I bought this book on a whim. I think it was one of those Amazon deals where the price is reduced to 99 cents or maybe it was $1.99. Something in the book description lured me, since this is not the type of book I would normally read. It’s a confessional memoir called The Imam's Daughter by a Muslim lady (or I should say, former Muslim) whose family were immigrants from Pakistan to England. It’s mostly about her childhood and her coming of age. Her story describes the abuse she lived under by her abusive father, who was an Imam at their local mosque, and how she broke free to find Christianity. Even at the now price of $5.99 it's still worth it. I read it in five days, which is super-fast for me, and I read it while trying to keep up with my current reading schedule. I couldn't put it down.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
From my childhood—the images sketchy and opaque, a splash of color here and there among darkness—I remember one thing clearly: my street. East Street, in Bermford, the north of England. Two rows of identical, brick-built Victorian houses and a shady park at the north end like leafy branches atop a blood-red trunk. I saw the gnarled trees as fanged monsters among whose knotted, bestial shadows our childhood games darted.
I flitted—daydreaming, pigtailed, hand-me-down mary janes rubbing the long spine of the cracked sidewalk—from house to house. Doors were always left open, and there was no fear of being robbed. I could wander down to my friend Amina’s place whenever I felt like it. I was welcome to stay for as long as I wanted. If I was out for more than three or four hours, someone would come looking for me—my mother or one of my brothers. But it was still a kind of freedom for a little child.
I’d be offered a drink of Pakistani tea—water boiled with tea leaves, hot milk, heaps of sugar, and sometimes cardamom—and something to eat. It was chocolate digestives or Rich Tea biscuits one day and curry or chapattis the next. Hours later I found my way home, skipping past window after window blooming yellow into the dark soil of night.
It was the 1980s. We were Pakistani. We were British. We were East Street.
That sort of idyllic opening belies the life that went on inside the home. We shortly get an inkling of what’s at the heart of the problem. From later in that opening chapter:
Across the street lived an Armenian family, a mother and her one son—one of the few families on our street who weren’t of Pakistani Muslim origin. The Armenian mother tried to communicate with Mum, but her English was very limited. Mum told us to call her “Auntie” as a traditional sign of respect, but Dad didn’t agree. He refused to show respect to anyone except other Pakistani Muslims—not even the Indian Muslims who lived around the corner on Jenna Street.
The problem is the father of the family and his interpretation of Islam. It’s hard to separate what can be attributed to Islam and what are cultural norms, and far be it for me to be an expert on Islam or Pakistani culture, but Islam is a not just a theology. Through the Quran and the Hadiths and Sharia law, it does prescribe culture. How much of what goes on is not clear whether it’s Islam or Pakistani culture or isolated to this family. What is clear I think is that masculinity does take a preeminent ranking in the social stratum, and the father of a family has a level of authority well beyond what we are used to in western culture. It appears to be dictatorial, though prudence and charity should give a father pause from exerting such power. This father had neither prudence nor charity. Here is a scene where the mother had arranged to take some lessons in English with a Miss Edith Smith, who came to the house. The mother and daughter knew the father would be against it, so they arranged for the lessons at a time of day the father would be out of the house.
Miss Smith brought a ray of light into Mum’s world.
“How are you?” Miss Smith asked.
“I am fine, thank you,” Mum replied.
At first Mum’s words were stilted. But with Edith’s encouragement, she was soon sailing into deeper conversational waters.
“How did you sleep?”
“I slept very well.”
“How many children do you have?”
“I have six children.”
“Are you married?” Mum smiled, embarrassed. What a thing to ask—of course she was married! How could she have six children and not be?
“Yes, I am married.”
“Where do your children go to school?”
And so it went. After Miss Smith left, I helped Mum practice the English alphabet and numbers, and tried to engage her in basic conversation. After those visits, Mum was noticeably happier. She was very clever, yet she was never given the chance to study and learn. Mum was like a caged bird without a chance to fly.
One day Dad came home early from the mosque. As usual, Mum and Miss Smith were in the lounge with me. We heard the front door open and shut. Mum immediately tensed up. The lounge door opened and Dad sat down on the sofa. For a moment, he failed to notice Miss Smith, but then he caught sight of this white woman in his home. Instantly, his face darkened like a thundercloud.
“Hello,” said Miss Smith, trying to smile at him.
Dad scowled back at her and buried his head in his Qur’an. Miss Smith did her best to carry on with the lesson, but a dark and menacing atmosphere had seeped into the room. Mum looked terrified. She wasn’t laughing and joking with Miss Smith anymore.
When the lesson ended, Mum saw Edith to the door and went straight into the kitchen. Dad jumped up and followed her, immediately shouting. “What are you doing bringing that gori into the house? A dirty gori infidel! In my house! How dare you?”
From where I was sitting in the lounge, I heard that first, sickening thump of fist on flesh. Mum cried out in pain, but Dad was merciless. He beat her again and again.
My brothers were upstairs. They heard Mum’s screams, but they didn’t react. They supported Mum when they could, but they wouldn’t dare challenge Dad’s violent authority.
I sat in the lounge. Minutes earlier Mum had been laughing happily with Miss Smith about her awful pronunciation. Now, for that simple, innocent pleasure, she was being savagely beaten by Dad. I was five years old and too scared to do anything but sit in silence. Finally, Dad stormed into the men’s lounge, shutting himself there in a silent rage.
I crept into the kitchen. Mum had collapsed onto the floor and she was sobbing hysterically. She couldn’t get up, shaking as she was with shock and pain. I tried to put my tiny arms around her, but she pushed me away. She was ashamed and embarrassed she had been beaten again and didn’t want her little daughter to see her in such a state.
I stood bewildered. I longed to help Mum, to comfort her and make her life happy—as it had been a few minutes earlier. But how could I stop Dad from hitting her? Even at the age of five, I understood it was only a matter of time before he beat Mum again, and again after that.
My dad was a bad man. How could he do this to Mum—my gentle, funny mother who never hurt anyone? Dad had really worked Mum over this time, and I was sure he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew where to hit Mum to hide the damage. It was planned. It was deliberate.
As you can see, male authority takes preeminence (notice there is a “men’s lounge” in the house) and fatherly authority is never challenged. Would such behavior be prosecuted in Pakistan or another Muslim country? Perhaps not, but the father was aware of it being criminal in Britain, and so he made sure the trauma marks were in places of the body that would not be spotted.
In the opening paragraph above I called this work of non-fiction “a confessional memoir.” I don’t know if that’s the proper term, but it seems right to me. A memoir is a subset of an autobiography, “differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus.” The narrowed focus here is a coming of age story, thereby limiting the scope to the author’s childhood and blossoming into adulthood. The Center for Autobiographic Studies (CAS) defines a memoir as a work that “puts a frame onto life by limiting what is included.” The frame that Shah places here is her Muslim upbringing, especially how it pertains to growing up female. The CAS website provides a list of common frames, and several also apply here: memoir of place (North England), of relationship (family), religion (Islam and Christianity), of dealing with adversity, and ethnic tradition (Pakistani). But I call it confessional not because Hannah is confessing some sin—she doesn’t sin unless you include being a rebellious Muslim a sin—but because she is confessing some dark family secret. It seems to me that a successful memoir lets the reader into a world they have not experienced, and yet is very real (unlike fiction) right under their very noses. Here not only is there an exotic Muslim culture living right beside the at large British culture but concealed is a horrific account family abuse.
When I said above that the father’s authority is never challenged, I was imprecise. It was challenged by Hannah once. The next time the father “worked over” his wife, Hannah, all five year old girl, alone among her family stood up against her father. She tried to block the blows that were directed at her mother, and even sternly rebuked her father. At first he was startled, and then he pushed her out of the way, indirectly hurting her. Then later, fully premeditated, he turned his abuse toward his daughter. She had challenged him and violated the hierarchy of submission.
I had broken the unwritten rules of the household. I was only five years old—would I dare break the rules again? Perhaps the normal way of doing things was the only way to survive. But the normal way of doing things meant watching Dad beat up Mum, and that I couldn’t bear.
In fact, the normal way had already changed. My instinctive act of resistance had changed it irrevocably. From then on, instead of hitting Mum when the food wasn’t right, Dad hit me. If the house wasn’t perfectly clean, he beat me. I became the object of his aggression.
To start with, he beat me about once a month. But, gradually, it became more frequent. Worse still, Mum never tried to intervene.
She was relieved Dad wasn’t hitting her. Each time he beat me, she acted as if nothing had happened.
My mother’s lack of response hurt more than any punch.
Whenever he hit me, Dad abused me verbally: “You’re stupid, lazy, and useless! You’re an ugly, worthless daughter!” There was no point in yelling, because everyone pretended not to hear my cries, and no one came to help. After that first beating, I never screamed again. I simply went silent whenever the blows started raining down.
One feels so bad for the little girl, but it does make for compelling reading. However, the story will take an even darker turn.
At first, Dad used my behavior—food prepared incorrectly, cleaning done incompletely—to instigate the beatings, but it wasn’t long before his violence became capricious. As abusing his five-year-old daughter became habitual, Dad’s mind began creeping into even darker places.
Before I turn to what her father does next, let me say that Hannah is one of six children, having three older brothers and two younger sisters. Nowhere in the story do we hear of the other siblings being abused, even the two other girls. The other children never challenged their father, and on the surface performed all their religious and family duties. Hannah became a sort of scapegoat, but she became more than a scapegoat. She continues.
Six months after the first time Dad beat me, he stepped into my bedroom. He’d already beaten me that day, and I was lying on my bed, imagining the Lavender Fields. Dad never entered the women’s bedroom. As the door creaked open, I shrank under the blanket in a desperate attempt to hide.
He stared at me, an expression of loathing mixed with something else on his bearded face. “You…you’re evil,” he announced quietly. “You will surely burn in hell. But for now, your evil must be punished, driven out of you. Beating isn’t enough.”
He stepped toward me, murmuring over and over that I was a “dirty, worthless, temptress girl” and that he’d “never wanted a daughter.” He stopped by the bed. I clamped my eyes shut, willing the Loneliness Birds to carry me away.
I felt his hand pawing the blanket. My body tensed as he tugged my cover away. As my father sexually molested me, he told me he was punishing me. It hurt physically, but not as much as the beatings. Yet it felt far worse emotionally. My terrified mind could not comprehend what was happening. All I knew was that it was wrong and dirty.
I accepted my “punishment.” I was a confused and terrified little girl, and part of me still longed for my father’s approval and love. I hated him for doing this to me, yet I wanted him to love me as a father should. Would acquiescing to his demands make him love me?
Finally Dad stood up from the bed. “You deserve everything you got,” he sneered. “And if you ever tell anyone about your punishment, I will kill you. And then you’ll go to hell, for Allah would never allow a dirty little girl like you to enter Paradise.”
That’s right, he raped her. Not only did he rape a five (or perhaps six at the time) year old girl, he raped his own daughter. But it wasn’t just once. He established a cycle of physical abuse and rape.
I could do nothing to stop my father, and so I did as he demanded—no matter how sick and revolting it made me feel. It was a vicious cycle. The more I was abused, the dirtier and more deserving of such punishment I felt. The more my father abused me with impunity, the darker and more abusive his power trip became. In many Islamic societies, a victim of rape is often seen as the guilty party who has tempted the man into sexual excess. So it was with my father. Eventually the hurried rapes in the bedroom no longer sated him. Or perhaps the bloodied sheets were becoming harder to explain away. Either way, Dad decided to take me to a new place of torture. At the back of the house, beneath the kitchen, was our cellar. It became my hell for the next ten years.
That’s right. He raped her from five years old to fifteen. Let me untangle a little of the father’s underlying logic. The little girl challenged his authority, which proved there was something evil in her. If she were evil, she needed to be punished. In beating her, he felt a temptation of her sex, which further proved she was evil. And so, that evil needed to be punished, so he raped her. In raping her, he felt the sexual urge, and so he needed to stamp out that evil, and so the rapes continued. His rapes only stopped when he realized she was menstruating, and at that point he stopped only because she was no longer considered clean in the eyes of his religion.
This is getting long. I’m going to have to break this up into two parts. Stay tune for Part 2.