By Fauzia Rafique
‘Skeena’ is the story of a young Muslim woman, born and raised in Pakistan, who later emigrates to Canada. The story relates, in powerfully poignant and moving ways, the journey of a young woman as she awakes to the realities of oppression, and seeks courageously to find a way out of the choke-hold of entrenched patriarchal traditions.
Young Skeena starts out in life with joy and optimism. Always aware of the duties of a young girl in a Muslim family setting, she none-the-less prospers in the love she receives from her mother and brother, who support her and encourage her efforts to pursue her education. In Lahore, in her teenage years, she is able to play hockey, attend college and dream of a career in law.
Circumstances intervene, however, and the growing rigidity in attitudes towards women, as Pakistan moves towards a more radical stance in the interpretation of Islamic law, forces Skeena to give up all her ambitions. The desperation of a young woman, as she struggles to retain what she can of her freedom, is portrayed in ways that expose the very roots of patriarchy and religious oppression. Her involvement, along with friends Ruffo and Majaz, in student activities relating to the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD), forces her family to place her under house arrest, ostensibly to save her from herself! The reader finds relief in the subtle humour that Rafique brings to her description of some of the situations – her jailors are none other than Ama JeevaN and Khurshedi, loving and loyal long-time family retainers.
Skeena ‘escapes’ from Pakistan to Canada by means of an arranged marriage that turns out to be even more destructive for her than she could ever have imagined. Trapped in a home in Toronto with an abusive husband and hateful mother-in-law, she tolerates, for nine years, the life that she is forced to live. As the abuse becomes life threatening, Skeena gathers all her courage and escapes. With the help of staff from a transition house, she is able to face down her husband’s efforts to force her to return home. She eventually moves to Surrey, British Columbia, and finds work and loving support within a Sikh farming community.
The impact of 9/11 on innocent Muslims, when, overnight, they become the targets of suspicion and hatred, is depicted all too clearly – even trusted friends begin to turn away. The emotional turmoil, as she discovers that her lover Iqbal Singh is none other than the murderer, Gamu, is masterfully portrayed. The description of how a woman can be driven to the extreme edge of desperation, yet summon the strength and will to survive and move on, is of itself sufficient to make this novel one of the very best of its genre.
Rafique is insightful in her portrayal of the numerous characters in the book. MaaN Jee, Skeena’s mother, who embodies all the grace and dignity of a bygone era, and Ihtesham, the abusive husband, are particularly well developed, helping to enhance the feeling of authenticity that is evoked from the very first page. The true message of Islam – the equality of every human being before God, and the desire for universal peace – shines clearly through the pain and the turmoil.
Rafique is to be lauded for her ability to convey, in clear and precise language, the effects of multiple layers of oppression – gender, religion and race – on innocent people who get trapped in situations from which there is, often, no escape.
This book is a MUST read !!
Gomathy Puri is a member of New West Writers group.