Sunday, October 24, 2010

Book Review: Disgraced by Saira Ahmed

Picked this book up on a whim, as it seemed to be in the vein of Jean Sasson's books. It promised a glimpse into the life of a young British-Pakistani girl growing up in a traditional Muslim immigrant family  in the 1980's.

Was it a good book? Well, it won't win any awards for the writing, but the story did make me empathise with her. It created an emotional response in me and isn't that what good writing is supposed to be about?

Saira is brought up in an ultraconservative Pakistani muslim family that lives in Britain, where the entire extended family is involved in the family garment business. Men rule the household with iron fists and women are treated as property to be used and abused.

The danger for someone unfamilar with Islam reading the book, is seperating what stems from religious practice and cultural practice,  since Saira herself is not sure of the distinction. Bullied into submission from a young age by all the men in her family, it is not possible for her to question any of their actions or decisions.

However, after being forced into an abusive arranged marriage with a distant family member on a trip back to Pakistan, she slowly summons her courage and uses all her wits to escape back to Britain where she finally lands in a safe house. It is here that she glimpses an alternate way of living her life and starts working outside the family business and outside the traditional ghettoes.

Unfortunately this respite is only temporary as she loses her job for no fault of hers and is forced to come up with money to pay off the debts incurred by her family. Her parents who keep sending money to relatives near and distant, back in Pakistan and her older brothers drug addictions.

The only way she can make money fast enough to repay the interests on the debts of the loan sharks is by selling herself as an escort. It is during this phase that Saira oscillates between guilt of doing something haram, even though her intention is halal - to help her parents.

The story ends abruptly  when she stops herself from committing suicide for the sake of her daughter and manages to follow her original dream of designing fabrics and textiles. A more "respectable" job.

The book gives the reader a glimpse into a slice of Saira's life. There are definitely a lot of questions, I would have liked answered. How does her family travel so frequently between UK and Pakistan if they are constantly in debt and money is tight?

A reader unfamiliar with the "extended familial responsibilities"  concept in the sub-continent, would have many more questions as to why a lot of the personalities in this book, behave or react the way that they do. In that manner, Disgraced isn't very illuminating. But it is a story that might have been repeated in a number of immigrant families from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka to the UK. It is a story that deserves to be heard.

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