Though the past decade and a half has brought enormous change to Kabul and other cities in Afghanistan, very little has changed in the villages, especially for women. Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the parallel stories of Shekiba, a woman at the turn of the last century, and her great-great-granddaughter Rahima just after 9/11. They are both brutally mistreated by the men in their lives, and both spend time regarded and dressed as men: Shekiba as a guard of the shah’s harem, and Rahima as a bachar posh, part of a tradition where a girl is dressed and treated as a boy until she reaches adolescence. Shekiba and Rahima are both aware that they are the slaves of their families until they become the slaves of their husbands’ families, but they yearn for something more. It is their hope that carries them through beatings, rape, and many encounters with death. In fact, the reader also has to have hope for these women or they will not make it through the book, the situation for Afghan women is that grim.
So why read it? That these women keep living, despite those indifferent or opposed towards their existence, is itself a triumph. They each use their minds to find their own escape from seemingly hopeless situations to a better life than most of their peers. Also, the glimpse into Afghan traditions and social life is fascinating. For those of you who enjoyed A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, this is another highly recommended book.