Posted in Books

“Written in the Stars” by Aisha Saeed

This book is a hard one. I will preface this review by saying that some people may be triggered by the content of this novel- it includes honor violence, forced marriage, rape, and domestic abuse. Please do not read further if these themes will cause you undue distress. Additionally, while this book is fiction, it reflects the stories of many real girls and women who experience this kind of abuse. This abuse is a crime against humanity, and a violation of the human rights of women and girls. It happens all around the world. It could be happening in your town, in your city, to girls in your class, to women you know. Naila’s story is fiction, but it is familiar to many.

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Naila is a young woman, seventeen, of Pakistani descent, but born in Florida. She has a scholarship to college, to a six-year medical program. Naila is the model minority we are all looking for. Her one secret is her boyfriend of one year- Saif. Naila can’t have the normal teenage love story- there are no sports games, cheering from the sidelines, but she can sneak out one night and go to prom. One night of romance at a school dance results in her parents finding out everything, and deciding Naila has betrayed all of their teachings. They tell her a month in Pakistan will help, visiting their family will remind her who she is. Little does Naila know, all along, her parents never intended for her to return and go to school.

Without her knowledge, Naila’s mother and father set up meetings with families, seeking out a husband for her. As their stay lengthens, Naila becomes suspicious, and eventually her cousin Selma breaks down and tells her the truth. Naila tries to run away, but is found, drugged, and eventually frog-marched through a marriage ceremony. Her in-laws have purchased her for the purpose of bringing her new husband’s sister to America, as she has failed to find a husband in Pakistan. Her husband seems initially kind, but fails to understand Naila’s situation, and rapes her to prevent her from being returned to her family. She becomes pregnant as a result.

Naila looses hope- her family has abandoned her, and she has no doubt that if she is returned to them, her uncle will kill her. Returned for a visit to her family, Naila wants to try to escape, but has no opportunity. She disowns her mother, and is taken  back to her husband’s house. All this time, Naila has remained in love with Saif, with whom she has sporadic contact. He tries to help her, but can’t do much from the states. Eventually, he and his father track her down with the help of her brother, and come to Pakistan, planning an escape. Naila’s spiteful sister-in-law reveals to the family that Saif is in town, and they cast Naila out, inflicting grievous bodily harm on her in the process. Naila’s husband allows her to leave with Saif and Saif’s father, instead of returning her to her family.

The book ends in an epilogue two years later, with Naila and Saif living and attending college together back in the US. Naila miscarried, probably due to the beating her in-laws doled out. Saif’s parents have welcomed her into the family, helped her get a divorce, and supported her emotionally. While she does not have her scholarship, and looses the opportunity to enter the prestigious medical program, Naila attends college with loans and is grateful to be in school. She and Saif get married. Naila even allows her parents to come see her, following the news that her mother is very sick. She has found peace, and happiness, and is putting the past behind her, one day at a time.

While this story is ultimately a hopeful one, about love triumphing, it is also deeply tragic. It is difficult to read about Naila’s family dehumanizing her, and treating her as an implement of the family’s destruction or honor, rather than as a person in her own right. Even though Naila is ultimately freed, it is hard to think about the other women in her family, who are stuck within the structures she has escaped. In the epilogue, Naila faces seeing her parents, knowing that they can’t do anything to her anymore. But her cousin of the same age, Selma, is still living with the family who abused Naila. They both say that they are like sisters, and Selma’s fate could just as easily be the same.

The ending is also a little rushed, not really allowing Naila’s new life and happiness to sink in for the reader. Her miscarriage and the trauma incurred from the beating her in-laws gave her is mentioned, but only as a sad experience that causes her regret. As Naila became pregnant by rape, as a result of her forced marriage, it rings a little false to me that her only feelings would be of sadness. I think having mixed feelings would certainly be realistic, anger, certainly, sadness, even relief. While it seems within character and very realistic for Naila’s in-laws to beat her, and for her to miscarry as a result, as a reader it seems like the author merely wanted to avoid wading into the controversial waters of abortion. The end of the book seems just a tad sped through. Naila’s journey to get to her happy ending was so fraught, I would have liked to savor it for more than a few pages. It would have also been nice to feel as though justice was served in some way- in reality, most women who escape abusive marriages do so with only their lives. It would have given me some closure as a reader to see Naila not just escape, but get some kind of restitution for her suffering. I suppose living well is the best revenge.

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