Book Club Books Pop Culture

Navigating queerness & tradition in YA fiction with Adiba Jaigirdar, author of “The Henna Wars”

Adiba Jaigirdar is an Irish-Bangladeshi writer, poet, and teacher with an MA in Postcolonial Studies. Her latest book, The Henna Wars, is a poignant story about two Muslim girls falling in love.

Be sure to check out our live Instagram event featuring Adiba and our own editor, Shaima. We’re also doing a giveaway of her book, enter now!


Adiba Jaigirdar’s debut novel The Henna Wars stems from a genuine desire to inspire joy. She was drawn to “write a story that made [her] happy and that was funny to read and fun to write.” She settled on the idea of a romantic comedy with two teen girls with rival henna businesses while “attempting (and failing) to teach [herself] henna”.

Looking to up the stakes of the girls’ rivalry, Adiba imagined what it would be like “if the two girls were also romantically attracted to each other, and grappling with what that might mean.” From there, everything else came together to make this wonderful tale of love, longing, and growing up. 

The Henna Wars revolves around themes of queerness, first love, culture, and family. Adiba interjects stories with themes that are relevant to herself and her life, and exploring them in the medium of storytelling.

Her influences range from The Princess Diaries, Hayley Kiyoko and Janelle Monáe to Bollywood film like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai which she cites as part of her introduction to romance.

She recalls the first time she encountered a person of color writing about people of color in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (which we love!). Reading her stories made Adiba realize that it was possible to write about people like herself.

As a queer woman of color, she acknowledges that she has a responsibility to represent her culture, gender, and sexuality in her work. “There’s a lot of pressure, especially because there aren’t a lot of novels out there about Bangladeshi teens, and even fewer about queer Bangladeshi Muslim teens,” Adiba said. “Even though realistically I know that it’s impossible to represent everything as you write a single story, I still felt the pressure of that.” 

To her, storytelling cannot be separated from politics. “Especially as a queer Muslim South Asian, there’s no way that what I write is not going to be political. My very existence is political.” 

As she writes in the contemporary era, I was curious to see what she finds unique to the time that we are currently living in. To her, this time is a time of “rising up against oppression and attempting to enact change.” Yet, she believes this has been the case for a while, as “marginalized people have been fighting for our rights for a long time. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.” 

If this story were set in the future, she would love to say that the “characters like Nishat and Flávia wouldn’t have to worry about their sexuality, race, and culture making it more difficult for them to fit in.” However, she has her doubts. “I’m not particularly hopeful of that happening anytime in the near future.” 

For the writers out there or those interested in what happens behind the scenes, Adiba admits that her writing process is “honestly a little chaotic.” When she first begins writing, she “usually have a very basic idea of the story I want to tell. I figure out the important bits that I need to be able to write the story—the beginning, the end, and bits and pieces in the middle. Then, I begin to write and it’s a process of stringing everything together. It’s a little like putting together a puzzle. Once it’s out there on the page, it’s time for me to begin revisions and shape it into something that really works.”

[Image Description: Book cover of The Henna Wars, two girls with henna reaching their hands out to each other.] Via Twitter
[Image Description: Book cover of The Henna Wars, two girls with henna reaching their hands out to each other.] Via Twitter
The scenes that she enjoyed writing the most were the Bengali wedding scenes at the beginning of the book. “Bangladeshi people are obsessed with weddings, and our weddings are a whole event. So it was nice to explore that aspect of my life through the lens of a character like Nishat, who is surrounded by the familiarity of a Bangladeshi wedding, while also stumbling across her childhood crush.” 

As for how it feels to see her work being shared around the world, Adiba admits that “it still feels a little surreal.” Her dreams of being a writer when she was younger seemed to rely on her writing about straight white characters with whom she shared few experiences. Those were some of the only stories that she saw published or have mainstream success. “It was hard for me to imagine a world where someone like me could be writing stories about people like me.” 

In the future, she hopes that The Henna Wars can allow queer brown girls to see a reflection of themselves in its pages, and that it can open doors for more queer brown people to write and publish more of their own stories. 

For those that have enjoyed the latest book-to-movie adaptations like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before or Crazy Rich Asians, Adiba shares that she would love to see The Henna Wars adapted for the big screen in the future. Especially if the potential adaptation stays true to the ethnicities of the characters.

As of now, Adiba is revising her second novel, which will be out from Page Street in spring 2021. It’s another YA romantic comedy which follows two girls—one Bangladeshi Bengali and one Indian Bengali—who have to start a fake relationship in order to achieve what they want. 

Have you entered our Instagram giveaway yet? And if you absolutely cannot wait, get The Henna Wars on Amazon or on The Tempest’s own virtual bookshop supporting local bookstores.
Race Inequality

Will American Girl ever give us a Muslim doll – or will we continue being ignored?

American Girl is a company that makes exactly what the name implies: dolls representing American girls. Unlike other dolls, these ones have stories that represent some part of American history. Kit lives during the Great Depression, Kaya is a Native American girl growing up during the American revolution, Rebecca is a Russian Jewish immigrant living in 1910 America, Josefina is a Mexican girl in Santa Fe as it is still under Mexican rule, and Melody is an African American girl pursuing music during the civil rights era.

What’s most beautiful about these stories is that their characters aren’t solely struggling with identity or the politics of their time. They are girls with specific passions and hobbies, with moments of American history slipping into their lives. The darker parts of American history are there, too, such as European settlement and slavery.

However, there’s a group missing in this lineup of stories: Muslim Americans.

This gap demonstrates the common misconception that Muslims aren’t a part of American history, that we’ve only just recently become a part of American society (or even that we will never be fully American). In actuality, Muslims were some of the first people in this country, with 10-15% of slaves being Muslim. The late 19th and 20th centuries were marked by an influx of Arab Muslims. The members of the Nation of Islam played a big role in the civil rights movement.

So, yeah, Muslims have been here for a while now, and it’s odd American Girl hasn’t taken notice.

Two young Muslim girls – Salwa and Zahra – saw this gap after having read all the American Girl books and decided to confront the company about it. They decided to start a petition requesting the president of the American Girl company to create a Muslim doll.

This would be an economically strategic move for American Girl to take. The U.S. has about 8 million Muslims, and Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. In 2015, American Muslims spent $1.9 trillion, a number expected to turn into $3 trillion by 2021. It would be advantageous to pay attention to these numbers. Some companies, like Nike for example, are beginning to notice their Muslim customers and are tailoring their products to appeal to the large group. This is the perfect opportunity for American Girl to do the same.

That being said, I also urge American Girl not to blindly follow the new socially-conscious trend companies are taking just to increase sales. I hope they really listen to the stories of American Muslims and research our history because this will impact girls beyond Salwa and Zahra. It will send a message to everyone who doesn’t see herself in the toy aisle too often while also reminding others that Muslims are here, too.

I remember growing up with my own American Girl doll, essentially the toy version of myself. She had brown hair and green eyes, played the flute, loved arts and crafts, and I’m pretty sure had the same shirt as me. I gave this doll a white American name though, didn’t dress her in hijab (even though I got her around the time I started wearing it), and honestly kept any signs of her being Muslim or foreign away from her because that wasn’t what normal dolls were like. Had I seen dolls, poly-pockets, Barbies, anything that really looked like me, this might have been different. I might have been more confident in expressing my faith and culture with my dolls at home or even outside in public. It might have also made the idea of American Muslims more normal to my non-Muslim peers.

To me, the most gripping line of the girls’ petition is this:

“As American girls today, we are fortunate to be successors to a long line of real American girls who were strong, smart, courageous, and even defiant. But lately, it hasn’t always been easy to be strong.”

If there ever was a perfect time to include Muslim girls in our toy stores, it’s now, when even Muslim adults find it hard to be strong. The American Girl legacy is one of passion, unadulterated self-expression, and most importantly, unity amongst all American girls. If the company really wants to stick to that legacy, they need to consider the group that’s been here forever and still struggles to be considered American even today.

Gender & Identity Life

I’m a Muslim, not an encyclopedia on Islam

When I was eleven years old, two boys approached me with a question during social studies class. They were smart boys, a little skeevy in that handsome and privileged and I know it but you don’t know I know it, and come on, being white doesn’t give me any privilege, I listen to Kanye and that solves everything kind of way. Basically – blonde, untrustworthy, AXE-body­sprayed Gremlins.

I assumed they would ask a question regarding my opinion on some NWA song that I knew nothing about at 11, and know nothing about now. They came up to me, the only Muslim in the grade (who was probably Iraq­ian?? Afghanarabican?? Hindian? Something­stanian. WHAT THE HELL IS SHE?), and asked: “So, what is jihad?”

They asked me earnestly, not to make a joke of it or anything this time. They were genuinely interested. And I felt obligated to answer just as earnestly.

But an under­-informed Muslim to this day, I had no clue how to respond. They had come to the person they thought could provide the most accurate definition of this word. They’d probably heard it on the news and in their churches, or on the televised vomit guised as comedy known as Family Guy.

So, I told them I’d find out for them. I didn’t say “I’ll ask my Muslim parents” because I knew I wasn’t going to. My family spent a lot of time watching American Idol when I was 11. We never stopped to dissect the meaning of Islamic philosophy in the 21st century during commercials. We did what everyone else did ­– got really angry about eliminations every week, and still never voted.

But I had to find out. Those guys were relying on me. I was their Muslim voice in this age of violence and confusion. I was responsible for an answer as to why this all was happening to them, why those Muslims acted as they did. And that’s when this story reveals itself as far more than just a question to be answered.

To those boys I was not just an eleven-year-­old girl: I was a Muslim first. Other pre-teens in our grade definitely weren’t expected to carry the weight of foreign extremism, or to explain that such violence isn’t what Islam calls for at all. Or that the term jihad, in the ways that those boys heard, was completely manipulated to justify an insanity and ideology that belongs to no religion.

They didn’t have to defend themselves from blame, or explain that their families were no different than other families in town.

But when you’re a Muslim in post­-9/11 America, Islam is a full-­time job. Especially if you’re the only Muslim in a group of people , even if that group of people is made up of middle ­schoolers. And since that was the case, I was expected to explain jihad and terrorism and their fallacious motives and geopolitical implications to those two boys.

Perhaps even worse, I expected it of myself. At age eleven.

In the end, I found the answer pretty easily on Google. Those boys could have, too. They could have asked the teacher or picked up a book.

The bottom line: if you know a Muslim, learn more about them than that fact. They are classmates and colleagues and neighbors and artists and bankers and engineers. No matter what your needs are, they are not Muslims first and foremost. Respect that.

And if that Muslim you know is in middle school, maybe don’t expect them to teach you about theology and global politics and international relations. Maybe give them a day off.

Politics The World

Get out of my skirt, Europe

A few months ago, a 15 year-old French Muslim girl was banned from school for wearing a long black skirt. According to the principal, the skirt violated the ban of religious symbols in school. The student, named as Sarah, removed her headscarf before entering school, as is required by the 2004 French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools. She argued that her skirt was not a religious symbol.

A popular Twitter hashtag emerged #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux  – I wear my skirt as I like. The hashtag highlighted the online outrage over the ban.

“If it’s worn by a ‘white’ person, it’s hippy chic, if it’s a Muslim, it becomes conspicuous,” one user tweeted.

Another user tweeted, “Runway models wear long skirts / models & its haute couture, but a Muslim does it and it’s a threat to secularism.”

Liberty, equality and fraternity: these are all part of the French National Motto. However, French Muslim citizens do not seem to be treated equally when it comes to what they wear. The French not only have a problem with the niqab or hijab – the face veil and head scarf – but also long skirts, as they are now seen as conspicuously religious.

The Collective Against Islamophobia in France reported around 130 cases last year where students had been banned from the classroom for outfits that were considered too openly religious.

France is not an isolated case. A few days ago, 30 schoolgirls from Belgium were sent home from school for wearing long skirts. According to the new school rules, the principal does not authorize baggy trousers, long skirts or dresses.

The hashtag #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux started trending on Twitter again.

There seems to be a recurring theme in Europe with Islamophobia, and in particular with the discrimination against Muslim women. Whether skirts are worn for religious or non-religious reasons, long skirts offer modesty, elegance, style and comfort.

A woman in the so-called liberal West should be able to wear a long, short or medium skirt. Double standards and anti-democratic principles that pigeonhole Muslim women must be addressed and condemned. European citizens in particular have a duty to help mobilize positive change, by using education as a means to combat negative stereotypes, that only serve to harm minorities and individual liberties.

Let’s be clear: Europe’s attack on the niqab, hijab and now long skirts is an attack on freedom itself.