Maddie & Sayara by Sanjyot P. Dunung

maddie and sayara

TJ Burns — August 20, 2017


My 10-year-old daughter gave it 4/5 points, but I have to give it 2.5-3/5 points.

We both agree with the message: Girls have a right to be treated with respect and as equals to boys, regardless of country, political system, or religion. Women have a right to be treated as equals to men. Both women, and men, should be free to choose what they want to wear, whether they want to drive or not, with whom they associate with, and they should be free to pursue the career of their choice, without being hindered by traditional gender roles or stereotypes.

At first I was a bit confused, it was clear that Sayara is from a Middle Eastern country similar to Saudi Arabia. I told my daughter that the author may have her reasons for not saying the name of the country or the religion that the faith police claim to represent. It seemed most likely to me that she did not want to insult anyone’s sensibilities and alienate potential readership by openly criticizing a certain country or religion.

Truth be told, I get Maddie. When I was thirteen I was right and everyone who disagreed with me was wrong. My brother used to call me a “female chauvinist pig” and I could have easily been considered as being America-centrist. So Maddie’s naive idea that she can solve the world’s problems based on the set of values and beliefs that she was raised on is easy for me to understand, even if I can not (now that I’ve collected some life experience) condone it.

My critique of the book, however, is twofold. Firstly, the characters are not diverse. Maddie, Sayara, Themi, Alisha, Aunt AK, Grammy, Matin, Grandma Danah, Grandpa Mansur, Hariz, Miss Baker (the health teacher), Sara (the engineer), Sabrina (the lawyer) and even Prince Bodhi all have exactly the same opinion on gender equality. Exactly. They are, in fact, one and the same voice. They all repeat exactly the same message and even often use the exact words. The word “ridiculous” comes to mind. Many of them also eye roll when explaining the “ridiculous” customs and traditions.

“Alisha said sarcastically, smiling at me and rolling her eyes.” (39%)
“Alisha rolled her eyes again…” (40%)

Maddie says, “I needed to find a way to talk to the king and the judgment council and make them see how ridiculous these laws against girls were.” (23%)

Alisha says, “It’s hard to play sports or run in these ridiculous tents.” (32%)

Alisha rolled her eyes and overemphasized the weak to show how ridiculous she also thought the rules were.

Grandpa Mansur says, “In my day, when I was younger… there was no ridiculous FP!” (37%)

“The FP now runs the schools and decides what kids should learn. This is ridiculous” (Grandpa Mansur , 40%).

“The FP is afraid of questions. How ridiculous! What intelligent person is afraid of questions?” (Grandpa Mansur, 41%)

Sayara says, “Not even regular guys can get near him, let alone a girl. She rolled her eyes.”

Sara, the engineer that Maddie meets in prison, says, “I can’t even drive from building site to building site. It’s ridiculous.” (85%)

Sabrina, Hariz’s mom’s eyes rolled ever so slightly.” (89%)

My second critique is that anyone who doesn’t agree with the uni-opinion purported by all the main characters is portrayed as shallow, consumer-obsessed, brainwashed, weak, not able to think for themselves, money-grubbing, superficial, afraid, and/or just plain stupid.

“Mom genuinely lived life on the surface…”

Grandma Danah adds, “it’s our own fault that we don’t teach our children to think for themselves.” (40%)

Alisha says, “My mom made me realize that for many women in her generation, they were raised in a culture that brainwashed them into believing that the tent and veil protected them in some warped way… And it’s really hard to shake that level of mind control. That’s why we fight against the brainwashing.”

“People in the kingdom have forgotten to think for themselves. We are sheep,” added Grandpa Mansur. (40%)

People? Wow. That’s a broad overgeneralization, don’t you think? (I’m rolling my eyes right now in case anyone was wondering).

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the message in this book. In my 20s I first visited my future husband’s traditional Muslim family and later married into it, so I know first hand the frustrations an American girl (especially an equal-rights-for-all activist) experiences when visiting or living in a society strongly defined by gender roles.

But in my 30 years of experience bridging exactly those two cultures depicted in this book, I have come across many different opinions on the issue. Smart people, religious people, secular people, non-shallow people, considerate and kind people, selfless people, politically active people, peace activists, equal rights activists have many different opinions, assumptions, theories, and prescriptions regarding gender roles and gender equality — and for various reasons, many of these opinions differ from my own opinion (and Maddie’s opinion, and most everyone in this book’s opinions). In contrast to Maddie’s experience, people everywhere did not echo my opinion (or my words verbatim) on what is “ridiculous” and what not – quite the contrary. I often felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall on some issues, but was able to agree to disagree on others.

And to relegate everyone who does not share your opinion to being shallow, mindless, brainwashed, and/or greedy (as not only Maddie does, but all the main characters here do) is disrespectful and sophomoric.

There were some other problems in the execution of the story. Maddie readily admits that she doesn’t speak the language in “the kingdom” (“in a language I didn’t understand,” 35%), yet she is able to speak with everyone, both educated and non-educated, and even finds herself overhearing conversations that were clearly not meant for her ears.

I overheard Mr. Advisor say, “Don’t worry, Grand Master, the prince will not think to look for them at Block Z, at least not for a few days…” (81%).

The idea that people who are planning conspire against the prince to wiz Maddie away to a secret prison would speak to each other in English and not in their native language sounds to me to be a bit ridiculous.

Still I clearly approve of the message of this story and I was happy my 10-year-old daughter (half-American/half-Arab) read it so that we could discuss issues of culture and gender-equality, and so that she can learn that while she has every advantage and equal opportunities, sadly many girls and women around the world still do not – and that is plain ridiculous.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This entry was posted in Contemporary, Middle Grade, Multicultural, Young Adult. Bookmark the permalink.

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