The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, written by Nadia Hashimi, read by Gin Hammond, is the story of Afghanistan, its history and its people. This is a story about a country that has not advanced very much over the years, a country that has remained in the past, marched in place, continued to be ruled by superstition and fanatics, war lords, and sadistic men and women who are bitter about life or hungry for the power their behavior affords them.
This is a country in which women rarely see beyond the courtyard of the place they live, where women are taught to obey their husbands, above all else, for they are their saviors and their enemies wrapped into one package, for they can mete out punishment and reward, declare guilt or innocence, pronounce sentences or commute them. They are all powerful and the women are all helpless, without hope for change. Most of the women are not even aware of what change they might want, they are unaware of the world outside; they know only the boundaries of their home, their relatives and their superiors. For them, life in other places does not exist, they could not even dream about it, because they have been kept isolated and ignorant for fear of their corruption, or perhaps fear that if they knew they would somehow unite and rise up against the men who control all life in their country, some more extreme than others, but all bent on keeping women down for they are the temptresses that must be blamed for the basic urges of the men, sometimes uncontrollable, or perhaps uncontrollable because they have no need to control them. They are blameless in all things, in total control. Islam is a religion that smiles on men more broadly.
In Afghanistan, disability is looked down upon and the disabled are openly insulted. They are reduced to beggars; they bring the evil eye and are avoided. They are punished for afflictions that are no fault of their own and they should be cared for instead, pitied, perhaps, but not abused. They rarely are married off for they have little value, cannot attract a bride price. There is little loyalty. There is little trust. Everyone is a possible betrayer, everyone a possible Judas. Rahima’s aunt, unmarried because of a physical affliction, sustains her with her stories about the courage of her great grandmother, Shekiba, and her encouragement to keep educating herself as much as she can, for that will be her weapon, her salvation in the future.
In this story, the two women, great grandmother and great granddaughter, share common personality traits and experience, live in parallel worlds, and yet, in life, they are separated by 100 years. Nothing has really changed in their worlds. Then and now, the situation is the same because they are largely illiterate, sheltered and controlled, kept hidden inside their burkas, invisible, reduced to inconsequential shadows with no value. They are beaten, raped, sold into slavery, abused and despised, used in any way their husband and, to a large extent, his family, chooses. The birth of a woman is no cause for celebration, for in her future the slightest infraction, even innocent, can bring down the wrath of an angry G-d or master who follows his teachings.
The women, living in constant fear, betray each other to save themselves. Those that attain some stature, forget where they came from, forget that they too have been abused, perhaps sold into slavery, are also victims of an unjust system, and they become haughty and bossy, abusing their own power, as well, preying upon and punishing the women they are above with abandon. The strong always seem to brutalize the weak. It is a sign of their status to be able to do this. It is a sign of the honor that is due them. Mother-in-laws of daughters-in-laws wield great power in a Muslim family. The son takes their word over their wife’s, and, the first wife rules the second etc. The hierarchy is treacherous for the uninformed.
The system is based on illiteracy and hypocrisy, control and submission, but they know nothing else so it seems quite normal to the women. They recognize cruelty in others, toward them, but do not recognize it in their own behavior toward others. It is simply the accepted way of life for a female. Without any interference from or knowledge of the outside world, they are doomed to continue this brutal way of life that keeps them totally subservient to the dominant male .To survive, some girls are turned into sons, dressed as boys. Their hair is cut, they are taught to behave without the proper decorum a girl must always display. When a family has no sons, they often resort to this charade to help the family survive. Only males can work the fields, only males can freely move about, only males can do the shopping, women must be escorted by a male at all times, women must be covered, men are not. Men have freedom; they get to see more of the world. Those females who live like men, also have freedom. Rahima was once Rahim, according to the custom of bacha posh, one of the females who dresses as a male, the girl as a boy, afforded all the freedom of a boy, all the access to the outside world, even simply to play with others, until she was 12 when she made an innocent fatal error.
Guards of the harem were women who were also dressed as men, their hair was cut short and they were responsible for protecting the concubines. Shekiba, Rahima’s great grandmother was a guard. Both women, coincidentally played the role of a male at one time in their lives. Both were afforded advantages not afforded to women, at that time. They had more freedom to move about, but both were not males, and therefore, they were still subject to the abuse and inequity women faced, the unfair accusations and judgments heaped upon them. Both women were strong minded with a desire to learn and change their lives from one of captivity, having tasted more liberty, to one of greater freedom. Both struggled in their own way, against the unjust system.
At the age of 18, Shekiba lost her last living relative, her father, beside whom she worked the farm like a male child. Her family, learning of his death, came to claim the land that she as a woman had little claim to, and took her in, basically as a housemaid, informing her that it was impolitic for a woman to live alone, work unaccompanied, have that kind of access to the outside world. She was a corrupting influence behaving sinfully. Eventually, she was removed again, bartered away and began to work as a palace harem guard for the Shah. Shekiba never stopped dreaming of greater independence and was never a shrinking violet.
At age 13, Rahima was too old to continue to be a boy. Her father was in debt. He arranged marriages for Rahima and two of her older sisters. She was totally unprepared for what faced her in her new home, as a wife at such a tender age. Rahima, at 13, was expected to pleasure her husband. It was her duty to satisfy him and bear his children. By age 15, she had a son. The stories told to her by her aunt, about her great grandmother Shekiba, sustained Rahima and gave her courage. They were both basically sold into a life of slavery.
This is a heartbreaking story about women who are treated as property, who are used as vessels to bear children, as baby machines to bring power to the male and honor his manhood. They are always guarded and under the threat of committing some unknown infraction, of being innocent and yet judged guilty by jealous relatives or husbands, weak parents or siblings. So, in life, they hope to become the guards as they were once guarded, the overseers of the other women in the home, the bearer of a son who will elevate their position, the wife their husband relies upon above all others; they hope for a small position of authority. Generally, though, they exist principally to satisfy the sexual appetites of the men they belong to and to satisfy the needs of the women who are higher up in the hierarchy of the home. They eat last, only after all the men have finished and eat only if there is adequate food left for them. Often there may not be, for there needs are secondary at all times to those of the men, and even the women above them.
Although the images of life in Afghanistan, painted by this author, are brutal and often seem too horrible to contemplate, they are representative of the situation there, even today. Women are forbidden to have access to the outside world. They know nothing beyond the square inch of ground they occupy, at any given time. Since none of them are worldly, they have no way of discovering anything else, and when they are exposed to other ways of life, they often desire to escape, but if discovered, they are recaptured and brought back to face punishment, which is swift and severe, often extreme: amputation, whipping, disfiguring, mutilating, very painful punishments are administered which serve to keep them in line in the future, and for some crimes, they even face death by stoning. The author is of Afghan heritage, and although there are some images of happy home lives in which male and female live in harmony, it must have given her great pause to write about the abusive lives the women endure, even today. All they have to give them joy are their children.
Hope does spring eternal and the book ends with hope for the future, with foreign help from America, for one, incrementally, not by leaps and bounds, but there are people out there who are bringing the light to Afghanistan, hopefully before groups like the Taliban, return to power and reverse the little progress women have made. Pity the women, for they are a commodity, bought and sold; they have no voice, for if they do, it is quickly silenced. The men who are found wanting are also tortured and executed if they disobey the rules and do not go along with their current war lord, their current leader. Everyone must conform on pain of death. It is truly barbaric.
The book is easy to read, although the subject matter is hard to swallow, because it is an authentic representation of the way the Afghani women are treated, the way they must think and speak to each other, the way the system systematically weakens and holds them down, the way the past never moves forward for them into a better future. The audio reader performed exceptionally well so that each character was defined clearly and was recognizable. The tone for each was perfect for the personality of the character: there was the bitter and cruel mother-in-law, the mother in pain when her children were married off against her wishes, the mother in mourning for a dead child, the plaintive voice of the hopeless woman adulterer who put love before all else, who is doomed to death, the voice of the hopeless child pleading for a different future than her parents provide, the voices of authority, the voices of men, the voices of Shekiba and Rahima, who spoke less and less like victims as time passed.
After reading this, Afghanistan would not be on my bucket list of places I wanted to travel, even without the constant wars that go on between war lords, tribes, sects and countries that intervene or want to take control and nation build, because their ideology is despicable to me, and it won’t change for centuries since it has been in existence for centuries. One can only hope that more and more women will seek and be granted asylum, placed on a road leading to a better way of life. Even in Kabul, in the same country, life is better for the women, than in the villages, where they are detached from the world completely, always subject to exploitation. In Kabul there is, at least, the possibility of education, learning new skills like the computer and using the internet, watching the world go by on a television screen, looking away from the confines of the prison of radical Islam and its extreme faith.