Aisha Saeed‘s novel Written in the Stars tells the story of Naila, a Pakistani-American high school senior in the last few weeks before graduating. Her immigrant parents are very strict and conservative, banning Naila from spending any time with boys. Unbeknownst to them, Naila has been seeing Saif for the past year. Naila treasures every moment she gets to spend with him at school and the pair looks forward to finally having some freedom when they go to the same college in the fall. Their plans come crashing down when Naila, urged by her best friend, goes to prom against her parents’ wishes. The news quickly reaches her parents, who angrily take her home and forbid her from seeing Saif. Naila realizes that now her chance to go to college is in jeopardy as well, so she doesn’t put up a fight when her parents tell her they’re going to spend a month in Pakistan seeing family. Naila hopes the trip will give her parents time to cool down and accept Naila’s relationship with Saif. Just to be safe, Saif gives her a burner phone so she can keep in contact with him while she’s away.
Naila loves Pakistan and getting to know her family. She and her cousin Selma become fast friends and spend many afternoons hiding in the sugar cane and orange groves on the family property to escape the summer heat. The only annoying thing is her parents keep having guests over and demand that Naila be dressed up every time a new family arrives. She wonders why the families keep asking her questions about her ability to cook and sew, but shrugs it off as a cultural nuance. Then her parents extend the trip by a few weeks. Then a month. Then Naila discovers her passport and stash of money are missing. Her parents brush off her questions about why they’re staying in Pakistan so long, especially when she has to be back in Florida for college orientation. Finally, Selma breaks when she realizes Naila has no idea what’s happening and fills her in. Naila’s parents do not intend to bring her back to America. They’re in the final negotiations of arranging a marriage for Naila. Naila calls Saif in a panic, and he discovers that if Naila can get to the American embassy in Islamabad, she can get help. When she tries to escape, however, her uncle catches, beats, and drugs her. Naila must decide whether to accept her fate, as it would be life threatening to go against her forced marriage, or hold on to the hope of a future with Saif.
I finished this book in a day. It’s not a long read and the story itself moves at a fast pace, keeping you on the hook. I devoured the book, anxious to find out what was going to happen to Naila. I love reading books about cultures different from mine, especially when the author is from that culture, because they give insight into certain customs and traditions. The author herself is in an arranged marriage (which she is happy with) and wanted to highlight the difference between arranged marriages and forced marriages. Saeed knows many girls forced into unhappy marriages, and distinguishes that arranged marriages occur when neither person is forced into it against his/her will.
Apparently, forced marriages are a hidden problem in America and Saeed wanted to bring attention to the issue. Some immigrant families come to America but retain uber-conservative practices, such as Naila’s parents. When their daughters don’t live up to their standards, parents can force their daughters back to Pakistan and into unwanted marriages. We see Naila slip into a deep depression as she’s forced to marry into a family she doesn’t know. She has to deal with expectations that are unfamiliar to her with very little time for adjustment. Naila realizes trying to escape could mean another beating or even death. Just because she had a boyfriend whom she was never even able to see outside of school, her parents rip her away from her friends, her home, and her aspirations to be a doctor and put her life and happiness in immediate danger.
It can be hard to understand why a girl in this situation wouldn’t stand up to her family, say “no”, and move on, but the attitude towards women is much different in Pakistani culture than in Western culture. If you’ve read I Am Malala or have knowledge of Pakistani culture, you know women are traditionally expected to marry, raise children, and stay mostly confined to the house. They aren’t allowed in the company of men who aren’t their relatives. Actions that seem to cause dishonor to the family, such as speaking to a strange man or running away from your abusive husband, could result in a woman’s death via honor killing. Some families are stricter about this than others are, but it’s the general attitude in Pakistan. We see Naila’s initial joy at being with her family and seeing her homeland turn into desperation when she realizes they ultimately see her as property. We see the determination to escape slowly beaten out of her until she begins to resign herself to a fate of unhappiness and near servitude with her new husband’s family. It’s distressing to read, and even more upsetting to realize situations like this aren’t fictional. Saeed wrote an engaging book about a topic that deserves more attention, and I hope to see more books from her in the future.
Rating: 5 out of 5 orange burner phones