The novel opens with a women's march in memory of Sohane Chebli's younger sister, Djelila who was murdered. Now trying to cope with her guilt in the aftermath of her sister's death, Sohane reflects on how life has changed while telling the story of what led to this horrific murder of her sister through a series of flashbacks.
Djelila is the beautiful sister, the one with the gazelle eyes, the long legs and the clear skin. She loves basketball and is on the team at Racine High School where she and her sister Sohane attend school. Sohane and Djelila live with their parents and younger brothers, Taieb and Idriss, in the Lilac Projects, a large housing project that is predominantly Muslim. Their high school is equally large, containing five buildings with over two thousand students in grades eleven and twelve. The two sisters are caught between two worlds, French and Muslim, which Sohane states is like having multiple personalities -- "one for our parents, a second for the projects, and a third for high school."
Djelila and Sohane are very different. Sohane is disgusted by the sexy, revealing ads on the bus shelter. Unlike Djelila, Sohane dresses more conservatively forgoing the tight jeans and close fitting sweater that her sister favours, choosing instead to wear loose fitting longer sweaters and baggy cotton pants. Djelila smokes and also goes out with boys while her older sister has experience none of this.
Then one day when she is leaving school, Sohane notices a gang of Muslim boys - Majid, Youssef, Brahim, Mohad and Said, from the projects, watching and following Djelila. To Sohane, these boys represent "their Taliban", their judges. But the two sisters along with many others in the projects pay little attention to them because all of them are now dropouts. At Djelila's basketball practice, they sit in the bleachers and wait silently, watching Djelila. After practice they follow Djelila home, with Sohane trailing behind them. When they get to the projects, Majid begins to insult Djelila calling her a slut. The boys confront her, spit on the ground and tell Djelila that she shames her religion, family and the projects. When Djelila tells Majid to remember who he is and not to judge her, he slaps her across the face. Djelila is shocked and scared and Sohane has done nothing but watch. The two girls say nothing to their parents.
When their father's brother, their Uncle Ahmed comes to visit, Djelila confronts Ahmed over his views of women and whether they are French or Arab. This is considered disrespectful in their culture and Djelila is forced to apologize and quickly retires to her room. Despite Sohane staying at the table with Uncle Ahmed and Aunt Algia, she finds her uncle to be arrogant and interfering. When Sohane goes to their room, she finds Djelila awake. Djelila tells her that she doesn't respect their aunt and uncle and that the feminist in her wants to respond to his outdated views of women and identity. For Djelila, feminism is the right to dress how she wants but Sohane sees this as following "the cliches men impose on us."
Djelila tells Sohane that if wearing the head scarf is important to her then she should do it, but she warns her it will not be without consequences. Sohane follows through and wears the hijab to school and gets expelled. When the school calls her parents, she is surprised to discover that her father is more than supportive, willing to pay for her to take the rest of her high school by correspondence. Sohane decides that she will continue to wear the head scarf and despite a petition by Djelila's friends that she be allowed to return, Sohane does not return to school.
Some time later Djelila helps her team win their basketball game against a very good team. Afterwards, Djelila and another team member, Alice go out together and get drunk to celebrate. Sohane attended the game and tried to convince Djelila to return home with her. Unsuccessful and worried about her sister, she waits outside the projects for her to return. When Djelila does return it's evident she's very drunk. So drunk in fact, that she goes up to Majid and his friends who hand out near Tower 38 and slaps him in the face in repayment for what he did to her. Fearing for her sister Sohane manages to get Djelila safely home. But it is this event that sets in motions the events that lead to her sisters horrific murder in the basement of their building.
For Sohane, time has not stopped after her sister's murder. Her Aunt Algia had her baby and final exams are approaching. Sohane plans to ace her exams and leave. But a year later she has still to write her final exams and is unable to cope with her feelings of guilt and loss. Nine months after her sister's murder her friends come and tell her they want to commemorate the anniversary of her death, that they don't want it to pass by unnoticed. At that time Sohane could not face them but on the day of the memorial, Sohane does attend but she is asked to leave because she is wearing a head scarf.
Athough Sarn's novel touches on two very controversial problems, the wearing of head scarves and honor killings, it is more about the freedom of women to live their lives as they choose. Sarn's novel is based on true events that occurred in France. In 2002, Sohane Benziane was cremated alive when she was doused with gasoline and set afire in the basement of a building. Twenty-two year old Jamal Derrar, the man convicted of her murder, had an argument with Benziane's boyfriend, so her murder was more of an act revenge than an honor killing. Benziane was a Muslim of Algerian descent.
I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister explores the right of women to decide how to live their lives through Sohane Chebli's stark narrative which reveals her deeply conflicted emotions over her sister's behaviour. It covers events that happened during the course of a year and reveals how events unfolded and how her own views towards her sister's actions changed.
Both Djelila and Sohane are rebelling; Djelila against her Muslim religion which she has shed and its expectations of how to dress and act, and Sohane against French culture and its secular values that state she cannot wear the hajib because it is a religious symbol.They are caught between two cultures with two very different expectations for women. In France, women can dress how they please, smoke, drink and date. However, in Djelila and Sohane's Algerian Muslim culture none of these behaviours are acceptable. Women marry young and are expected to be married off as Uncle Ahmed states when he visits their family.
Throughout the novel Sohane continues to state how she wished Majid and his gang would teach Djelila a lesson. She loves her sister but her growing up has left Sohane with a new and changing version of her sister, not the one she wants. After the first attack on her sister she states "At the time, I thought, Djelila will get what she deserves. It's not as if she had no warning....Deep down, I wished they would teach you a lesson. That you would be knocked down a peg. That you wouldn't be so sure of yourself. That you would need me again, just like when we were little girls." Sohane is jealous of her younger sister's confidence and the fact that she seems to know who she is and what she wants. She is jealous because Djelila, bit by bit, no longer needs her older sister. Sohane admits to herself that after Majid slapped Djelila she rejoiced to see her sister humiliated and she did not intervene.
Sohane decides to wear the head scarf or hijab because she wants the world to know her as she really is, "I wish the whole world could know what I am. Who I am." Yet, she is unwilling to grant that same chance to Djelila, who when they are arguing about wearing the head scarf states that "I want to be respected to...Without having to disappear or hide my face."
Sohane refuses to acknowledge Djelila's view writing "I would love to make her see things my way. If she were to follow my example, I'm certain she would be happier. And in less danger." Because their views diverge, Sohane often refers to Djelila as her "enemy sister".
After confronting and slapping Majid, Djelila tells Sohane, 'I don't want to be afraid of Majid or anyone else. I don't want to live in fear. I don't want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don't want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself. Do you understand, Sohane?" But at this time Sohane does not understand because she still wants Djelila to be like her - to not drink and to follow other Muslim customs. Eventually however, Sohane comes to realize that she was wrong about how she treated her sister and this happens when she is turned out of the meeting discussing Djelila's murder because she is wearing a head scarf. The women in that meeting saw her head scarf as a symbol of women's oppression and did not respect her right to wear it. Similarly Sohane begins to realize that she did the same thing to her sister, something she doesn't acknowledge until Djelila's friends organize a memorial.
"You're jeans are not too tight, and your jacket not too short. You had the right to be yourself. But others decided otherwise. I forgot the principles of the Koran. I should not have judged you, Djelila. I should have been more understanding. In any case, I should have defended you. I did not relate to your rebellion, but it was a mistake, Djelila. You were right. Freedom is everything."
I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister is a difficult novel to read. We know by page 46 exactly what happened to Djelila and that doesn't make the book any easier to read. Whether women wear head scarves or not, whether they wear tight jeans or not, the choice should be theirs. No one judges men on what they wear or how their hair is styled. A man's virtue is not questioned because of what he wears. Somehow with women it is different. Women should have the right to choose how they live. We are worthy of that freedom.
I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn
New York: Delacorte Press 2014
(originally published in France in 2005 as Un Foulard Pour Djelila)