Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?
Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.
This is the first time I nearly DNF’d a book because of anger. I’m angry at Naila’s parents, I’m angry at her chacha, I’m angry at her in-laws, I’m practically angry at everybody!—except Selma and Imran and Carla maybe. Saif and Naila—I’m still a bit angry with them. Since the first chapters till the last one, I gritted my teeth, wanting to just slam this book close but instead telling myself that it will just a few more chapters till I finished the book.
The reason why I’m angry? Well, let’s just say that everything they did contradicts to what I had been taught and believe in.
If reviewers tell you that there the religion is not clearly implied here, they’re wrong or maybe they just didn’t recognise it (not their fault, by the way). Naila and every one of them—except Carla—are Moslems. Saeed might not state it clearly in the book, but at the mention of ‘masjid’—or mosque, in English, which is the place where Moslems often go to do their prayers—I know that they are, in fact, Moslems. I am a Moslem, too. And as a Moslem, I understand some of the reasons for what Naila’s parents did to her. But still, as far as Moslem marriages go, forced ones—especially to the point of violence—are not one of them.
Before I continue, I want to apologise in advance if anything that I am going to write next will anger some people or maybe are completely false—especially about Pakistan, forgive me but I do not know much about the traditional customs of the country. And for all the Nailas out there, my heart goes out to you.
First of all, let me tell you how the relationship between a boy and girl who aren’t family goes in Islam.
- We aren’t allowed to date—or being in a romantic relationship, or skinship (a Korean term, where a guy and girl share moments that involves skin touching—holding hands, etc) or PDA, or even kissing, or even seeing each other aurat, which is places of our body that people except our family (our mahram, to be exact) cannot see. Though what Naila’s parents had put her through are cruel, I understand why they just took her out to Pakistan and forced her to marry Amin—Naila and Saif are dating, it isn’t allowed and frankly, puts shame on both families. And this is why I’m angry with them. Coming from a more conservative Moslem society, I do not approve of this, though I can see where it is coming as Naila and Saif are from America which is more liberal. *sigh* I wish Saif is more reasonable enough to ask for Naila’s father’s permission first (for marriage, of course) to pursue her rather than just come up to her and say ‘I love you’ and then started to get cozy—which brings us to number 2.
- If you want to get a girl to be your wife, you have to go her father and ask for her hand in marriage instead of pursuing the girl first, say ‘I love you’, and then tell the father that you want to get married. Boys and girls are allowed to interact to some extent. But if a boy wants a girl to be his wife, he has to go to the father and say ‘Sir, you have a wonderful daughter, I want to be his husband’ or something similar. And then there will a court of ‘ta’aruf’, which is a meeting between the two future couple accompanied by the family of both sides or the mahram of the soon-to-be-bride. Here, the two couple can talk, getting to know each other without raising suspicion that they’re doing something inappropriate (we can not go off on our own alone in couples, too, you know). I don’t know much about burqas, but from what I saw on a movie (Ayat-Ayat Cinta, to be exact, the film is much better than the book, and also feature one of the sweetest fictional Islamic marriages I’ve ever seen), in this court, if the girl wears a burqa, she can take it off for her future husband to see (in the book of the same title, the guy is also given an album of the girl’s picture, still in her hijab, before the ta’aruf). If both parties are satisfied, then the wedding will take place. I don’t know if this is something taught in Moslem families there, but if Saif’s sister is already married and Naila’s parents have been pestering her about husbands since she was ten, it is something that I think they should have known.
- Forced marriage and arranged marriage are different. Because sometimes (more often than not, some other times) in some places and societies, the interaction between a boy and a girl are really minimum to none, it is the parents that look out for a potential spouse. And thus, an arranged marriage is assumed. Some other times, it is the guy who only saw a glimpse of the woman and is enchanted by either her hidden beauty or manners or even both will propose first without really knowing her, but then if the father of the woman approves because of the man’s manners, a marriage will also be assumed (I have no idea if this is an arranged one, too, or not). The difference between an arranged marriage and a forced one is that in arranged marriage, the girl has a say in it. If she doesn’t want it, there will be no marriage. If she wants it, there will be a marriage. In a forced one, whether the girl likes it or not, she will still get married. Naila was forced into her marriage with Amin. And what makes me angrier? They used violence on Naila—drugging her and forcing her to a wedding she wasn’t even aware off. Gosh.
- When a woman marries a man, her loyalty shifts from her parents to her husband. That means, if she wants to do anything, she will have to ask her husband for permission. If the wife is a bit ‘naughty’, the husband can punish her in three stages. First is reprimanding, tell her that she is wrong. If this does not work, then he can deprive the woman of her spiritual need that can only be satisfied by the husband (think of birds and bees)—which, I think, is actually what Naila did to Amin instead of Amin doing it to Naila. Haha, I have a bit of satisfaction in this, considering all the horrible things they did to her. The third and final stage is the husband gets to hit on her wife with the condition that he doesn’t mean to hurt his wife, just to remind her, and also not to hit in the face. But forcing yourself on your wife without her consent? Married or not, I still think this constitute as rape.
Now, enough of the contradictions. I’ve read a lot of stories about how these forced marriages still happen out there. And even though the basic concept of the reason they do it because of religion or culture (or whatever other reason they have), I think it is cruel and inhuman. It violates the human rights of free will, and that is clearly not justified by law.
However, one point that I want to make clear of is even though forced marriage is cruel, it doesn’t mean an arranged marriage is also like it. There are a lot of stories on how couples who are initially arranged to be married by their parents without knowing who their future partner is has a happy ending. These couples put their beliefs completely on their parents to choose the right partner for them, and their beliefs are clearly not misplaced. Take a look at the author herself—Mrs. Aisha Saeed’s marriage was semi-arranged by her and her husband’s parents while they only met once, surrounded by family, and she is happy (see the Author’s note after the epilogue). But clearly, not everyone gets the same ending as she did, as a lot of forced marriages still happens out there.
Usually, when I read a book so infuriating, I would directly put it down and gave it a one or two stars depending on how much I enjoyed the book. But since one of the reasons the author wrote this book is to open our eyes to a reality that this kind of cruelty still exists out there and that is supposed to burn our anger at the injustice, I think she has done a great job doing it.
But, for a book that is also supposed to give an exposure to humanity, I wished that she had done it more elaborately. The writing of the book sounds too…simple? Like it was written by someone who doesn’t use English as his/her first language. And if it is their second or third, he/she hasn’t practised it really well in writing. It’s like there is something missing in the book that prevents it from becoming an epic realistic-fiction novel that really brings out the social problem that it contains.