One day, 16-year-old Zeba Khan, the fictitious protagonist of 'Secrets of a Henna Girl' is awaiting her GCSE results and hanging out with her best friend, Susan. Not long after that, she finds herself in Pakistan, being fitted for her traditional red bridal dress as she is expected to marry her 24-year-old cousin and army officer, Asif.
Marrying her cousin?
Back-in-the-day, Asian culture was to marry young and often within kinship so as to maintain the existing family class/status/wealth. However, in modern times, especially for those who can relate to Zeba's British/Western-Asian character, it is no longer the norm.
So, what does Zeba do? As expected of a 'loose' Western-Asian character, she stands up against the forced arrangement. Her father claims that he must either keep his word to his elder brother (Asif's father) or ruin his 'honour,' a repetitive/significant term throughout the novel.
And Zeba's mother is like a sheep, blindly following the the canine, her husband...Zeba's father.
Where/how can a girl, held hostage in her parents' homeland, her passport in the hands of her father, her mother who is taken so in by village customs of following the 'male order' that she is nonchalant about her daughter's unhappiness, find freedom?
Ironically, Zeba's grandmother or nannyma (her mother's mum) is on her side. I say 'ironically' because as an elderly woman, who should have been programmed since birth to follow the patriarchal laws of her village, is against the whole system.
How much weight does nannyma's word have in the village? Can she convince Zeba's parents and Asif's parents that this marriage is well...wrong? Or, will she need to call in reinforcements? And...where can nannyma call in reinforcements from when Zeba, a British citizen, is finding it difficult to do so?
Will Zeba ever find her freedom?
Endless questions for the youth to answer, while reading Sufiya Ahmed's YA novel.
Arranged marriage is, according to Sufiya Ahmed (clearly outlined in her novel), when two people are introduced to each other trough traditional methods, and enter the marriage that willingly. She even begins her novel with the quote, 'Obtain the virgin's consent before you marry her' by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Add the term 'forced' to 'arranged marriage' and one might as well add the term 'un' to the word 'willingly.' That is precisely the plot of 'Secrets of a Henna Girl.'
The beginning of the novel is gripping and any Asian teenager, growing up in the West, can instantly relate to Zeba's character. Identity crisis, an attempt to merge into the Western culture while maintaining tradition, is exactly an issue all too familiar among the Asian youth today. Any second-year student or adult will enjoy the fun, straightforward and fast read.
Once I started, I could not put the book down. For those intrigued by Asian culture and the concept of forced arranged marriage, this novel is great for you.
Secondary school English teachers should consider adding 'Secrets of a Henna Girl' to their curriculum.