Novel details parallel plights of Afghan women across generations
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.