Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've never been outside of my country since I got here when I was a wee lil one. I haven't left the city for an overnight stay in years and I work in the summer. But if you have a life and go places in the summer, then imagine being sixteen and going to visit your home land. The beautiful landscapes, the relatives, and the food, all await your arrival. Your parents seem testy, but you're not too bothered. It's been awhile for them since they've been back home.
But once you arrive, you realize why they were acting so differently. Not only do you get to visit your home country, but you also get to get married against your will. It's what every little girl dreams for. Only not.
Zeba Khan thought a trip to Pakistan would be a summer without much fun, but all that changes when she's told that she will get married to her cousin Asif and that her consent doesn't matter. Zeba doesn't want to be married to him. She's only sixteen and has her whole life ahead of her. However, her parents will not listen to her, her uncle won't either, and everyone keeps telling her that she should simply put up and shut up. (not exactly like that, but it's the same thing).
Will Zeba find happiness with Asif, will she make her escape, or will she die trying? Dun Dun Dunnnnnn!
Before getting to the actual review, I just want to send some major props to Sufiya Ahmed for making a clear distinction between forced marriages and arranged marriages. They're not the same, and surprisingly, not many people know that. Often, when it comes to books like this or articles or tv shows, they don't mention that Islam condemns forced marriages. There is no marriage without the girls consent. Since this isn't mentioned, when non Muslims see this, they think our religion is all for it.
Let me make it clear, Islam forbids the practice of forced marriages. Arranged marriages are very different and are more like marriage meetings or blind dates. You get set up by your parents, but you get to decide whether you want to go through with it or not. A good example of this is found in Love In A Headscarf
Forced marriages. It's illegal, it's stupid, and it's completely from culture and not Islam.
Arranged marriages. It's okay and not as drama inducing.
With that out of the way, here's the review.
The setting, the topic, the characters, and the writing was great. You feel horrible for Zeba and wondered how her parents could ever think of doing this to her. At the same time, you kind of understood where her father was coming from. Shame is a big thing for them and he wanted to keep his nephew safe. It was wrong, but it was somewhat understandable.
Nannyma, Sehar, and Farhat were my favourite characters in the novel. All of these women were strong in their own way. Nannyma had respect and status in her village and tried to get people to see women and the world differently. Sehar was feisty and never gave up her dream to escape and live her own life. She was stubborn, but she had a good heart. Farhat, despite her upbringing, was cute and always tried her best to do the best job that she could possibly do. Her love for Sehar and her change in attitude was a real joy to see. I wanted to meet and befriend all of them while reading this.
I loved that religion was seen as a good thing. Like I mentioned before, whenever you see stories like this, Islam is always to blame. As a Muslim, this always saddens me, because Islam is as much against this as everyone else.
In the novel, we're told that there is an Imam (religious leader) who ordained the marriage of Sehar and her husband against her will. At first, he's seen as part of this horrible system and that there will be no hope. Later on, we find out that he's against this practice and thought that she accepted. Had he known that she was against it, he never would have done it. I loved that this was revealed and that the Imam was actually a good guy.
Zeba's parents forcing their daughter to marry her cousin, is something I can never understand. But I'm also left wondering how her mother truly felt. While her dad was fleshed out nicely and had some nice conflict going on with him, the mother just seemed cold and distant. I wonder why she didn't try to have a proper relationship with Zeba and how she could be so different from her mother and sister.
The book is straight forward, and while there are some twists, you know how the story will be in the end. This doesn't make it a bad book. With a topic like this, you only have three possible directions to go. 1. She escapes. 2. She dies. 3. She ends up falling in love with Asif and lives happily ever after. Since this is in the YA category, I guess there is another option. 4. She starts to fall for Asif, but starts to fall for the mysterious stranger who promises to help her escape.
So yea, there isn't much of a change up in this story, but that doesn't really hinder it.
I kind of wish we got to see more of Asif. He ends up being a decent enough guy, who is simply oblivious to the world around him, so it was kind of a shame that we didn't see enough of him.
This bad isn't really a bad thing for the book, it's more of depressing. Through Secrets of the Henna Girl, we got to see a different side of Pakistan and it's one that I hope changes, because I don't want to see stories like this in real life. The men kept talking about their honour this and their honour that, never realizing that the honour that they have in God's eyes diminishes while they do stupid things like this. It's sad. That's all you can really say. I do hope it's changing though and it's not as bad as what was written in the book. It's such a stupid mentality that really needs to be changed.
I really loved this book. The characters were great, the message was important to tell, and the writing was clean and crisp. The only downside is that Zeba's mom never really warmed up or felt human and Asif wasn't shown as much. Despite all that, Secrets of the Henna Girl a lovely book that more people should read.
4 stars out of 5