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Book Club Book Review: Nadia Hashimi’s ‘The Pearl That Broke Its Shell’

This month, the Australian South Asian Centre’s (ASAC) Book Club read and discussed Afghan-American author, Nadia Hashimi’s, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.

ASAC’s Book Club is primarily focused on uplifting South Asian authors and we decided that our last book for 2021 should feature an Afghan author, in acknowledgment of the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and the distressing events that took place earlier this year.

 

We believe learning from diverse voices from around the world is:

• necessary

• collectively empowering, and

that there’s no better way of doing this than by reading and immersing yourself in authors’ words to understand the world from their perspectives.

Novel overview

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is about two women’s desire for freedom to control her own fate and the feeling of powerlessness she wishes to overcome. The story follows the lives of two young Afghan girls, Rahima and her great-aunt, Shekiba, who, despite living centuries apart, share similar experiences with ‘bacha posh’; an Afghan cultural practice where girls dress as boys until marriageable age in order to enjoy privileges that aren’t extended to women, like attend school, work, and the ability to move freely in public without being escorted by a male relative.

Bacha posh provides both women the ability to rewrite their fates and overcome hardship and misfortune, but bacha posh is not supposed to be practiced forever. Both women are expected to return to their former feminine selves once they commence puberty, transitioning instead to the role of ‘wife’ with significantly less privileges than they’d once experienced as boys.

The narrative alternates between Rahima’s perspective in 2007, Kabul and Shekiba’s story at the beginning of the 20th Century – leaving readers to follow the twists and turns of these two journeys and decide for themselves if much has changed in the fates of Afghan women over the last century.

Book Club Discussion

During our discussion of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, we touched on the concept of ‘naseeb’ (destiny or fate) which is deeply embedded in the novel with both Rahima and Shekiba repeatedly told that they must accept their fate.

We asked our members if they believed in the concept of naseeb and to share instances when they’d either accepted their fate or rebelled against it. This led to an insightful discussion where one member highlighted how fate is often used as an excuse to justify circumstances of exploitation or abuse within our communities.

Another member mentioned how she felt that naseeb was used in a coercive way that made women feel like passive victims bound to their so-called destiny, unable to take control of their lives and actively make decisions.

As a group, we largely felt that our decisions and actions controlled the course of our lives, and that our lives weren’t pre-determined by fate. We also felt that naseeb was sometimes used to avoid accountability from poor decision-making or as a coping mechanism by our elders to deal with bad days, professional setbacks, or unpalatable events.

Given the centrality of bacha posh in the novel, and its impact on the two main characters we close our discussion with the question, ‘If given the opportunity, would you want to be born again as a boy?’

While the majority of our members indicated that they wouldn’t, there were a few members who said they would make the change in a heartbeat. Those in the latter group shared that their experience growing up with brothers showed them firsthand how differently men and women are often raised in our society. They shared that their brothers were free to go out when they wanted, stay out as late as they wished, and their clothing choices weren’t closely scrutinised. Whereas, as women, our members weren’t given the same freedoms as their male relatives.

Author Q&A

We were blessed to have Nadia join us at the end of our Book Club session to answer questions about The Pearl That Broke Its Shell. In addition to being an author, Nadia is a pediatrician, an activist and a former Democratic congressional candidate for the United States House of Representatives for Maryland’s 6th congressional district. We were so grateful she could spend some of her time with us.

One of our members asked Nadia what inspired her to write about the concept of bacha posh. Nadia explained that while undertaking research for The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, she came across a tale of a king who hired women disguised as men to guard his palace because he did not trust men to effectively guard his palace and found herself thinking about how this concept could be used to compare the different lifestyles of men and women in Afghanistan.

When asked about her activism, she highlighted it was really important to lend your platform back to the people who helped build it. She emphasised she always tries to keep the interests of the most vulnerable in mind, regardless of whether it aligned with her own lived experience.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell gave us a lot to think about, about ongoing gender disparities in Afghanistan, but also globally and locally. It highlighted that women around the world still don’t enjoy certain freedoms and opportunities because of the circumstances of their birth. This novel reminded us that as much as we’ve progressed as a society there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring about equality for all members of society, regardless of their fate.

 

Want to join ASAC’s Book Club in the New Year? Sign up here. It’s 100% free.

It’s okay if you:

• enjoy reading books at your own speed, or

• don’t always have the time to complete books. or

• haven’t been part of a Book Club before

we’d love for you to come along to Book Club!

 

ASAC’s Book Club is a safe place for South Asian women to connect and chat about our experiences and thoughts about topics inspired by the books we’re reading, predominantly written by South Asian women.

If this sounds like a good time to you, we’d love to see you at our next session!

Have questions? Free free to DM us!

Written by Anika Baheti

Edited by Erika Menezes and Sehar Gupta