When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life.
Flávia is beautiful and charismatic and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia, and realizes there might be more to her than she realized.
When CW told me that we were going to have Adiba Jaigirdar visiting the Pond, I was overjoyed because I am just so… moved by The Henna Wars. It is a young adult contemporary novel featuring an F/F romance, and also has its roots firmly planted in destroying homophobia, racism, bullying, and cultural appropriation. After I was done reading, I sat on the couch filled with warm, fuzzy feelings, but also feeling empowered to get this book in the hands of younger readers everywhere.
The Henna Wars’s protagonist is Nishat, a Bengali, Muslim lesbian teenage girl who lives in Dublin, Ireland. This is her story of entering a new romance, after having come out to her parents and being the victim of bullying at school. She then is assigned a school project where she starts her own henna business only to find that Flávia, a friend from her childhood who she has a crush on, has also started a henna business. However, Flávia is biracial Afrolatinx (Brazilian) and does not have Desi roots.
Nishat is frustrated because Flávia does not come from a Desi background, and her using henna design and art for her business appropriates Nishat’s history and culture. Her dialogue includes that cultural appropriation is indeed not “inspiration” but because of systemic and oppressive structure, is another way of displaying racist beliefs or an ignorance of these structures. Flávia not being White added another layer of nuance to this conversation.
When Nishat comes out to her family, they are, for the most part, quiet. However, when they do speak, they tell her that Muslim girls cannot be gay, which is devastating for her to hear, as she had hoped for their support. They are an immigrant family having moved from Bangladesh to Dublin, and this complicates matters because her family’s personal experiences and long-ingrained beliefs color their reactions to her coming out. I am so glad that even so, Nishat sticks to her guns and does not waver (but if your experience is different, that is ok and valid too!). Priti, who is her younger sister, supports her 100% and their relationship was just the balm I needed after the gut-punch that was my empathy for her, in that expressing parts of my sexuality to my own immigrant family was difficult and gut-wrenching.
Adiba Jaigirdar adds another layer to Nishat’s experience by setting her story at a Catholic girls’ school, while she identifies as Muslim. Nishat’s personal experience of how certain religions and her interest in another girl intersect and confuse her, specifically why people justify their homophobic remarks and attitudes towards her, citing their religion-based morals. However, these same people choose not to follow other moral claims of the religious text they refer to, which Nishat resents. Having had personal experience with someone who used religious text to justify their homophobia, I felt so silenced and disgusted, like I was bashing my head against the wall trying to justify that who I am is valid and worthy.
Nishat’s experience with Chyna, a White girl at her school who racially bullies her relentlessly and outs her to the entire school, infuriated me, but, sadly, this is also experienced by many QPOC in reality. The emotional impact of this is compounded by the demographics of her school in terms of sexuality, race, and religion; Nishat is very much a minority in all aspects and so there is very little empathy for her and her experience is diminished.
Thankfully, her romance with Flávia is as wholesome and angsty competitors-to-lovers as we can get, and by the end of the book, my soul was warmed through and through. As she knew her from her childhood, there was an element of having “come back from the past”, which is my favorite romance trope. I love girls in love, I love Brown girls in love, and I love Brown girls in love despite everyone and everything telling them it is wrong or morally bad.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!
I think all the characters in The Henna Wars are more than capable of speaking for themselves, especially headstrong, confident, resilient Nishat. I fell in love with her, as well as her adorable and supportive sister Priti and many other characters in between. This book is as hopeful as it is soft, while also being important and loud. Did I mention Brown girls in love? Because there’s that too. And Brown girls in love. Just read it!
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Nishat, who is Bengali and Muslim, starts a henna business for a school project, and her crush Flávia, who is not Desi, does the same, resulting in both their rivalry and romantic interest intensifying.
Perfect for: Readers who love queer stories, comforting, soft stories, and a competitors-to-love relationship.
Genre: Young adult contemporary romance
Trigger/content warning: Homophobia, cultural appropriation, racism, outing of one character, bullying (all challenged)