All references to Counting Down With You by Tashie Bhuiyan in this post are spoiler free.
If there was one thing I could make people understand about representation in media, it's that "good" rep ≠ positive experiences only.
We're more than familiar with bad rep of all different kinds. Muslims are terrorists, Black people are drug dealers, bi people just can't make up their minds, the list goes on. It really shouldn't be too much to ask for to see yourself in a role that's not negative. But there's one kind of rep I've seen people complain about that I wish everyone would see in a new light.
As a Muslim woman, I would love to see Muslim characters on page and on screen not just existing but thriving. A character who isn't struggling with Islamophobia or their own religion. We exist in all kinds of ways in the world, so media should reflect that. But that doesn't make the stories of Islamophobia and struggling with faith any less valid.
People often forget that there is no singular correct way to represent a group or identity. Muslims are not a monolith, and no two experiences will be the same. This tweet from Roseanne A. Brown explains it perfectly:
And yet people are still angry about stories of Muslims struggling with their faith; most recently, Counting Down With You by Tashie Bhuiyan to be released May 4th. I've seen more than one review on Goodreads claiming it was 'bad Muslim rep' and wasn't sure in what way without reading spoilers. Though I took these reviews with a grain of salt, I was nervous.
Tashie has talked about on Twitter how this story was a personal one, and that there is an author's note in the book that addresses that. In fact, she shared the entire author's note in a tweet:
It clearly states that Karina's story reflects Tashie's own. It rubbed me the wrong way that people were saying a narrative that mirrors the author's personal experience is "bad" representation, but I decided to reserve my judgement until I actually read the book.
Once I had received and read an arc, it became immediately clear to me what people's problem was: Karina chafes against her parents' rules and rebels by wearing crop tops with ripped jeans. That may sound like no big deal out of context. But stories like these are not uncommon. In fact, "Muslim kids suffering in their lives" is one of the most common stories we see in media. Muslims are "oppressed" and "have no freedom," as if Muslims have no agency.
So yes, it makes sense to be a little frustrated to see this narrative play out yet again. Except Karina's problems are never with her faith. At no point does she feel like she needs to escape Islam or that its rules are oppressing her. In fact, she turns to her daily prayers and reading the Quran to help with her anxiety. Her issues lie solely with her parents who weaponize their interpretation of Islam and its rules to dictate her life.
Of course, the "Muslim parents are the worst" narrative is also played out. Here's the thing: this is an own voices story and has explicitly been stated to reflect the author's experiences. Who are outsiders to say those experiences aren't valid? Just because it isn't their experience, or a positive one, doesn't mean it doesn't deserve to be told. In fact, it's a slap in the face to Muslims that have struggled with this kind of thing to be then told by other Muslims that no one wants to hear their story. If I confessed to seeing parts of myself in this book, does that make me a bad Muslim? Just what are people trying to say about those that have gone through similar situations?
Let's also not forget that controlling/strict parents that weaponize religion are not unique to Islam! It can happen to anyone, regardless of faith. So, to say that abusive parents are a representation of Islam, even in a bad way, is not only wrong but also helps poison the well to perpetuate the stereotype that all Muslim families are abusive.
To top it off, it's also irresponsible to ignore stories like this. While non-Muslims also face similar problems, it's often the Muslims facing it that are silenced. The reason I enjoyed Counting Down With You so much is, in part, because it highlights a larger problem in Muslim communities that many Muslims would rather pretend doesn't exist.
The fact is, many Muslims mix their culture with the religion—to the point where they enforce cultural traditions as religious law. Islam is a beautiful religion, but I think that there are a number of people who turn it into something ugly by hurling abuse at, and ultimately pushing out, the people who don't practice it the way they deem correct.
While Karina's family doesn't go to that extreme, a lot of the same behaviors are there. They dictate which activities and big life decisions are "acceptable" for her, treat her younger brother with laxer rules, and ostracize anyone that dares to defy their standards. As her parents, it's their job to guide her to the right path; the issue comes in when that path dictates every aspect of her life, beyond Islam's rules and teachings.
I personally know a number of people that struggle with their faith, not because they chafe at its rules, but how others tell them they're wrong for what they believe and how to practice it. Faith should be between you and God, so it's heartbreaking to see people excluded from a community they want to belong in purely because of an outsider's perspective that deems their practice of that faith wrong.
There is so much actual bad rep out there, and it's disappointing to see a narrative that doesn't reflect your personal experience, but that doesn't mean other experiences are wrong. To be clear, people can still dislike the book all they want, but they should consider this the next time they call a story they don't see themselves in "bad" rep.
In the meantime, if you want more stories about Muslims living their lives, check out The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah, Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi, and Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, just to name a few.
I received the e-ARC of Counting Down With You from Edelweiss+ in exchange for an honest review which can be found here.