Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed

"I knew everything there was to know about family honour. My dad had always talked about it. When I was a child he would sit me on his knee and tell me that wives, sisters and daughters were like precious glass vases within which a man's honour was contained. These glass vases must never be broken. If the female did not behave accordingly then a man's honour was compromised. His friends would laugh at him, his brothers would jeer at him and -- even more shamefully -- other women would ridicule him."
Sixteen year old Zeba Khan, a Muslim girl from Yorkshire, has just finished high school where she excelled at writing and all her other subjest. Zeba anticipates attending college to complete her A-levels and then enrolling in university. Her whole life is before her, with all the excitement and promise of a brilliant future.

But Zeba's world as she knows it comes to crushing halt, when she learns on her family's holiday to Pakistan, that she is to be married at sixteen to her cousin Aisf who is a soldier in the Pakistan army. Her uncle, Taya-ji is worried about his only son, Asif's future in the army and wishes him to leave Pakistan and emigrate to England. The only way he can do this is to marry an English girl.

Zeba is sent by her parents to live with her maternal grandmother, Fatima or Nannyma as she is called in the hopes that she will gradually accept the marriage. Nannyma is a dignified woman who is well respected because she owns land. She is the voice of moderate, progressive Islam in the novel. Her other daughter, Nusrat, lives in America and is married to Tahir, an engineer. Nannyma encouraged Nusrat to "follow her fate, her kismet."  and Nusrat believes that women should be free to follow their dreams and reach their full potential. Zeba realizes that just maybe Nannyma is her sole supporter.

When her father comes to Nannyma's home and tries to explain the reason for the marriage, Zeba confronts him, telling her father she will not marry Asif. He tells her that it is his duty to protect Asif and to put his honour first, rather than protect his daughter! Zeba cannot believe that her mother and father would use her and sacrifice her happiness for Asif's safety - that they would make a promise of marriage without consulting her.

While living with Nannyma, Zeba meets another bakri or sacrificial lamb, Sehar, who is from Birmingham and who was forced into marriage by her family to the youngest son of the powerful village landlord, Sher Shah. Sehar tells Zeba that when her family announced a trip to Pakistan, unlike Zeba, she became suspicious and contacted the Forced Marriage Unit in Birmingham. A woman from one of the charities, named Tara, offered her help if she felt she needed to leave her family. But Sehar thought that if she just stood her ground, her parents would relent. She was wrong. Now she finds herself married, seven months pregnant, being beaten often by her husband, and planning her escape back to England. Sehar's story makes Zeba realize that this might very well be her future.

One of  Zeba's lowest moments comes when her parents leave for England and tell her they will return in one month for her wedding. Nannyma attempts to intervene in Zeba's forced marriage by appealing to the imam. The imam tells them he was tricked into marrying Sehar and did not realize that she did not consent to the marriage. But when he tries to appeal to Taya-ji who has arranged the marriage, Taya-ji becomes enraged and has the imam driven from the village. The fallout from Nannyma's intervention is widespread and Zeba begins to understand that she will not be able to escape. She also learns that Asif has no intention of leaving Pakistan because he is very dedicated to his career in the army. At this point, Zeba gives up all hope of returning to England.

But a terrible tragedy causes Zeba to rethink her situation and her decision to give in to the marriage two weeks before her own wedding. Her own break happens when she is helped by Nusrat and Tahir, who are visiting Pakistan. They take her to Karachi so that she can use the internet to contact the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK, her friend Susan, and a teacher and more importantly Tara. Zeba must now hope that someone will help her before it is too late.

Secrets of the Henna Girl is well written, with Zeba's story easily captivating the reader's attention. Zeba's naivete, helplessness and the overwhelming nature of her situation are poignantly portrayed but it is the tragedy of her friend Sehar that is hard to forget. This is a reminder that for some girls, there are no happy endings, and that their suffering is intense.

Ahmed is not only able to tell a good story but she is also able to provide the reader with interesting background information about Pakistan and its culture along the way, thus educating and informing. Sufiya Ahmed also effectively educates the reader on the tragedy of forced marriage, its cultural basis and what motivates parents and family to do this to their own children.There are some interesting passages on how the feudal society, which still exists in much of Pakistan, perpetuates the practice of forced marriage.

One of the strongest elements of Secrets of the Henna Girl is the tremendous conflict that exists between Zeba and her parents and also between her parents and their culture of honour. Zeba cannot understand how her parents can do this to her. These are the same people who played with her and sent her to school. Zeba cannot understand her parents who are suppose to love and protect her but instead value honour more than anything else.
"All those shared memories that should have invoked a protective arm around me seemed to have disappeared. I was no longer my father's rani, I was my father's honour instead."
Zeba also recognizes that her father does not really want to marry her to Asif, but because he gave his word, his honour is bound to this promise. If he goes back on his word, he will be disowned by his family, and family is everything. The internal conflict her father experiences is evident to Zeba, but she feels that he should put her safety and concerns first before family.
"Today was his only child's engagement ceremony and he looked like he had the world's worries on his shoulders. There was not a hint of happiness on his face, only misery. I knew in my heart that he didn't want this for me, and I just couldn't understand the obligation he felt to his older brother."
One thing I didn't quite understand about the storyline in this novel, is why Nusrat and Tahir did not take Zeba directly to the British Embassy in Karachi where she would have received immediate assistance. Zeba's marriage was imminent, and in the tribal regions of Pakistan I would think locating one girl with no working phone, no passport and no access to the outside would be daunting. Perhaps Nusrat and Tahir, despite their open minds and more liberal views on women and culture, still wished to preserve their place within the family and they also wished to protect Nannyma who might have suffered serious consequences as a result of their actions.In the end though, the family would have come to the realization that it was Nusrat and Tahir who helped Zeba escape.

Overall though, Sufiya Ahmed has crafted a story which puts a human face to the tragedy of forced marriage. Her characters are realShe succeeds in educating her readers and helping Westerners to understand the cultural forces at play in such situations. This novel would be a good addition to a library with a large multicultural population.

Information on the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK can be located here. The website provides detailed information for those who feel they are at risk of forced marriage and those who are already in such a situation. Apparently this is common enough in the UK, that pamphlets are distributed throughout schools so that girls can be made aware of this possibility. According to the handbook put online by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in Britain, the British Embassy will arrange a safe flight back to the UK.

For Canadians who are in the situation of forced marriage, The Alliance of Multicultural Agencies Against Forced Marriage In Canada (AMFM Canada) can provide some information. It does not appear at this time that there is one agency who can provide emergency support for young people threatened with forced marriage.

Unveiling the Abuse is a documentary about forced marriage in Canada produced by Azra Rashid and Igal Hecht. Tarek Fatah, Author and Community Activist, states that parents who undertake forced marriage are essentially organizing the forced rape of their daughters. Fatah correctly reminds us that Canadian feminists have nothing to say about forced marriage. "They are indulging in the worst form of racism...it is not their daughters who are suffering. It is the daughters of some brown skinned Pakis who live in this country."  Indeed I could find no explicit webpage for young women (or men) who are in danger of forced marriage or who suspect their parents may be planning such, instructing them on how to get help.

Watch the trailer for the documentary:

Author Sufiya Ahmed talks about what inspired her to write Secrets of the Henna Girl.

Book Details:
Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed
London: Puffin Books 2012
271 pp.

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