She's Rewriting Western Fairy Tales for Muslim Children - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Fawzia Gilani-Williams wants all kids to see themselves in classic stories.

By Maroosha Muzaffar

Fawzia Gilani-Williams, from an early age, was fond of libraries. “I became an independent reader. My selections were predominantly fairy tales, folk tales and international stories,” she tells me. She loved reading Virginia Haviland’s Favorite Fairy Tales series, which collected stories from different world cultures. But when she became a teacher, following Britain’s national curriculum, she found her Muslim students were often uneasy about those same stories. That was the spark.

“As a teacher, I recognized the discomfort of Muslim children putting themselves in the characters of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty,” Gilani-Williams says. And so she rewrote them as “mirror stories” — tales featuring Muslim protagonists in whom she hoped her students would recognize themselves. According to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, only 4 percent of kids’ books published in the U.K. in 2018 had a protagonist from a minority ethnic background, even though 32 percent of schoolchildren in the U.K. fit that description. Still, it’s an improvement from 2017, when only 1 percent of protagonists were ethnic minorities. By comparison, 23 percent of U.S. kids books in 2018 had non-white children as protagonists, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study, though that’s still less than the 27 percent starring non-humans or the 50 percent showcasing white main characters. Rather than make Muslim families living in Western countries choose between stories that reflect their religious identities or those that reflect their national identities, Gilani-Williams’ books aim to present Muslim kids with tales they can identify with from every angle.

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From Left: Disney’s Sleeping Beauty; Gilani-Williams’ Sleeping Beauty

The stories — which currently include versions of Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — reflect the lifestyle of their target audience. “They naturally give prominence to daily acts and behaviors that a Muslim child is accustomed to,” she says. “These include the reading of the Quran and being guided by it, worshipping and praising God; kind words, acts of charity and positive values like hard work, persistence, patience and forgiveness.”

In her books, Gilani-Williams often changes the recognized beats of a story to conform to Islamic codes of conduct young readers may be encouraged to follow. Unmarried characters don’t kiss, for example, and Gilani-Williams’ Snow White prays and fasts as part of her religious observance. Oh, and the seven dwarfs she goes to live with are women.

Born and raised in the West Midlands, Gilani-Williams, 52, grew up with a father who loved to read and a mother who loved to tell stories. “At school, I read all the stories about Jesus” — she hastens to add, “Peace be upon him” — “all the parables, the Biblical accounts of God’s messengers.” She was the only Muslim in her class until she was 17 years old, and her state school observed Christian religious holidays and expected students to recite the Lord’s Prayer. She continued with her education, eventually earning a Ph.D. with a focus on children’s literature.

“Her work is most important in the academic world, as very little has been done on Muslim children’s literature, either in the U.K. or internationally,” says Jean Webb, a professor of international children’s literature at the University of Worcester and formerly Gilani-Williams’ doctorate supervisor. “It is important that the study of children’s literature is inclusive. Fawzia brings understanding where there would otherwise be silence.” Currently, Gilani-Williams works managing three school libraries in the United Arab Emirates, though her husband and daughter are based in the U.S.

While fairy tales would seem the most innocuous source material, Gilani-Williams has faced controversy over her work. A non-Muslim editor once criticized her during a conference, she says, telling her the adaptations to traditional stories were inappropriate. Still, her books have been published across the world, from India to Japan to Canada to South Africa. And Gilani-Williams is hoping to reach even more Muslim kids via Ramadan-themed stories disseminated via a YouTube channel. She’s also working on new installments of her series: Islamic versions of Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel will be released later this year, she says — “Insh’Allah.”

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Gilani-Williams (pictured with a kindergarten class) as a guest at The Demonstration School of Silpakorn University (Early Childhood & Elementary) in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, in June 2019.

“I have read most of Fawzia’s stories, and as a mum myself, I can tell you what a breath of fresh air her books are to my kids,” says Zuleikha Seedat, a colleague who has known Gilani-Williams for several years. “Kids are scared or almost shy nowadays to acknowledge that they are Muslim. Fawzia’s books help children overcome fears and celebrate who they are.” 

OZY’s 5 Questions With Fawzia Gilani-Williams

  1. What’s the last book you read? Bear Feels Sick by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. And also Do the Right Thing. It’s one of my stories that promotes positive classroom behavior.
  2. What do you worry about? I’m concerned about the health of the people dearest to me in their old age.  
  3. What’s the one thing you can’t live without? God.
  4. Who’s your hero? The most heroic attributes are love, loyalty and compassion, so the messengers of God and Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, peace be upon them, are my heroes. And anyone who emulates these qualities — they’re my heroes too.  
  5. What’s one item on your bucket list? Promoting the message of peace is high on my bucket list, which I would like to do by visiting children in Jerusalem and reading a story of Muslim and Jewish neighborly love entitled Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam.

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