“Never had he heard a woman criticize, let alone denigrate, the very tenets that had not only governed his entire family for centuries, but had given him the fortitude, the dignity, to continue his own life. How else could he have survived all those seconds, minutes, hours and years after blowing his beloved sister’s brains out?“
– Lestine, Unbowed
Lestine’s Unbowed is a brave attempt to face the problem of ‘gender terrorism’ that is prevalent in our society today. The author traces the journey of Basma, from a hijab wearing, husband-fearing woman to the point where she starts taking control of her own life.
Unbowed begins with Basma’s childhood. The Middle Eastern setting is pretty apt for the theme that the author rolls out later in the book, and she does a good job of explaining to us where her protagonist comes from and why she feels the way she does. It’s made evident that Basma has doubts about her customs and the way her family treats women from the word go.
Cut to her life in New York, living out the routine that most immigrant families in the United States do. At each point, the author has had the good sense to develop the plot sufficiently, and to give us a good, hard look at Basma – who is made exceptional because she is so relatable. She’s no perfect woman, she’s not strong like most of the other female characters (and the book swarms with independent, passionate women), she has to struggle to find her way in life and she fights against intense feelings of shame and guilt when she goes against the lessons that have been drilled into her since childhood.
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In terms of gender violence, Basma’s is a rare case because she chooses to escape from the violence and chaos in her life, and create a new purpose for herself. The story throws light on a common misconception with regard to this problem – the perpetrators are often the people that we know well and are close to.
Basma’s personal journey is depicted with fine brushstrokes; incidents like the first time she enters a bakery she’s always wanted to, the first time she commits adultery and the time she gets her very own bedroom all come to mind. Running parallel to this are the efforts being taken to address women’s issues at the global level, via a UN Women’s Forum and a group of specialized, well-trained women fighters called WILA.
.. and the Bad
The book is certainly well researched; the happenings in the story are firmly grounded in current events. However, it takes a lot more to build a great story. For starters, there is too much description of minutiae at a lot of places, which kills the otherwise good pace. The language gets a bit awkward at times, taking away from the content. Some of the events in the book, though following a plausible chain of events, seem a little unrealistic in the assigned timespan and circumstances. And while the basic premises of the characters have been firmly established, the fleshing out could be done much better, thus giving the novel an unreal feel now and then.
Will not make it to my list of all-time favorites, but certainly not a waste of time. If you’re a budding feminist and are curious to get an upfront and personal look at how women are affected by gender violence, this might be a good place to start. Kudos to the author for choosing this subject for a debut novel, it’s certainly not an easy one to start with.
Check out this interview with Lestine by Pebble In The Still Waters.