Book of the Month: The Imam’s Daughter
When you begin reading The Imam’s Daughter, truly, you’ll come to understand that nothing could have prepared you for the book and everything it contains within. The story of Hannah Shah, a Pakistani who lives in London, the tale is a sordid narration of the trials and tribulations of a young girl who is abused sexually and physically, subjected to patriarchy in her upbringing in a household that does not respect women, and her escape from the clutches of her terrible fate. Shocking enough, already? Well. Here’s the addition to that: She is an Imam’s daughter, the Imam being the perpetrator of all her abuse. For the uninitiated, an Imam is of a priestly cadre, a revered teacher of the Islamic religious text.
The irony lies in the fact that he is neither well versed in his understanding of the text, nor amicable to his own daughter when he really should be setting an example for the community that looks up to him.
Hannah Shah is an Imam’s daughter. She lived the life of a Muslim but, for many years, her father abused her in the cellar of their home. At 16, she discovered a plan to send her to Pakistan for an arranged marriage, and she ran away. Hunted by her angry father and brothers, who were determined to make her an honour killing, she had to keep moving house to escape them. Then, worst of all, in her family’s eyes, she became a Christian. Some Muslims say converting from Islam is punishable by death…One day a mob of forty men came after her, armed with hammers, sticks and knives…with her father at the front…”The Imam’s Daughter” is Hannah’s gripping – but ultimately inspiring – true story. How, through her courage and determination, she broke free from her background and found a new life beyond its confines – a new life of freedom and love
The book is an exemplary rendition – for the narration of a story with so much pain is in itself the reflection of a lot of courage. Hannah is born into a rather rigid, orthodox and parochial Pakistani family that was ridden in a warped interpretation of Islam and its tenets. Hannah narrates the miseries of her childhood as being the subject of her father’s violence. Initially, Hannah watches on as her mother gets beaten brutally by her father, and decides to intervene one day when things get out of hand. From that point onwards, Hannah becomes the subject of her father’s violence – right from rape, molestation and sexual abuse, to beatings, brutalisation emotionally and deprivation. While her father lives on donations from the people in the community around him, as they gather around him and look up to his advice, Hannah is deprived, beaten and subjected to tremendous mistreatment. She is forced to cook and clean for her household, sometimes being forced to forego meals in the process. Born after three older brothers, Hannah is the first of three young sisters, and the middle child in the household. But the Imam had his antagonism only for Hannah, and was benevolent towards his other daughters. Throughout her life, her father would hate White people, calling them goray, and refusing to let his family interact with them. Hannah was not allowed to visit her friends from school, nor allowed to bring them over. The few times that she tried having someone over, she was beaten and abused.
Nevertheless, despite all the dismal issues that unfold before her, Hannah manages to indulge in a few escapades here and there – leaving her house on the pretext of going to school, dressed in canary yellow salwar kameezes, while silently making her escape into the lifestyle she wished to lead. With time, Hannah realises that there is an escape route – and confides in a social worker, who it happens, is of Islamic faith. The social worker comes right home and tells the Imam about his daughter’s woes – and the Imam is completely saintly, and turns the social worker out of the house claiming that his daughter lied. More beatings, abuse and violence follow.
With time, Hannah gains the ability to trust, and seeks out a teacher who she loves and looks up to. A phased process of escape is plotted, and Hannah finds her way out of the household. But things are not easy, for her family suddenly shows up at her doorstep, demanding to kill her to preserve the honour of their family. She then makes a move to a completely new place in the hope of shaking their tail, when life begins to look up.
Hannah’s story is a very important, relevant one especially for those attempting to understand the complex weft of religion and culture, till one is blurred into the other. It is especially useful in understanding the true meaning of the misunderstood and misinterpreted religious tenets.