Book review: The Fatwa Girl
Author: Akbar Agha
Publisher: Hachette India; Pages: 232
While memories of the fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie with reference to his novel The Satanic Verses(1989) continue to be fresh, upon reading a book titled The Fatwa Girl, one cannot help but assume its contents to have symptoms akin to religious controversy.
Akbar Agha's debut novel makes us understand the facets of a 'Fatwa' that can either become an expression of tyranny or come with a message of religious harmony and tolerance in a given socio-political setup. And this difference is explained to us by the protagonist of the novel Amina, aka The Fatwa Girl.
Narrative of the novel: It does not follow a linear progression. It begins with the end which means that the reader is already aware of the conclusion in the initial pages. The narrator, Omar (a Sunni boy), also an admirer and lover of Amina (a Shia girl) is seen mourning her death while contesting the many rumours that surrounded her suicide attempt. Amina's suicide is not new to our knowledge but the reasons behind the same unfold chronologically. For those who have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' The Chronicle of a Death Foretold would find a faint resemblance in the narrative technique where Santiago Nasar's murder is an inevitable truth from the beginning.
Why is she called The Fatwa Girl? Amina feels Islam has been interpreted in a way that has resulted in anything but peace, harmony and love. Suicide bombings, militant authority and the Taliban regime have colonised the minds of young and old in 21st century Pakistan. It is a battlefield where clash of sectarian prejudices has claimed innocent lives. For Amina, a fatwa is not a coercive legal pronouncement but a potential weapon to establish mutual understanding and cordial ties in society. This is why she propagates the idea of issuing a fatwa against suicide bombing as an effective deterrent to counter mass killing in the name of Allah.
Bicycle as a tool of freedom: The bicycle that Amina is determined to acquire expertise on becomes a symbol of self-reliance. It should be recalled how the feminist movement in its nascent stages of the 1890s saw the bicycle as a tool of social mobility and liberation. To ride a bicycle meant to challenge patriarchal notion of womanhood that ordained women to a life of household drudgery.
Amina imprisoned in marriage: It is indeed sad to see how the author in the latter half of the novel decides to completely shut the revolutionary spark in Amina and situates her in a stifling matrimonial setup. The first few months of her marriage to a politician and businessman Rafi Abbas seem blissful till the latter's real self starts to unfold. Amina, a woman who always spoke her mind, loved music and poetry soon sees herself changing into a puppet, the strings of which rested in the hands of her husband. It is not just the Taliban that exercises arbitrary control over socio-political fabric of a country; it is also the patriarchal head of a Muslim household that treats its women as domesticated cattle, a comparison made apparent in the book. When Amina's husband abducts her and forces her to undergo an abortion she never consents to, she cries, "It is a murder, rape and foeticide".
Significant subplots: Omar's grandfather who fought the Soviets as a mujahid to free his brothers is seen to be severely affected by a sin he had indulged against his better judgment. His routine nightmares disturb the family every night. The unspoken guilt is discovered years later after his death when Omar stumbles upon his diary and reads what his grandfather could not utter or what his 'Imam' (faith) would not have allowed. He was afraid of his society that would have pronounced a death punishment had he confessed to his so-called sin. He dies a premature death with an assumption of not achieving redemption.
With too many subplots, the novel seems to lose direction somewhere. Too much historical facts and forced references to Taliban seem a deliberate attempt on the author's part to capitalize on a literary trend that backs on 'hot' issues like terrorism and religious violence. Inclusion of Urdu poems and verses lend a lyrical quality to the novel and come as a breath of fresh air to readers at occasional junctures.
Fatwa Girl turns bomber: It is when the Fatwa girl turns a suicide bomber to kill her husband (an agent behind suicide bombings in Karachi) that we realise it is not after all a long-term solution in terminating religious fanaticism and sectarian malice. Apart from being a little melodramatic, the end is also disturbing for we see Amina resorting to the same path of violence she had been challenging all her life. As a suicide bomber she is successful in eliminating one Rafi and so is the world which prides in sending Osama to deathbed. But has anything really changed?