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Women in the Western world take many things for granted: the right to an education and a career, to walk in the street unaccompanied, to make personal decisions, to choose a marriage partner—or whether to marry at all.
Female characters in historical fiction seldom enjoy such control over their own lives. Even today, as Nadia Hashimi shows in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell (William Morrow, 2014), the lives of women in rural Afghanistan remain as constrained by traditional demands as they were centuries ago. Afghanistan is far from the only place where such a statement applies.
Yet this restricted cultural space includes customs that temporarily allow girls to live as boys or women as men. Male dominance of society can, it seems, withstand the cross-dressing of individual females. Through the lives of two young women living a century apart—Rahima, whose family turns her for a while into the son her mother did not have, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, ordered to don men’s clothes and guard the king’s harem—Hashimi explores the contradictions of gender stereotypes, the power of tradition, and the lessons of her own heritage.
What is given can also be taken away, and Rahima and Shekiba are soon forced to live as wives and mothers after experiencing the greater freedom and authority granted to men. As they struggle to retain their sense of themselves in a world determined to return them to their place, each of the women must decide whether to adapt or to escape.
“Seawater begs the pearl to break its shell,” wrote the thirteenth-century poet Rumi. This lyrical, passionate, uncompromising novel reveals the undying power of the human spirit even in the harshest of circumstances. It should be on everyone’s list.