As depicted by Nadia Hashimi in The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, there is only one correct way to be a woman. First, girls are obedient daughters, then they are obedient wives who have sons. There is only one tiny exception; everything else is deeply wrong or criminal. The exceptions are the bacha posh, girls who dress and act as sons for families that don’t already have a boy. The Pearl that Broke Its Shell tells the story of two girls who live as boys for a time before returning to lives as women. It is also a story of hardship, violence, and gendered oppression. Those looking for an easy read should steer clear.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Rahima grows up as one of five daughters until her mother cuts her hair, puts her in boys’ clothes, and has her act as the family’s son. Living as a bacha posh is unusual, but Rahima is following the example of her legendary great great great-grandmother, Shekiba. Both women’s lives follow a similar pattern. They live with their families, relatively happily, until disaster strikes. In Shekiba’s case, cholera and grief kill off every member of her family. In Rahima’s case, it’s a father’s opium addiction and a heavy hitting local warlord breaking up the family.
In alternating chapters, we see Rahima and Shikiba rise and (mostly) fall over the course of their lives. We see their misery as they are mistreated by the people who take them after their families can no longer care for them. For both women, live with their new families means constant menial labor, insults, and the threat of violence. Watching these two women threatened and beaten by the other women in their families—especially their dreaded elderly female relatives—is especially painful to watch. The only time Rahima and Shekiba can live without fear is when they are living as boys. Boys are valued in Afghan society, indulged and treasured. Having a son elevates a woman’s status.
Both Rahima and Shekiba eventually become mothers, but that’s where their stories diverge. One will find a measure of security in her role. For the other, motherhood means tying herself even closer to a family that wants to get rid of her. I won’t say what happens to who, so as not to ruin the whole book for readers who want to tackle this book. But I wanted to bring it up because, in Rahima and Shekiba’s culture, being the mother of sons is the best (and usually only) path for a woman to take. In western society, motherhood is one of several paths a woman can take—all of them equally valid. The important distinction is that, where Rahima and Shekiba are forced to marry and have children, women in western society are free to choose what fits them best. The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, however, is all about the lack of choice for women in their world.