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Then and Now: Rereading Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

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In 2007, at the brash, naive, and frankly moronic age of 16, I penned a scathing review of Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” for this very website, MuslimMatters.org. Thirteen years later, I read it again – only to find myself deeply, utterly in love with this book.

Khadra Shamy is the American daughter of Syrian immigrants, Wajdy and Ebtahaj, who dreamt of little more than dedicating themselves to the Da’wah in their tiny Muslim community in Indiana. Khadra grows up immersed in the culture of conservative da’wah: of the Deen being black and white, of certain rules followed scrupulously, of culture frowned upon in exchange for the purity of Islam. As she moves from a 10 year old child overwhelmed with guilt for accidentally eating gelatin-containing candy corn, to a black-clad, angry teenager who reads Qutb and supports the Iranian Revolution, to a college student who dutifully marries young, Khadra finds the foundations of her worldview slowly cracking. 

Going for Hajj was not spiritually revolutionary, but a dark glimpse of what Arab youth get up to in the heartland of Islam; after devoting herself to tajweed and hifdh, Khadra is told that she must stop reciting Qur’an in mixed gatherings and that Qur’an competitions are only open to men. Her ideal Islamic marriage begins to crumble when her husband evokes the Qawwam card to prohibit her from riding her bike in public – and when she gets pregnant, only to decide on an abortion, and then a divorce, Khadra creates a schism between herself, her community, and all that she has known. In the years that follow, Khadra breaks down and recreates her identity as a Muslim and her beliefs about Islam. 

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In many ways, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is both a love letter and a breakup note to conservative Muslims. Kahf’s book traces, with intimate authenticity, what it is to be a Western-raised child of parents immersed in the Da’wah; our quirks and eccentricities and ties to a back home culture that we don’t always understand; our hidden hypocrisies and our secret shames. She breathes into words the tenderness of our bonds of faith, the flames of our religious passion, the complexities of our relationships. She knows who we are, how we are, and she speaks to us in our own words. Perhaps ahead of her time, she gently forces Muslim readers to confront the issues of intra-Muslim racism, of the history of Blackamerican Muslims, of the naive arrogance of immigrant Muslims, of the almost insurmountable distance between the theory of Islam for Muslim women, and the reality of what Muslim women experience.

Of course, it comes with a price. Kahf ends her novel by having Khadra follow the by-now-predictable trajectory that we have seen from many Muslims of a progressive bent: Sufism is the only acceptable fluffy-enough type of Islam; all paths, even outside of Islam, lead to God; conservative Muslims are embarrassing, suffocating, and are holding their communities back from true spiritual enlightenment. To be fair, Kahf doesn’t hold back from pointing out the hypocrisies of secular liberal types either, and she is far softer and more tender in her portrayals of conservatives as well. 

It is worth taking a closer look at how Kahf chose to take Khadra down the path of progressiveness. Khadra’s story is a mirror of so many true stories, of children from religious families whose resentment over their experiences pushed them to choose an easier way, one less rooted in following Shari’ah and more a vague idea of spirituality. This narrative portrays turning progressive as the only logical conclusion to such experiences, which is in itself deeply problematic. In truth, there are many Muslims – born Muslims and converts alike – who have suffered far worse than merely restrictive upbringings, or unhappy marriages, and who have chosen instead to commit themselves even more determinedly to orthodoxy. Spirituality is not the sole domain of Sufis or liberals; it is part and parcel of Islam itself, even in its most conservative form. To imply otherwise is a dishonesty that is found all too often amongst those who have their own biases and agendas against any form of Islam that does not feel flexible enough for their own tastes.

As a particularly ridiculous 16-year-old Salafi, I was too consumed in my outrage at Khadra leaving the aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jamaa’ah, and too busy agreeing with her ex-husband on the inappropriateness of Muslim women riding bikes in public, to understand or appreciate this deeply emotional journey. Fast forward 13 years, and 29-year-old me identifies far more with Khadra than my past self could ever have imagined. Little had I known, that first time, that I too would experience what Khadra and so many other Muslim women have: the painfully cliche toxic marriage to controlling Muslim men who use Islam to suffocate our souls and our spirits. (But really, 16yo Zainab??? You legit thought that Khadra’s husband was justified in stopping her from riding her bike??? You almost deserved going through practically the same thing, you idiot.)

Rereading The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as an adult, having lived through my own traumas and growth, through spiritual crisis and rediscovery, was a very different experience. My own upbringing was very similar to Khadra’s: in a religious da’wah bubble, surrounded by an insistence on Islamic ideals, blithely ignoring Muslim realities (and occasionally denying them outright). The self righteous ignorance in my 2007 review has me dying a thousand deaths of mortification, and I am all too aware of just how much like teenaged Khadra I was back then. Thirteen years later, my cynicism knows no bounds, my bitterness sours all idealism, and I feel a deep urge to slap my past self upside the head. There’s some Divine irony in all of this, I suppose; certainly, it is cause for reflection on the value of personal growth and maturity, of how the years and one’s experiences can turn one into the very person they once derided. I relate far more to Khadra today than my teenaged self could ever have imagined, and in many ways, I only wish that I could have retained the blithe innocence (if not the ignorance) that I once had in abundance. Following Khadra on her journey was to retrace my own steps, to remember precisely how and when I, too, made the choice to become someone new.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim.Click To Tweet

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim. Kahf does not waste time explaining things to a non-Muslim audience, nor does she hold back from dishing out hard truths to Muslim readers. She knows us, inside and out, and it is this startling familiarity that pulls one in and doesn’t let go until we find ourselves shocked that we’ve reached the end of the book. In the era of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Mohja Kahf was undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of diverse fiction.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a damned good book – one that will have you blinking away furious tears and lay awake at night, feeling your heart ache with unforgotten, unseen bruises.

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Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a Canadian Muslim woman who writes on Muslim women's issues, gender related injustice in the Muslim community, and Muslim women in Islamic history. She holds a diploma in Islamic Studies from Arees University, a diploma in History of Female Scholarship from Cambridge Islamic College, and has spent the last fifteen years involved in grassroots da'wah. She was also an original founder of MuslimMatters.org.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Safwan

    October 23, 2020 at 10:43 PM

    Wow, this was a powerful and depressing read, the subject matter kind’ve made me wish I didn’t read it but now that it’s been sitting in my head for the last fifteen minutes, so I feel the need to write a comment to hopefully expunge these thoughts from my head.

    First off, my heart hurts from hearing the abusive experiences both you and Kahf endured, I know it doesn’t mean much but it’s still horrific. Sadly many from the elder generation do not understand how often it occurs and how to deal with these things. The reality is just as you put it many parrot the values of Islam and how it treats others, but this becomes lip service to many when they are unable to address issues in our communities or in our home, leaving the youth guessing why they are following the deen in the first place, when all they see is no-one actually helping them.

    Why some have turned to progressivism is not necessarily because of ideological reasons/knowledge but rather they feel restricted by their “practice of Islam”, while this is wrong its sadly happens when they can see their friends in the non-muslim community being able to do many things, which they feel they aren’t able to due. They end up feeling embittered in many cases because of their parent’s or communities limited understanding/conceptualization of Islam, and their frustration leads to give up on practicing in a traditional sense. Parents and spouses failing to realize that an restrictive environment is not something Islam requires, and that being harsh in matters is of no benefit. We muslims need to be better in addressing these issues, and show them that the traditional understanding of Islam is not restrictive nor what some ignorant people on both sides try to make it to be. It includes a way of values and morals as well.

  2. Umm Asiya

    October 29, 2020 at 7:50 AM

    Out of curiosity, I purchased the e-book and have spent the last 2 days reading the novel. I used to love fiction and I still love a good story. I reverted to Islam about 10 years ago and I was really curious about this story.
    However, my review is – I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.
    The analogy that comes to mind is, you know when you watch a lot of trashy tv and you feel like you’ve lost some of your intelligence?
    Even worse, I felt like this book could make a Muslim lose some of their iman. I understand we are all complex humans and I don’t begrudge anyone at all the right to tell their story, whether I like it or not…but I personally feel, as a revert Muslim and in these delicate times where our Muslim identity and our iman can really go up and down, that no beautiful literature or good story is worth the iman loss.
    I’ve been enjoying Wael Abdul Gawad’s Day of the Dogs on this site – I fully recommend that to anyone looking for a good iman boosting fiction read.
    And even more highly, have a good read of somethign that will lift you up – a good tafsir, an excellent Quran translation, Shamail At Tirmidhi..
    May Allah SWT lift up the iman of all the Muslims, and guide us all, Aameen

  3. Mira

    November 26, 2020 at 12:27 PM

    Where do we buy these books

  4. Mohja Kahf

    July 27, 2021 at 10:46 AM

    Salam, dear Zainab,
    You did not deserve to go through such a marriage. I am so sorry you had that heartache.

    Thank youuuuuu for being willing to revisit your old review (I remember it!) with such generosity and self-searching. You were 16! You are inspiring me to write to an author whose book I reviewed scathingly in my 20s. We were what we were. Doing our best to be true to our selves then, and to who we are now.

    My favorite part is where you say the novel is “both a love letter and a break-up note to conservative Muslims.” And “she gently forces Muslim readers to confront the issues of intra-Muslim racism, of the history of Blackamerican Muslims, of the naive arrogance of immigrant Muslims….” Perhaps too gently. (There was a part of the manuscript where Uncle Jamal teaches Baba/Wajdy how very slowly to take his car registration out of his glove compartment if a cop stops him…now I wish that I hadn’t accepted the editor taking that out…well, the original manuscript was over 800 pages so a lot had to go. I take responsibility for that.)

    And one of my other regrets, nearly 20 years later, is that the novel falls down regarding Native Americans, perpetuating the “vanishing Indian” where they are invoked mainly as a relic of the country’s past, not living communities and fully existing individuals struggling for sovereignty rights and still resisting colonization.

    With much gratitude,

    Mohja

    Ps People who break with conservative Muslim communities don’t necessarily drop shariah out of their lives.

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