I just finished a good book called “The Pearl That Broke It’s Shell” by Nadia Hashimi. It chronicles the harsh lives of two women, born a century apart, in one family line. Harsh is an understatement for the misogyny that shaped the lives of these young women. Although my experiences growing up first generation Peruvian-American were a far cry from the subservience of these Afghani women’s, I related deeply to the patriarchal indoctrination by the male family heads.
My upraising was heavily influenced by the controlling and sexist values of my father; his edicts held total sway. “American” culture was hostile to us, so I identified all the more with a strong familial cultural identity. It’s ironic that white racism created a more deeply ingrained Latino “otherness’ in my mind, the very thing it sought to trample out. Sure, my parents wanted us to only speak English in order to try to assimilate; but the scars from having our language denigrated and prohibited only bolstered our identities as being different. While many Latino cultural traditions are beautiful and life enriching, the machismo and patriarchal values, embodied by my father, really did a number on me.
It is this unfair worldview that color the protagonists’ struggles in Hashimi’s novel. Their stories left me somberly self conscious of the rules my grandmothers and mother lived by and how that ideology (however watered down by the time it reached me) shaped my identity as a young woman, straddling both old world Peruvian values and ‘liberated’ North American ideals. I related so much with the fearful daughters of this novel. Like them, I constantly sought the approval of the all powerful male in my life and simultaneously always feared his wrath.
Luckily, I was born to parents who wanted opportunities for their children, female or male. Although boy children would have definitely mandated different child rearing (something we were always reminded of with “if you were a boy . . . “). We were expected to be educated, but my father encouraged an education that befitted future wives. That is why he consented to my art history major; he felt that it was a beautiful and elegant field for a woman to possess. We were constantly told that if we were boys, we would have been mandated to study medicine.
The book’s forced female modesty and repressive subservience struck a fearful chord in me and at first I could not understand why I was having such a reaction. I was not covered from head to toe, sold, nor was I beaten. But my body was scrutinized daily and I was indoctrinated to believe my worth as a female and a daughter resided in my physical appearance and obedience. The book’s tale of young women being sold to old men brought to mind my incest past with my grandfather, who would tell me that he was showing me what to expect when i would be married. The novel’s tale of oppression is what resonated within my past; and it is a past i am still unlearning.
I applaud Hashimi for shining a light on vulnerable histories. It shows me that I am not so different from women all over the world and I take great comfort and inspiration from stories of their survival and triumph. What a beautiful metaphor: a pearl breaking through it’s shell. That is something to which i aspire.