Sixteen-year-old Zeba Khan is waiting for her exam results to come, when her parents decide on a family vacation to their home country of Pakistan. Zeba considers herself British, and visiting her parents’ home country isn’t exactly on her top vacation picks.
But to Pakistan she goes, to the blistering heat, where she finds out that her parents have decided she is to marry her cousin Asif, her father’s older brother’s son, who is in the military. Zeba becomes a scapegoat in a battle of family politics, as she is forced to sacrifice her dreams and desires for the welfare of her cousin, whose parents want out of the army.
But Zeba won’t go without a fight and does whatever she can to escape her parents plans…
Hmmm. This is a tough book to review. I personally avoid books about my own culture and religion (in fiction, that is), because I find the issue of arranged or forced marriage to have been done to death, and I’m sick of hearing about yet another heroine who is forced to marry against her wishes, because her religion forces her to.
Before going into my review, let me just make the difference between arranged and forced marriages clear. This is a definition that Sufiya Ahmed abides by as well, and doesn’t confuse as the same. An arranged marriage is one that is arranged by the parents or other relatives of the bride and groom, one in which both bride and groom consent to. Since in Islam it is prohibited to date, arranged marriages are a common way for young Muslims to meet their future spouses.
A forced marriage, on the other hand, is one in which one or either party does not consent to the marriage and is forced into it. This is both prohibited in Islam and is illegal.
Arranged marriages are often thought of as being forced, and I just wanted to make it known that that is not the case.
Ahmed makes this point quite clearly in the novel as well. Zeba does not wish to marry Asif, and she is being forced against her will. Because of the volatile conditions of Pakistan, her uncle wants Asif, his son, to leave the army, and he figures that marrying him to his younger brother’s daughter, Zeba, and sending him to Britain with them is the best way to save his life.
Zeba doesn’t go without a fight though. She tries her hardest to convince her parents, and when they don’t agree, she’s sent to spend the rest of her summer, before her wedding, at her maternal grandmother’s house, where she learns humility and humanity, as she watches how her grandmother holds the whole village together. She makes friends with another British girl, one who was also wed against her wishes, and her attendant, and the three band together in the Sindhi village to make life more bearable for each of them.
Zeba is a strong character and one that grows and matures throughout the story. Her parents, though, seemed like caricatures and didn’t seem real in any way. They were presented as the evil foreign parents who were so tightly bound by tradition and honour that they couldn’t even understand the plight of their daughter. I understand that situations like these are common throughout the world, but I would have loved to see some depth beneath their veneered surfaces, some sort of heart beneath their masks. I feel like Ahmed failed on that count.
Despite the seriousness of the issue, the Secrets of the Henna Girl lacked depth. The story was pretty straight-forward; there weren’t very many surprises or new things to discover. Like I mentioned, this issue has been done to death, and I was hoping for some depth in Zeba’s character or in the way the story was told, but unfortunately there was none.
For someone who is unfamiliar with the issue, I would definitely recommend it. It describes the issue well and also shows possible solutions to fight it.
Thanks for reading,
I received a free copy of this book from Razorbill. No money or favours were exchanged.