The Holy Woman

Reading challenge book 2 – a book set in a different country

The Holy Woman, by Qaisra Shahraz

Amazon link here


After a month of reading about British history, I was completely desperate to read some fiction, stayed up till three in the morning reading this, and finished it within twenty-four hours.

The Holy Woman is set in Pakistan and I would describe it as a contemporary novel with romantic elements rather than a romance. However, the focus on the romance might be too strong for any gents out there. The protagonist, Zarri Bano  – who becomes the holy woman – is the eldest daughter of a wealthy Pakistani family. She is not religious, but is a feminist who loves modern life – fashion, socialising, working in Islamabad  – who falls in love and is planning to marry. Following the death of her brother, the only male son and heir to the family fortune, she is pressured by her father into forsaking her life as she knows it and accepting a life of religious study and devotion. Crucially, this means that she will never be able to marry.

For this element of the reading challenge, I was keen to read a book set in a culture which I was not familiar with (e.g. not a book set in Paris). The Holy Woman certainly met this criterion by illustrating village life in Pakistan and the interplay between traditional and modern lifestyles. I found the descriptions and world-building vivid and fascinating.

The Holy Woman shows the lack of self-determination available to Pakistani women, at least in the environment in which Zarri Bano lives, and the ultimate authority of men in the household. One element I loved was that, while Zarri Bano was initially appalled by her fate of being a holy woman, she decides to embrace the role and her responsibilities as a scholar of Islam, becoming more devout than her family (especially her father) ever foresaw. For me, her decision to make the most of her new life, despite its constraints, and to live it as fully as she could, was really empowering. From looking at a few Amazon reviews, this feeling wasn’t shared by all readers.

Having said this, I saw Zarri Bano as a Mary-Sue in many respects – incredibly beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, everyone falling in love with her. She was also the only character who had two names, and for me, this just accentuated her Mary-Sueness, though I think this was my issue, rather than the book’s!

Gradually  as the book progresses, Zarri Bano’s father regrets his decision to force Zarri Bano to become a holy woman, and her whole family puts a huge amount of pressure on Zarri Bano to forsake her vow of chastity and marry. There’s a subplot here where her original fiancé (who her father had not liked) has since married and been widowed, and has a son who needs a mother.

However, Zarri Bano is adamantly opposed to the idea of marrying. She has made vows and forsaken her old life, and doesn’t want to be pushed backwards. Highlight the text below for spoilers. 
Zarri Bano eventually caves to the pressure of her family, and marries her ex-fiancé , for the woman he had previously married was her sister and therefore his motherless son, who she loves, is her own nephew. The Holy Woman ends with her falling back in love with her ex-fiancé, and it is implied that she will live ‘happily ever after’. 

This was the weak point of the book for me. While I was happy that Zarri Bano ultimately had the chance to have her own family, I didn’t want to see her pushed into changing her life again against her will, even if this would restore the life she had always planned. I felt this undermined the sense of empowerment that I saw earlier, especially as her family was telling her that she needed marriage to be fulfilled, and hey presto, she was ultimately fulfilled in her marriage. As a happily-married woman, I’m not arguing that love and family do not contribute to greater happiness for some people, and having any long-term relationship in Pakistani society would have to mean marriage. However, Zarri Bano’s transition from not wanting marriage, to agreeing to marriage in name only, to married happiness occurred too quickly for me. 

I wrote earlier that this book wasn’t a romance, but contained romantic elements. The ending was very ‘romance novel’, and maybe that was my disconnect: I didn’t think I was reading a romance novel, so the ending felt clunky.

One of the themes explored through some of the secondary characters was caste. In this book the son of a wealthy, high-caste family falls in love with a lower-caste village girl, but his mother opposes the match. There was serious conflict between the two women, and the resolution of this story arc made me uncomfortable. I felt as though the girl was condemned by the author, not just for her disrespect to an older woman – which is a judgement I can understand –  but for her disrespectful behaviour to woman of a higher caste, which is a judgement I cannot empathise with. I think that caste politics are very uncomfortable for any Westerner to read about.

In summary, I loved the world-building in this book, and the vivid portrayal of Pakistani life and traditions, particularly the contrast between wealthy and poorer families. I found the plot really interesting, though I did not buy into the ending.


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