on 16 September 2013
Every now and then, a book comes along that you can't get out of your head, and once you finish it you need a few book free days to take it all in. This is one such book for me. It transports you into the colourful, exotic world of modern day Pakistan, where ancient customs and traditions are thrown into the blender with encroachments from the Western world. Our heroine, Zarri-Bano is enchanting. Privileged, indulged, highly educated, intelligent, stunningly beautiful, she seems to have it all. In a society where marriages are normally arranged by the parents, she refuses suitor after suitor, finding no man who can meet her high expectations of a husband. Initially there seems to be much condemnation of this patriarchal society, and I feared this would turn out to be little more than a feminist rant against Islam, but it developed into so much more.
When tragedy strikes her wealthy family, Zarri-Bano's life is turned suddenly upside down, as she is obliged by the duty she feels towards her father to obey his will, and adopt a life of religious devotion. This sassy, feisty, modern woman turns her back on the man she has fallen in love with, pulls a Burqa over her head, and immerses herself completely in the ancient role of 'holy woman'. The story charts her struggle to come to terms with the new life she has chosen to lead, and the effect this has on the men who decreed it, and her mother, who abhors it, but feels powerless to resist.
The characters are without exception 3 dimensional and full of life. Both the men and the women are flawed, and we see them all at their worst and at their best. The strong sense of honour and duty that rules their lives is fascinating, as is the important ideal of female modesty, which is totally alien to us in 21st century Britain. This is an outstanding read that really gets you thinking, and despite a complete absence of any overt physical intimacy between the characters, there is a highly charged sexual tension that can knock spots off the very fashionable more explicit works of today.
on 11 January 2003
The Holy Woman is very much a novel that spans countries and continents, unravelling cultures and human emotions, penetrating the feudal psyche to elicit responses to all that baffles outsiders.
Shahraz’ story starts off with romance in the air. Zarri Bano, university educated, rich, beautiful, modern to the core of her coloured nails. In comes Sikandar, the dashing city bred hero of romantic dreams. It was to be a marriage made in heaven, save the jealousy of the heroine's father. Zarri Bano’s only brother dies in a riding accident and her marriage is called off as she is destined to become the ‘holy woman’, to be denied a husband, children, love, everything that would go to make the book a nice juicy romance ending in a 'lived happily ever after scenario’. Thereafter it was the commonality, the universality of human experience that she sought to unfurl.
Shahraz’s courage of conviction is infectious. Where Zarri Bano the main protagonist of a romantic horror is beautiful, glamorous and a feminist at that, forcefully agrees to succumb to feudal tradition she also emerges as the winner. It is this journey from a pure romantic to the prototype of the Muslim woman whose actions have a reasoning methodology that makes for the substance of The holy woman.
She reconstructs the original Islamic sensibility, freeing it from traditional patriarchy. So on the one hand is a heroine who admits to being, like her female peers, “a bead in a tapestry that our fathers and elders weave”. At the other end of the spectrum she emerges as the final victor capable of retaliating with conviction to the inquisitive English journalist's empathy. “Don't you feel oppressed by this (veil)?” Zarri Bano answers back, “We are not freaks. We are women who like to dress modestly. Please treat us with respect.”
Shahraz's first novel comes highly recommended by such excellent writers as Sue Gee and Michele Roberts - my main incentive to buy it. The plot is essentially quite an interesting one. Zarri Bano, the high-spirited, intelligent, Westernized older daughter of a Pakistani farming family, has rejected marriage until her late twenties in order to get a degree, experience life as a career woman and find the right man. At the age of 28 she meets the impossibly handsome young tycoon Sikander (him of the blazing eyes and chiselled features) and falls in love. A betrothal is all set up (even though Zarri Bano's father Habib doesn't like Sikander) and then - without warning - Zarri Bano's brother is suddenly killed in a riding accident. As, according to family tradition, this makes Zarri Bano Habib's heir, Habib decrees that Zarri Bano's marriage cannot take place - instead, she must follow the old family tradition for female heirs, and become a 'holy woman', an Islamic scholar and teacher, who will devote her days to theological study and charitable works, and her money to women's education. Although Zarri Bano barely attends religious services, and has no great knowledge of Islam, she agrees - after her father and grandfather put pressure on her. Sikander is rejected, and leaves telling Zarri Bano that he'll 'haunt her forever', and Zarri Bano begins her career as an Islamic scholar, one that will take her to Cairo, Saudi Arabia, London and elsewhere. After a while she comes to accept her role, enjoy her theological studies and even relish wearing a burqa. But she can't forget Sikander - particularly as he's now her sister's husband. And over the years the pair continue to long for each other, to the growing remorse of Habib - but can anything be done? Meanwhile, another hot romantic drama is playing out in the village, as Khawar (one of Zarri Bano's rejected beaus) longs to marry the schoolmistress Firdaus, but is prevented by his tyrannical mother Kaniz, whose reasons lie in her deep unhappiness about her husband's feelings for Firdaus's mother Fatima...
Shahraz writes quite movingly (and sometimes interestingly) about Islamic customs and law, and gives a convincing account of what it is like to live in a relatively feudal society in the 21st century (or late 20th - I wasn't quite sure when the novel was set). There are some intriguing discussions about what the burqa can symbolize for women, and about the rights of women under Islam, and about the nature of female independence. The descriptions of village customs and traditions could be fascinating, and the cast of characters gave a reasonable representation of what life in Pakistan is like for a range of women. The father/daughter relationships are also quite touching. All these make me feel the book merits three stars - but at the same time I have to say I didn't enjoy it much!
Largely, this is due to the rather clunky writing style, which as other reviewers have noted can sound at times reminiscent of a cheap romance novel. The women are all incredibly beautiful with wonderfully curvaceous forms, the men have burning eyes and handsomely sculpted features, and there's copious amounts of sighing, moaning and passionate outbursts. For the first 100 pages we're told endlessly how beautiful, fashionable and wealthy Zarri Bano is, to the extent that she comes across as frivolous - which makes her rapid adjustment to life as a holy woman unbelievable. Sikander is a stereotypical hugely wealthy, hugely handsome Prince Charming figure straight out of a popular romance - in fact I have to say I found him selfish, superficial and boring, and had no idea why Zarri Bano continued to lust after him when she had the gorgeous Ibrahim wanting her as his wife. The whole situation with Sikander and Zarri Bano's bland younger sister Ruby, who Sikander improbably comes to love 'more than life itself' was unbelievable. The language for long stretches was very overblown, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous. For example, Zarri Bano's hair 'catches fire' every time the sun shines on it, though as it's very likely she had black hair I don't think that's possible! Even better, Sikander's eyes at one point change colour due to the strength of his emotion (the only time I've seen that happen was in a dreadful film called something like 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger').
Worse, the novel, for all its great length (544 pages) has very little plot. Unlike your average Kate Mosse book, which is a similar length but packed full of events and characters, The Holy Woman has a smallish cast and very little happens. Zarri Bano becomes a Holy Woman (after 100 pages), travels around a bit, makes a few points to women about Islam (usually summed up in a page or so per visit, lusts after Sikander and scolds herself for doing so. Sikander sulks, gets married and then - due to unforeseen events - sulks again. The Kaniz, Firdaus and Khawar situation goes on for ever, and culminates in Kaniz having a total personality transformation from haughty scold to benevolent altruist (as for Khawar, he seems to change his mind about things in about five seconds flat). The only way Shahraz can bring Zarri Bano and Sikander back together is by that old authorial device of the Terrible Accident (happens a lot in this sort of book, as in Sharon Maas's novels) and about 200 pages of sighing and further misery follow. The ending is unrealistically happy particularly bearing in mind the number of bereavements Zarri Bano has suffered. And essentially I wasn't entirely convinced - interesting though the idea was - by the plot. If Zarri Bano really wasn't religious, would she ever have agreed to the Holy Woman thing in the first place? Would she have become deeply religious so quickly and easily? And if her family were that devout, wouldn't they have made sure she knew a good deal about Islam from early on?
There were some potentially interesting ideas here, but the unappealing, stereotyped romance between two Beautiful People, the lack of energy and ideas in the second plot strand (the Firdaus/Kaniz one) and the flowery, over the top language meant that for me they never made a satisfying read. To my mind Laila Aboulela writes much more persuasively about Islam, and Kamila Shamsie gives a more detailed vision of life in Pakistan today. This novel is essentially a bog-standard romance with a few elements of literary fiction grafted on.
Two and a half/three stars
on 6 February 2014
I understand this was the author's earlier work, so it was a real accomplishment. I got to know and care for her characters, the storyline was good. However......... one character which didn't ring true at times was the main hero- the original suitor for Zari Bano.
At times, especially towards the end, his speech and thoughts are portrayed as far too floral , bordering on mawkish.
This did not ring true.... In my experience, rich, handsome, arrogant Muslim men , are taciturn, even brooding. They would simply not indulge in gushy behaviour, thoughts or speeches. I also questioned the love, loyalty and endless support, the 'evil' zardarni's younger sister seemed to lavish on her very difficult older sister. Nevertheless, a great read, I have already ordered the author's next book.