When I was in high school, I watched my peers date freely and fall in love while I was not allowed to date. This was due to me being Muslim. To delve into a world of romance that I believed was forbidden yet desirable to me in real life, I curled up with several good teen romance books throughout my teen years.
Based on my Islamic beliefs, I believe it is best for me to withhold dating and falling in love unless I’m ready to get married soon. Being a Muslim woman who has chosen to follow this path for the most part regarding dating, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, published last October hit me in the feels with her brilliant writing of a love story between an Iranian, US American Muslim high school girl and a white non-Muslim boy.
Shirin, from whose point of view the story is told, is a breakdancing badass babe who does not let stereotypes get the best of her. Despite American society being unabashedly disapproving of her Muslim identity, she proudly dons the headscarf common among Muslim women’s attire.
She knows that it is her right to choose what she shows and doesn’t show off her body. While I’m not a hijabi myself, Shirin’s courage to keep on wearing the hijab was admirable, especially in an increased bigoted climate.
It was extremely refreshing to see a young Muslim woman’s individual voice and experience be represented in the realm of young adult books. I know firsthand that it’s not always easy to be open about my Muslim identity in the United States, the country which I live. I spent high school being cautious about not exposing my faith in front of my fears, especially when Trump was running for office during my senior year.
While I was fortunate enough to not have to deal with the truly traumatic discrimination many Muslims had to face under the context of 9/11, I am able to relate to Shirin’s feelings of being out-grouped and discriminated against to some extent.
At 9 years old, I wasn’t much knowledgeable on what 9/11 entailed, but that didn’t save me from being at least somewhat aware of animosity toward innocent Muslims like myself. I was at a summer camp where a boy a year older than me thought it would be funny to bully me for the rest of the camp by calling me and my friend, who wasn’t even Muslim, ‘spies from Iraq’ upon finding out I was Muslim.
I’m not even Iraqi.
My parents are from Bangladesh, and I am a US American having been born and brought up in the United States. My friend was Indian American, and the kid decided to just categorize her into the same group of ‘different’ from other US Americans because of our differences from many white Americans like himself.
Similarly, in A Very Large Expanse of Sea, Shirin’s Americanness is challenged by the people at her school. For instance, on her first day at a new school, her teacher insists that Shirin is in the wrong English class since it’s an advanced English class and not an ESL class, which to the teacher doesn’t make sense since Shirin is a hijabi and thus possibly cannot already be good at English. In addition, Shirin’s classmates make racist and ignorant remarks at her on a regular basis.
As for the romance between Shirin and Ocean, their story a heartbreakingly beautiful one full of hope and feels. Shirin and Ocean come from significantly different backgrounds, but they strive to make a relationship work through their common grounds of humanity and understanding.
Ocean, as much as he wants to be there for Shirin, cannot always understand what it’s like to experience discrimination on the basis of being Muslim. However, as the story progresses, Ocean becomes more aware and understanding of it as he and Shirin receive backlash for their interracial and interfaith relationship from ignorant people in their town.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is only 320 pages and I finished the book within 24 hours, but the emotion ignited is so raw and powerful and will leave a lasting taste on your heart. It is obviously not meant to provide universal representation: it isn’t accurate to put all young US American Muslim women into one category when it comes to dating. Some do date, and others do not. But the feelings and challenges of forbidden love are common, and the emotions of first love are more so.
Tahereh Mafi does an excellent job in individualizing one young Muslim woman’s voice, extracting away the idea of a homogenizing stereotype of all young Muslim women.