Seven, by Farzana Doctor

Trigger warning for discussion of female genital mutilation.

Sharifa is an Indian American. Like many immigrants, Sharifa and her family have mixed and matched traditional Dawoodi Bohra traditions with American ones. She and her husband met and married for love—but they chose each other from the small pool of Bohra Indians in New York. Their daughter is taught at a secular school, but is still taught about the Bohra Muslim faith. As Seven, by Farzana Doctor, opens, Sharifa and her family are preparing to return to Mumbai for a year. Like so many others, ends up discovering herself on the great subcontinent while intending to do something else.

Before we follow Sharifa to India, we get a good look underneath the surface of her marriage to Murtuza. Four years earlier, Sharifa nearly cheated on her husband. They’ve patched things up, but there is still a bit of mistrust and hurt in their relationship. It doesn’t help that Sharifa is unable to orgasm when they have sex. Because Murtuza and Sharifa can’t completely connect—and because Sharifa doesn’t understand why she can never reach completion—there’s a massive elephant in the room that keeps them from fully repairing their relationship. When Sharifa and co. arrive in Mumbai and she begins her family history project (researching the actual history behind a nineteenth century ancestor who has become legend), she learns what the elephant really is.

Sharifa’s arrival coincides with increasing activism against the practice of khatna, a form of female genital mutilation practiced by some Dawoodi Bohras. Sharifa always believed that she had escaped the knife. Surely she would remember? But her cousins definitely remember. One of them, Fatema, is one of the leading activists against khatna. Against her will, Sharifa gets drawn into the fight against khatna—which means uncovering family history that she didn’t want to dig up. It’s pretty ironic considering that she meant to dig up even deeper family history.

Seven offers a deep dive not only into the Dawoodi Bohra, but into family betrayals and the complicated psychology of FGM survivors. The way Sharifa and her family talk, part of being Bohra is not questioning tradition and not bucking the status quo. They keep themselves to themselves. The problem with not questioning (and I love that Sharifa’s daughter constantly asks why when she sees new Bohra customs and none of the adults can answer the question) is that it means things fester until they erupt, with all kinds of messy psychological consequences.

Doctor relates all of this with sympathy and open-mindedness. The thing about Seven puzzles me is the fragmentary interstitial chapters that contain dates and snatches of sentences about Sharifa’s legendary ancestor. It’s entirely possible that the fragments were just an error in my advanced reader copy. I hope it was just a mistake, because the fragments were so small that I found them irritating more than intriguing. If it is a mistake, I’m sorry I missed out on seeing how life has changed or not changed for the Bohra in the hundred years between Sharifa’s life and the life of her great-great-great-grandfather. (I think I got the number of greats right.)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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