In Western culture, much progress has been made in the cause of women’s rights. We want to be viewed as equals and given the same opportunities as men. But, in other parts of the world, such freedoms are unheard of as women still live under a veil of oppression that has persisted for generations. In her novel, The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi explores the stories of the women in one family separated by 100 years but still bound by the same patriarchal constraints and cultural oppression.
The main characters are Afgani women, Rahima and Shekiba; the first set in modern times and the latter from days gone by. The chapters alternate perspectives advancing each story.
Rahima is the second of five daughters in a family struggling financially. Her father, addicted to opiates, rarely provides sufficiently for his large family. But he sees a way out of his problem when a drug lord and his men offer to marry the three oldest girls who are young teens. Less mouths to feed plus a hefty bride price makes the transaction a financial boon. No care is given to the desires of the young girls given as brides. They have no rights. Soon they are trapped in marriages to men who use them and discard them.
Shekiba is Rahima’s great great grandmother. When she was a young child, she suffered a tragic burn to her face leaving her with a mask of shame upon which the world stares and mocks. When her family dies, she is left to survive on her own. Because women do not own property, she is stripped of her father’s home and is passed around among family. Eventually she ends up in the role as a guard of the king’s harem and even later, married, through unique circumstances. Shekiba’s name means “the gift,” which carries a double meaning through her life. She is always longing to be loved and wanted despite her scarred face but instead she is continually passed around as a “gift” when one family or household tires of her presence.
Rahima and Shekiba are united across time because both of them shared in a unique and rare Afgani tradition called “bacha posh.” While girls are young, families may choose to dress them and raise them as boys. In so doing, they are given access to a whole world and its freedoms that are normally forbidden to women. This usually continues until they are nearly teens at which time they switch back into the tradition of their gender. Having had that chance to live in a world of freedoms and then having that stripped away, Rahima and Shekiba are always longing and searching for something better.
While this book was a work of fiction, it was based on many factual elements. The author did an excellent job of advancing several stories at one time, so that it never felt confusing or unclear. Rahima and Shekiba were clearly Afgani women, but their struggles will resonate with all women. Their oppression aligns with the focus of many causes for justice. Rahima and Shekiba give a voice to women. Their suffering echos that of many trapped in desperate circumstances and their victories, however small, offer hope for the hopeless. I highly recommend this work of women’s fiction. It is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
Sarah McCubbin is a homeschooling and foster mom in NE Ohio where she resides with her husband and 7 children. In addition to reading great books, she enjoys gardening, traveling and blogging at Living Unboxed.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by HarperCollins Publishers. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.