Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Novel details parallel plights of Afghan women across generations

  • Print

Few populations have experienced such rapid unpredictability when it came to their national destiny as that of the Afghan people. And it is exactly that theme of destiny or "naseeb" that lies at the heart of the novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, by Afghan-American author Nadia Hashimi.

In her debut work of literary fiction, Hashimi intertwines the parallel stories of two Afghan women separated by a century of history. The story of Shekiba is set in the early 1900s and follows her tragic life after she is left orphaned and impoverished, shunned by society because of her facial disfigurement.

Fast forward to 2007, where Shekiba's great-great-granddaughter Rahima faces different but equally traumatic events, after her violent and opium-addicted father weds her to a middle-aged warlord when she is barely a teenager, leading her to face an abusive marriage.

Both Shekiba and Rahima struggle to carve out their own naseeb in a fiercely patriarchal society. And both women find temporary relief from their oppression when they take on the Afghan tradition of "bacha posh:" dressing up and being accepted by society as males.

Before marriage, Rahima is transformed into "Rahim" in order to assist her family, allowing her to attend school and earn money. Meanwhile, Shekiba (as "Shekib") moves from being an abused slave to a respected guard in the king's palace, where only women-turned-men are trusted to protect the king's concubines. And while both women enjoy their newfound freedom as males, even this is not without danger and consequence.

The political backdrop of each story is fascinating, and Hashimi uses it to play an important role in the lives of both women. With Shekiba we are exposed to the King Habibullah and his opulent palace, a reminder of the riches and splendor that once existed in Afghanistan. For Rahima, readers experience a more familiar Afghanistan, post-9/11 American invasion.

But again Hashimi unearths another forgotten aspect of modern Afghanistan, the fledgling national parliament and the day-to-day challenges of women entering the political system.

Comparisons to fellow Afghan-American author Khalid Hosseini are inevitable. In this case, Hashimi is able to hold her own, in both style and also content. With a country so ravaged by war and bloodshed, Hashimi, like Hosseini, is able to bring a deeper layer of understanding and humanity to a people so often defined by their political instability.

Unlike Hosseini, Hashimi focuses less on the mercurial nature of relationships and more on the internal journey and struggle of her heroines, who are by all accounts left to fend for themselves.

Readers cannot help but root for both Rahima and Shekiba. Despite going through insurmountable challenges, both women are resourceful and determined to fight -- not only against their oppressors, but (most importantly) against the mental barrier of resigning themselves to their fate.

Hashimi does well to avoid painting every male character as a misogynistic monster -- though many of them appear to be -- and rather than blame culture or religion, Hashimi introduces the idea that they too suffer trauma from the bloodshed they have faced their whole life.

Ultimately, this is a story of female empowerment, although ironically, and perhaps tragically, it is only their experiences as "bacha posh" that allow them to gain the confidence to become free women.

But the very fact that in 2007, Rahima's oppression echoes so poignantly that of her great-great-grandmother 100 years before, leaves the reader with one question: Despite the constant change in political landscape of the country, how much will ever really change for the women of Afghanistan?

 

Welsh Winnipegger Nadia Kidwai is a journalist and program manager for the Canadian Muslim Leadership Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 8:53 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Jaws of life used to free two people after two-car collision

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE APORIUS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS BUSINESS - cow on farm owned by cattle farmer Lloyd Buchanan near Argyle Wednesday afternoon -see Larry Kusch's story  January 04/2006
  • June 25, 2013 - 130625  -  A storm lit up Winnipeg Tuesday, June 25, 2013. John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press - lightning

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should the city grant mosquito buffer zones for medical reasons only?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google