Amal Meets Amal (Finally) #DiverseBookBloggers #ReadDiverse2017


I don’t often come across a character in a book who shares my first name: Amal, which is Arabic in origin and generally means “hope.” Thanks to Amal Clooney,* more people in my part of the world are aware of it now, but when I was a kid, I didn’t come across any other “Amals” in reality or in fiction. The only exception is “Amahl” from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and not only is that character’s name spelled differently from mine, but we’re also different genders. His existence encouraged many people to assume I’m male when they see my name on paper, a mistake that used to bother me when I was a kid.

Back then, I would have appreciated a book like Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. This light, young adult novel features an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teenager named Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim. Like me, she knows what it’s like to look different from everyone else at school, to practice a different religion, and to have a name that people frequently misspell or misstate. As she recounts hearing:

Hey Amal, did you notice the sub teacher called you ‘Anal’ at rollcall this morning?

I’m familiar with that embarrassing typo too. I often receive mail addressed to “Mr. Anal [B.].” Spell check is not my friend.

It was nice to read a book with a character who knows what this feels like. Amal Abdel-Hakim is smart, funny, and brave enough to assert her identity even when she knows it won’t be easy. In the novel, she decides to wear a hijab full-time, including at her snooty private school. Ms. Walsh, the principal, is opposed to Amal’s choice, saying,

Amal… hmmm… I don’t want to- I mean, I want to tread delicately on this… sensitive issue… hmm… Did you speak to anybody about wearing… about abandoning our school uniform?

Ms. Walsh assumes that Amal’s parents are forcing her to wear the headscarf–which is not true–and then tells Amal that she’s violating the school’s “history of tradition” by deviating from the strict uniform policy. It’s an Australian private school, which the novel suggests might be able to get away with prohibiting students from wearing clothing associated with their religion. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens.

In my country, the United States, private schools are often able to impose strict dress codes that prohibit religious clothing or symbols because students at private schools don’t have constitutional rights, including the First Amendment’s right to freely exercise religion. Public schools are another matter. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”** However, courts have upheld many restrictions on student expression, including restrictions that impinge on religious freedom, especially if the restriction is viewpoint- and content-neutral. See, e.g. Jacobs v. Clark County School District, 529 F.3d 419 (2008) (upholding a dress code that prohibited a printed message that reflected a student’s religious beliefs).

These days, whatever the constitution may or may not require, many schools avoid the issue by choosing to have dress codes that include religious exemptions. Here’s one example (PDF): “Head apparel (hats and hoods) are not permitted to be worn inside the school building, with the exception of those worn for medical or religious purposes,” thus permitting hijabs and similar religious clothing.

I wonder, though, as my country becomes increasingly Islamophobic, will these exemptions disappear? If so, will the courts condone it? We shall see.



*Thanks, but no thanks. Virtually everyone I meet for the first time points out that (1) I share my name with George Clooney’s wife, and (2) we’re both lawyers. I’m tired of having this conversation over and over again. [Update: And now that Amal and George are expecting twins, they’ll add that to the list too!]

**Public school teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights [] at the schoolhouse gate” either. However, at least in my state, they do not have the right to wear religious clothing at school. In Pennsylvania, a state law prohibits public school teachers from “wearing… any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect, or denomination.” 24 Pa. Cons. St. Ann. § 11-1112; see U.S. v. Bd. of Educ. for Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 911 F.2d 882 (3d Cir. 1990) (upholding the statute under an employment discrimination law because “barring religious attire is important to the maintenance of an atmosphere of religious neutrality in the classroom”).

***For another opinion on Does My Head Look Big in This?, see: Huntress of Diverse Books (“Abdel-Fattah took a topic that is discussed in such detail so often (nowadays and at that time) and was able to make me feel like I wasn’t being lectured.”)


  1. In regards to the law that says no obvious signs of a religion may be worn by teachers…does that include a crucifix necklace? I feel like I see those all the time, but recalling public school days is hard, as they are far behind me. I think I appreciated the religious neutrality at my public school because I was always afraid that very religious Christian teachers would slant my education toward what it says in the Bible instead of facts. However, I grew up in a place where I didn’t even think about people of different religions. I knew one Jewish kid. Seeing someone he could identify with surely would have meant a lot. Thanks for getting me thinking more about religion and school!

  2. I find it bizarre that you wouldn’t have constitutional rights in a private school but you would at a state run one, wouldn’t be the case in Ireland, the same rule would have to apply for both and for the dress codes they apply and enforce. All the same this is one I definitely am eager to pick up soon, I’m always on bored for YA that forces me to think and look at experiences different than my own, also I’ve read very few books by Muslim authors or with Muslim protagonists so I need to fix that for sure!

  3. I actually had the opposite problem growing up. My mother chose one of the most common names for 1987, so I was one of many. When I had my own children, I chose uncommon names so they would stand out. We shall see how they feel about it as they get older.

    I fear that many things will change in the U.S. after today.

  4. I can totally sympathize with people always getting your names wrong. No one ever spelled my name right even relatives! And it was rare anyone would pronounce my last name right on the first try. I did run across my first name now and then though but it was never spelled “right” 🙂

    The books sounds great and I always love how you sprinkle legal stuff into your posts 🙂

  5. I’ve had this book on my wishlist for absolutely ages and thought it must be really obscure as no one has bought it for me and I’ve never come across it. Maybe it’s been republished or something. I’m going to make an effort to get hold of a copy this year. Oh, and even if you have a really boring, plain name like Liz, it’s AMAZING how many people go “With an S or a Z?” WHAT? Ahem … anyway …

  6. Well, at least you have come across your name at least in cases like these 😀 My name is so ridiculously unfamous- I might have to remedy that hahaha xD I’ve been eyeing this book from afar for quite sometime now, but never got around to picking it up. I think I’ll give this a try sometime soon- it does so sound amazing! Thanks for sharing, Amal! ❤

  7. That’s neat that you finally found a book character with your name. And also that she was an admirable character! For whatever reason (though it could just be perceptual bias on my part) it seems like book characters with my first name are always the snooty know-it-alls!

  8. Hahahaha, one of my life policies is never to make remarks about people’s names. Even quite harmless remarks about anyone’s names are things the person has heard a hundred times before because THAT IS HOW IT GOES with remarks about people’s names. It’s like saying “Wow you’re tall!” to a tall person. I promise if we ever meet in real life I will not say anything about Amal Clooney. :p

    I was reading “Enter Title Here” by Rahul Kanakia recently, and there was a similar thread where the school tries to make the brown main character admit that her parents are abusing her at worst, or at best making choices for her that she doesn’t want. It reminds me of that book I read about veiling, whose author said “the hijab of choice is indistinguishable from the hijab of compulsion.” Making assumptions is nobody’s friend.

    1. That’s a great life policy! It’s always dangerous to make assumptions about other people. I’m going to look into Enter Title Here. It sounds interesting.

  9. Oh I completely understand the pain of never seeing your name in print – when I was a little girl I found a newspaper article about a woman with my name and I treasured it for years. These days I am a little happier about having a unique name but the kids struggle with it. When we have children who we name, we’ll probably be choosing a more standard first name and then a unique middle name.

    1. I felt so much pressure to choose wisely when naming my kids. My partner and I decided that I would choose the names (with his input, but not his veto) because we were giving the children his surname. I love the names I chose, but one of them has turned out to be difficult for people to say. Ugh.

  10. I also just read this! I’m posting up a review this coming weekend. LOVED it. And loved especially that she’s Palestinian. Now I want to read all of Randa Abdel-Fattah’s work. You bring up some good points about public school policy. I’ve often wondered what would happen if we had a hijabi applicant or a teacher who converted to Islam and felt a spiritual desire to wear the hijab. Here in rural Missouri, I don’t think it would go down so great, BUT I bet most people wouldn’t even think of it as a possibility. Now I’m off to research Missouri public school law for teacher. Great review!

    1. I want to read all of Randa Abdel-Fattah’s work too! I have copies of Ten Things I Hate About Me and No Sex in the City, but I haven’t read them yet. I’m looking forward to your review of Does My Head Look Big in This?

      As for school policies, I wonder whether schools in rural Missouri have exemptions for students who wear hijabs. A public school that doesn’t permit it is asking for a First Amendment challenge, but that area of law isn’t as settled as I thought it was (and perhaps getting riskier for Muslims in our current political climate, sadly). As for public school teachers, I don’t know if Missouri has an “anti-religious garb” law like Pennsylvania does. I don’t think many states have it.

  11. It’s so annoying that your state doesn’t allow teachers to wear religious clothing. I wonder why people assume that non-religious clothing is objective and neutral, whereas the other is not.

    Great that you had the chance to read a book in which the MC has your name 😀 .

    1. I was surprised when I came across that law. It would’ve been meaningful for me to have had a teacher who was obviously Muslim or any religion that wasn’t the dominant religion in the area. At the same time, though, my husband went to a school where the teachers wore religious symbols associated with one religion, and it made him feel marginalized because he didn’t practice that religion. It’s a complicated issue.

      1. I understand how it must felt for your husband. Nevertheless, I think it’s better if everyone wears what they feel comfortable in. Otherwise children learn that not all types of clothes are professional. I feel the same way about tattoos.

  12. I know the struggle of never seeing your name in books! haha Last year someone on Goodreads told me that there was a book with a character named Naz, and I thought that was cool but never read it. x)
    This book sounds wonderful and so does Amal. I’ve had my eye on it for a while and I think it’s time I add it on Goodreads as well.

    1. I’ll keep an eye out for your name in literature! Maybe I’ll add a Naz to my next book. 😉

      I definitely recommend Does My Head Look Big in This? I hope you get around to reading it.

  13. I’ve seen this book before and honestly it looks really amazing! Not only are diverse books so important but I think books that bring up strong women are incredible! Definitely will keep my eye on this one.

  14. I really appreciate this series because it gives me a lot of great reading suggestions to help broaden my cultural horizons, if you will, when it comes to the books I pick up. I read a NYT article today that featured how important of a role books played in Obama’s presidency, which really highlighted to me that I need to challenge myself to read more diverse books. Thanks, as always, for sharing!

    1. I haven’t read that NYT piece, but I will. It sounds fascinating. The Obama Administration wasn’t perfect, but I am going to miss it terribly.

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