Please welcome debut author Nadia Hashimi to the Book Club Girl blog! Her novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, a luminous and unforgettable tale of two women, destiny, and identity in Afghanistan, went on sale last week. Today, she's here to discuss the difficulty of having daughters in a prejudiced society.
“You’re having a girl? Oh. Well. Whatever God sees fit.”
It drove me mad to have a gray-haired female relative essentially console me when I informed her my husband and I were expecting a daughter. How could a woman say such a thing?
My mother and father, both born and raised in Afghanistan, never made me feel that they were anything less than delighted that I was born a girl. Nor did my uncles, aunts or grandparents. Maybe that’s why this relative’s comments hit me so hard. But those comments also resonated because they were typical of the prejudices that women in Afghanistan suffer, right from the start.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I came across an article about the unique bacha posh tradition of Afghanistan. It’s a custom where some families without sons transform a young daughter into a boy until she is of marriageable age. The article also touched on a time in Afghanistan’s history when a king used women dressed as men to guard his harem. That was the spark – I instantly had an idea to write a story that would connect two young, Afghan women disguised as boys. The heroines of that story--Rahima and Shekiba--would help me chronicle the many struggles and triumphs of Afghan girls.
Why would a society so readily accept a young girl masquerading as a boy? How could they so easily accept his appearance in public but not hers? Suddenly, a girl is able to walk down the street without a male escort. She restores honor to the family. She can look men in the eye. She, a child, is more engaged in society than her mother. But, years later, when this bold bacha posh is converted back into a girl, she must unlearn the confidence she’s gained. She’s expected to be modest and avert her eyes when she talks to men. The transformation is much more than an aesthetic makeover. She, as a person, is undone.
Rahima, the young bacha posh in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, suffers as her destiny is decided for her. Still, she has the resilient spirit that I saw in so many young girls in Afghanistan. While it’s easy to recite statistics on child brides or domestic violence, I hope that Rahima will help readers understand that each one of these victims is a young girl who wants the chance to be a child, to learn, to see what the world has to offer.
There have been times in Afghanistan’s history when Rahima’s dreams of greater freedom could come true. There was a time when women were key figures in the public sphere. Girls pursued higher education and became doctors, engineers, politicians. They worked in offices and went to movie theatres. They followed European fashion trends. Headscarves were optional and, sometimes, discouraged. Years of war and poverty have hurt Afghanistan in many ways but the utter destruction of women’s rights has been especially painful.
Shekiba, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother, is orphaned early in life and finds herself guarding the king’s harem, dressed as a man. Shekiba helped me relate the story of a different period of women’s history in Afghanistan. She lives in a time when women are just beginning to make their mark outside the home. I wanted readers to feel her struggles and then taste the same hope that she tastes.
I wanted to tell this story to change the way the world perceives Afghan women. They are much more than oppressed, turquoise ghosts in a war-ravaged landscape. I wanted people to hear their stories and to know they are strong and capable. They are eager to play a role in the reconstruction of their homeland and this can only happen by opening doors. They need the opportunity for education and to have a voice in the political process. They need to be taught that all young girls are valuable to their families and their countries. They need to be in command of their bodies and their destinies and be able to empower their daughters.
The research I did for this book taught me so much about what it means to be a young woman in Afghanistan today. Thankfully, the situation is improving but the hardships continue. So many girls are denied education, turned into child brides, or become pawns in the opium trade. It is a harsh society for everyone but young girls are especially easy victims. The urge to share this story, the story of female resilience, grew stronger as the arrival of my daughter grew near. I finished my first draft just a week or two before she came into this world. Imbued in the story is the legacy I want to leave her, a message that she is treasured beyond compare and that having a daughter should never warrant words of sympathy – only congratulations.