115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Illusion of Inclusion: Visioning and Re-visioning Muslim Female Characters in Young Adult Fantasy

Amanda Anderson, Delaware State University
Noelle I. Mouhtarim, Delaware State University

This essay argues that the larger problem behind Samirah and Riordan’s other under-developed minority characters is that simply adding minorities to conventional fantasy texts fails to provide accurate representations of minority figures. Inclusion and visibility are not enough, and we should not settle for making minority figures more visible for the dominant culture, but strive for accurate representation. 

Proposal: 

Rick Riordan has envisioned a magical world in which the pantheons of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse gods co-exist. While Riordan’s central characters, Percy, Jason, and Magnus continue the habit of white male heroes, he also presents minority characters in important secondary roles. As a result, his series provides a much more diverse cast than many fantasy series, which confronts the habit of whiteness traditionally found in fantasy literature (Young 6). Among his diverse characters, Riordan has created Samirah "Sam" al-Abbas, a young Muslim woman who is prominently featured in Riordan’s series Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. It would be easy to accept Samirah’s inclusion in Riordan’s fantasy world as a victory; however, one must not mistake the act of inclusion for dynamic representation of a minority culture. While Samirah’s inclusion does make a minority character visible, recognizable, and even consumable by the majority audience, it does not provide an accurate, recognizable, or relatable character for readers of the minority group. Her character is unevenly constructed, for even while it makes a minority figure more visible and helps to confront certain stereotypes, it simultaneously reinforces others. This issue is particularly important for representations of Muslims within American popular culture, for the public at large is all too eager to accept the presentation of Muslims within mass media at face value.

Not only is Samirah a young Muslim woman, she just happens to be a daughter of a Norse god and a Valkyrie. However, her very inclusion in this text is problematic for it is a fantasy series that acknowledges the Norse pantheon and afterlife as “real,” which is in direct conflict with core Islamic beliefs. The concept of monotheism in Islam is considered the largest core concept and serves as the primary common ground for all Muslims. Shahada, the literal declaration of the oneness of God, is essential to the Muslim identity; therefore, casting Samirah as a Valkyrie within the Norse pantheon and a devout Muslim forces her to sacrifice an integral part of her Islamic identity.

Not only is her inclusion in the series problematic, but her Islamic identity is unevenly constructed as evidenced by the way that some parts of this identity are more representative of the shared experiences of young Muslim women in American culture, for example Sam experiences bullying in school. On the other hand, the more nuanced aspects of her religious identity such as her hijab and dedication to her faith are inconsistently and inaccurately presented.  Therefore, though the trend of inclusion within the realm of young adult fantasy is positive, true inclusion must begin at a deeper level and must directly confront and reconstruct the habitually white conventions of fantasy.

Ultimately this article argues that the larger problem behind Samirah and Riordan’s other under-developed minority characters is that simply adding minorities to conventional fantasy texts fails to provide accurate representations of minority figures. Inclusion and visibility are not enough, and we should not settle for making minority figures more visible for the dominant culture, but strive for accurate representation.  The scarcity of representation of minority characters in YA lit in general, and particularly of Muslims makes that much more important for readers and educators insist on accurate in representation.  However, such representation can occur only when the fantasy genre is re-visioned can it provide space for diverse characters without the risk of reducing such characters to caricatures or stereotypes navigating a plot that is designed for white characters. Thus her character is constructed with a complete disregard for authenticity.