Today on Chouett.com I have the pleasure to welcome Yusuf Toropov author of the recently released: ” Jihadi: A Love Story”. I absolutely love this post because it gave me an opportunity to learn. Did you know about the Bechdel Test? Well I didn’t, but what a brilliant benchmark to set our literary goals against.
Yes, “Jihadi: A Love Story” is definitely more feminist than you could imagine.
I will let you find out…
JIHADI: A LOVE STORY and the Bechdel Test
I’m proud to say that my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY passes the Bechdel Test. You’ve heard of the Bechdel Test, right? You haven’t? Then read this, please.
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel came up with this standard in 1985. Initially, her test was about movies, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to novels, too. A story passes the Bechdel test if it …
- Has two named female characters…
- who talk to each other …
- … about something other than a man.
Breathtaking in its simplicity, yes? Leaving aside those situations where there’s some valid reason for writing a story whose premise is that women simply don’t appear (Glengarry Glen Ross comes to mind), what contemporary writer would not want to incorporate at least one such scene into a story? I mean, it is 2016, isn’t it? Women are paying customers, aren’t they? Haven’t we moved beyond the point as writers, regardless of our own gender, where our female characters are so narrowly drawn, so superficial, and so intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually absent that they must be marginalized to the point of virtual invisibility?
Hard to say. Take a look at some of the recent major films that fail the Bechdel test:
The Social Network
All three original Star Wars films
The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy
I could have listed dozens more. This site seems to suggest that something more than a quarter, and less than half, of all feature films fail the test. Which is, to me, shocking.
Books that I can’t imagine living without that fail the Bechdel test (again, there are many) include:
Winnie the Pooh
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Of Mice and Men
The Sun Also Rises
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Now, please notice that I’m giving you books and movies I adore. I’m not saying that any of these works are evil, dangerous, immoral, or not worth enjoying. I’m not saying they don’t take us on important emotional journeys. I’m not saying they should have been rewritten. I’m just saying they missed opportunities.
I do realize, of course, that we have to make our own best choices as writers about how to serve the stories we’re telling, and I also realize that, if you go by box office receipts and book sales, the writers responsible for these stories seem to have made pretty good choices.
When it came to my book, I knew that I wanted the Fatima Adara character – a teenager in the Islamic Republic who finds herself devastated by the mistakes of others – to be a fully rounded individual. I wanted her to be intellectually and spiritually engaged person who takes it as a given that she has a right to set her own course in life. I wanted her to fight for, and secure, personal autonomy, and I wanted her destination to be defined by something other than romantic concerns.
I figured out early on that Fatima’s journey couldn’t be about which male would win mating rights to her. Her story had to be about whether she would be able to find a way protect her mother and sister, and support them as head of her household, following the deaths of her father and her older sister. Fatima’s story had to be about a young woman, newly responsible for others, making independent decisions as an adult. To me, that meant she needed a character progression that included close relationships, and, yes, dialogue about something other than men, with the two people who mattered most to her: her mother and her sister.
In recent weeks, I’ve been asked a lot about Fatima’s status as a devout Muslim, which is fine, and what I expected. But readers haven’t yet asked me, and I hope they will soon, about her status as a feminist. I didn’t use that word in the novel, because it’s not one that would have made it into the daily lexicon of the fictional nation I created for Fatima, the Islamic Republic. But it is how I think of her, and it’s how I suspect she would describe herself if she were given the opportunity to do so in a different cultural environment.
It comes as a surprise to many people to learn of the large number of brilliant Muslim feminists there are out there – Yvonne Ridley, for instance, describes herself as a feminist. I hope that the book I wrote makes it easier for non-Muslims to accept this reality. I suspect that the reality of which I’m speaking comes as no surprise to Alison Bechdel, but of course I don’t know.
I want to thank Bechdel for giving writers of all faith traditions, and writers of no faith tradition, an important and enduring benchmark standard for our storytelling. In closely considering her Test – which I hope you will do if you write fiction – we have a twofold opportunity. We have the opportunity to have a conversation with other writers about the importance of diversity, given the pervasiveness of gender bias in our popular culture. And we also have an opportunity to create fictional works that touch and inspire both genders in a more compelling and fully human way.
Thank you Yusuf