In 2010, Time Magazine reported the far from atypical story of 18-year-old Aisha, who tried to run away from her village in Southern Afghanistan to escape her abusive husband and in-laws. (She was married at age 12.) The judge, a local Taliban commander, decreed she must be punished, and while her brother-in-law held her down, her husband sliced off her ears and then her nose, leaving her on a mountainside to die.
It is not just the Taliban, however, who enforce this harsh treatment of women. According to Nicholas Kristof writing for the New York Times in 2010:
One man from Helmand Province, Wali Khan, told me that there would be no difference for women in his village, whether the Taliban rule or not, because in either case women would be locked up in the home. He approvingly cited an expression in Pashto that translates to: “a wife should be in the home — or in the grave.”
[And Afghanistan is not the only region in which these practices prevail. For example, in June, 2014, a pregnant Pakistani woman who had married against her family’s wishes was beaten to death in a busy Lahore street while a crowd of men watched. In 2013, over 850 women were killed in Pakistan by their families after marrying or dating unapproved men, or after having been raped.]
According to a U.N. study, in 2013, Afghanistan saw a 28 percent increase in reports of attacks against women, with little rise in prosecutions. (The report cautions however that many women are understandably afraid to report abuse so the numbers are probably much higher.)
The report, horrific to read, contains testimony like this:
I was 15 when I was forcibly married to someone in an exchange marriage when my brother married my husband’s sister.… From the very first day my husband made it clear that he was married to me against his will and he regularly subjected me to violence including beating and abuse.”
In The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, we get to know a (fictional) victim of very similar abuse in Afghanistan, a young girl named Rahima, who is married off at age 13 to Abdul Khaliq, a fierce local warlord in his late forties. Rahima was to become his fourth wife. She was resented and mistreated not only by her husband’s other wives, but by his mother, who lost no opportunity to berate and beat Rahima. (One notable aspect of this story is that women are fully complicit in the abuse.)
Rahima’s story alternates with that of her great-great-great grandmother Shekiba, as gradually told to Rahima by her mother’s sister, Aunt Shaima. Shaima is a spinster who largely takes over the role of parenting Rahima and her sisters when the parents become incapacitated by the opium paid as bride prices for their girls.
Shekiba lived in the early 20th Century, and was disfigured because of a burn to her face when she was two. After her family died from a cholera epidemic, she was farmed out to relatives, who scorned her because of her face, overworked her, and beat her.
As Rahima’s situation gets worse, she thinks more and more about Shekiba’s story, and the steps Shekiba took to change her naseeb or destiny.
There are no magical dei ex machina for women in Afghanistan, but the two brave and determined women who are the protagonists of this book do what they can to save themselves, and it will make your heart soar.
Evaluation: This is an excellent story and an important one. It provides an intimate look at the conditions in which women in other cultures must survive, and raises thought-provoking questions about what can and cannot be done to help them, and, indeed, what should be done, given that cultural, religious, and even the social attitudes of women themselves reinforce the shocking ways in which girls and women are used and abused. As Rahima observes, “Men can do what they want with women.” Thus far, it has been extremely dangerous for victims of abuse to object.
This would make an excellent choice for bookclubs.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014