"One little letter fell off the back end of my name and my world changed. It's the smallest little letter, barely even a sound. Rahim...Rahima. See? If you say it fast enough, you could miss it. Who ever thought such a tiny little letter could make such a big difference."
The novel opens with ten-year-old Obayda and her family struggling to begin a new life in a small village outside of Kabul. Six months earlier Obayda's father lost his leg in a car bomb explosion in the marketplace. This terrible event led to Obayda's family moving to the smaller village because her father's brothers would be able to help them out.
Life in Kabul was much easier; Obayda's family had an apartment with a balcony and their school had blackboards and desks and a playground with swings. In the small village, Obayda lives close to her eldest uncle who is responsible for looking after his younger siblings as well as his own family. But in Obayda's family there are only girls, sixteen year old Neela, thirteen year old Meena and twelve year old Alia. There is no son to look out for their family.
One day Auntie Aziza visits their home. Since his accident, Obayda's father remains confined to this bedroom, unwilling to leave his bed. Meena and Obayda listen in to the conversation between their mother and Aunt Aziza who suggests that Obayda become a bacha posh. Aunt Aziza suggests that Obayda's mother cut her daughter's hair, dress her in pants and a shirt and send her to the new school dressed as a boy. "With her as a son, she will bring good luck to your home. You'll see your husband cheer up. Then you plan for another baby in the family. Having a bacha posh at home brings boy energy into your household. The next baby that comes will be a boy. And once you have a real son, watch what happens. Your husband will come back to life."
The next day Obayda's mother cuts her hair and is given pants and a shirt. Her name is changed to Obayd and her life changes drastically. She doesn't have to help with the housework, she isn't allowed to wear a dress or dance, and she's served dinner before her sisters getting the few pieces of meat her family can afford. A few weeks later she is sent off to school. Obayda's time as a boy is about to change her life in ways she can't imagine.
One Half From The East explores the gender inequality that exists in Afghanistan and is common to many Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Hashimi explores this problem on both an individual level and on how this inequality affects society as a whole.
Ten year old Obayda is already aware of the inequality that exists in her society for girls. She notes that in Kabul "every family sent their girls to school", but that in the village there were two kinds of families; "...ones that send their daughters to school" and "Some families think daughters are born to be wives and mothers and don't need to bother with books or writing...They can count only how many cups of rice to soak and can't tell the letter kof from the letter gof."
At school Obayda finds herself in a "weird place between both worlds." She finds "everything else about being a boy is hard because it's so different from being a girl. Trying to act like a boy is like learning a whole new language, and I am really struggling to find the words. " Obayda finds that becoming a pacha posh has put up a wall between her and her sisters.
Fortunately for Obayd as she is now called, another bacha posh comes to her rescue. Called Rahim, she tells Obayd, "Forget everything else and be a boy." Obayd asks Rahim, who has been a bacha posh for several years, if she likes being a boy and she asks Obayd, "...you know what it means to be a girl. Was it anything worth being?" This ultimately is the question Obayda must answer for herself.
The ramifications of being a girl in this small village are spelled out by Rahim to Obayd. "It's almost as if all girls are born knowing what could happen, so we try to move around outside like ghosts -- keeping our voices low, our footsteps light, and our eyes to the ground." Because this is what being a girl means in Afghanistan, Rahim is determined never to change back to a girl. After more than five months as a boy, Obayd discovers that she likes the freedom and the changes that have resulted. She is stronger and she is more confident. Rahim tells Obayd about a legend her mother has told - "that passing under a rainbow changes boys to girls and girls to boys." Rahim hopes that by passing under a rainbow she can permanently change herself into a boy and have the freedom she so desperately wants. However for Rahim things do not work out. After seeing her playing with older boys her parents arrange for her to marry the tribal warlord who rules their village. She is thirteen years old. This horrifies Obayda who does not want to return to being a girl because she is afraid she will lose all the opportunities she has as a boy.
Obayda's time as a bacha posh leads her to believe that being a girl is the worst fate possible. Thinking about the new baby her mother is soon to have she states, "...I...wonder if it's a boy or a girl. I hope, for the kid's sake, that it's a boy, even though my parents will be so happy with a son that they'll probably forget my boy name."
Obayda seeks out her friend Rahima who tells her to find a way to make sure she does not share her fate of being withdrawn from school and forced to marry. "Do everything, Obayd! DO EVERYTHING!" This advice leads Obayda to try to find a rainbow to walk under so she can permanently become a boy. But after frightening her family with her disappearance to find the waterfall, her mother tells Obayda that the rainbow is only a legend told to children. Obayda is now confused, "Why would you want me to be a boy only for now? If being a boy is good, isn't being a boy forever even better?"
Obayda's sister Alia points out that she was quite satisfied when she was a girl but Obayda tells her she doesn't understand how much better it is to be a boy. Her sister Meena tells her she doesn't need boy body parts to do the things that boys do. She built a special crutch for their father to use while she was pretending to be a boy. But she was in fact a girl when she built the crutch. This leads Obayda to wonder "Was I really a boy or was I just acting like one? That makes a big difference."
Obayda's mother, realizes that by forcing Obayda to become a bacha posh she has taught her daughter that it is shameful to be a girl. She realizes this when she Obayda tells her that if the new baby is a girl she believes they will be unhappy and later when Obayda remarks that the baby must be a boy if the kicks her mother is feeling are so strong. Her father too shows Obayda that her believes girls are just as capable as boys when he reveals to his friend Agha Samir that it was not his brother who made his crutch but his daughter.
Hashimi does demonstrate subtly that the practice of bacha posh can leave girls unable to integrate back into their culture as they become confused about their identity. Rahim tells Obayd that she over heard her mother and aunt talking about how "some boys like us don't know what to do when they're changed back. They get confused and act really weird."
One Half From The East is a fascinating exploration into another culture quite different from that of North America and introduces young readers to the strange custom of bacha posh, allowing them to explore what it means to be a girl. The limitations places on girls in Afghani culture are common in all cultures to a greater or lesser extent. The message here though is that girls have the same dreams, potential and gifts that boys have and that we need to work to create a world where they are free to do so.
Older readers may want to further explore the life of Rahima in Nadia Hashimi's novel in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.
One Half From The East by Nadia Hashimi
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books 2016