The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz
Zarri Bano is the 28 year old daughter of a wealthy Muslim landowner. Breathtakingly beautiful and intelligent she has an independent streak and a strong will that has seen her reject the overtures of many suitors, none of whom meet her exacting standards. Just when she does meet someone who awakens the passionate side of her nature and is her intellectual match, a family tragedy disrupts the wedding plans. Her elder brother, heir to the family’s lands, is killed in a riding accident and Zarri’s father decides to make her his heiress. In doing so, he resurrects an ancient tradition of the Holy Woman or Shahzadi Ibadat, a woman committed to a life of celibacy and knowledge of the Holy Quran.
Zarri feels obliged to obey her father’s will, putting aside her own desires of a life as a publisher and a wife. She thus relinquishes her jewels, make up and designer clothes for a black Burqa and turns her back on her fiancé for marriage and devotion to the teachings of her faith.
The book traces her internal struggle between her ambitions and personal desires and her sense of honour and duty towards her father and her clan. Along the way we get an insight into the attitudes of women who adopt the veil and of the way in which women feel powerless in a patriarchal society. That was the aspect of the book that caught my attention when I first heard of The Holy Woman. Although it doesn’t appear that there really is a role in the Muslim world called the Shahzadi Ibadat, I was still hoping that by reading this book I would learn something of the ideology behind the concept of the veil and its importance in Muslim society which might help me also understand the controversy it attracts in many western countries. But the way Shahraz deals with this theme didn’t bring any great new insights or appreciation.
We get rather too many laboured intrusions of the narrator’s voice to make the reading enjoyable. This is just one example:
Zanni Bano had no chance, crushed against this wall of patriarchal tyranny. Even with her youth, feminism and a university education, and with an outgoing and assertive personality on her side, she was still father to be the loser in this game of male power-play. Like her mother, it had been drilled into her from infancy to both respect and pay homage to her father’s wishes and those of the male elders.
Even when Zanni speaks in her own voice, her speech pattern feels forced and unnatural.
I am not only your daughter. I am me! But you and Father have brutally stripped me of my identity as a normal woman and instead reduced me to a role of a puppet…..You have all jailed and numbed me into a commitment which I will have to go along with – but not willingly.
I saw one comment on Goodreads to the effect that the characters in this novel are “without exception 3 dimensional and full of life”. I had the exact opposite reaction. They all came across as pedestrian, cardboard-cut-outs to me who speak in very unnatural ways. Sharaz could have done so much more with this book but instead allows it to descend into a second rate romance with a very predictable, and to me, unbelievable ending.
A good idea but the execution didn’t live up to my expectations at all.