Mother, 34, Wearing Islamic Headscarf Is Threatened with Pepper Spray and Fined in Cannes.", 25 Aug. 2016.
Al-Saji, Alia. "The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A Philosophical Analysis." Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 36, no. 8, 2010, pp. 875–902.
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Chakraborti, Neil, and Irene Zempi. "The Veil Under Attack: Gendered Dimensions of Islamophobic Victimization." International Review of Victimology, vol. 18, no. 3, 2012, pp. 269–84.
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Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie, editor. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York UP, 1996.
Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. "The Post–9/11 Hijab as Icon." Sociology of Religion, vol. 68, no. 3, 2007, pp. 253–67.
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Yeǧenoǧlu, Meyda. Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism. Cambridge UP, 1998.

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