(never had the time to edit it, till now) I have just finished this book and am trying to catch my breath, or calm down my nerves, I should say. I saw an interview with the authoress, on a Book Program on TV, some months ago. Johanna Holmström has written lots of books before, that I have never heard of, and after reading this book, I am not even tempted to pick another one of her books up. But after watching the program, I was intrigued, and set myself up in queue at the local library, to get to read this one at least. It has taken a while to receive it, and I read it in only two days. It’s as dark as a book can get. And yet, it was an easy, quick read. That said, I at the same time must say, that it is a confusing read, because the book jumps back and forth in history, and back and forth between main characters. You sort of get the full picture on the last page, and yet there are still a lot of question marks in my mind, that I would have liked answered. Some of them concern the story but one is the question of why the grammar is so bad. Why are words missing in the sentences? The book was written in Swedish since Holmström is a Finland-Swede, but at the same time, there is a lot of Finnish in it. Annoying since I don’t know that language, so why is it in there in the first place? Not to mention all the Arabic that I can’t even guess what that means either. All this said you can’t really put it down, even though it is so poorly written and unpleasant. But of course, I knew it would not be a fun, happy book before I started it!
Johanna Holmström, informed the audience in the program, that she is married to a Muslim man and has two daughters. So perhaps this world that she is describing, is not as far away from her, that one might think. She did not say that she has converted herself, but something tells me, that she knows what she is talking about. Perhaps she has some sort of conflict going on at home in connection to having married a man of another culture and faith?
The name of the book, refers to the girls in Finland, who are forced out on their balconies, by their fathers, brothers or other male relatives, and are either made to jump or get thrown off the balcony. Why? Because they are not living the way Islam dictates. Or are not living the way that their parents or brothers interpret the Koran’s teachings. We might have the same thing going on in Sweden as well, but it seems like the fathers, brothers and so on, prefer to shoot or stab the girls here. The important thing is that these Muslims have left something behind in their original country, oppression, persecution, who knows what, but they have brought their culture with them, and expect our countries to accept their practices of honour and so-called honour killings.
All that said, the book is not REALLY about honour killings at all. Yes, the Muslim daughters in the book are afraid of what might happen to them. But they don’t really know what is the worse thing. To be killed because they dress and behave like all other Finnish girls? Or their fathers going “home” on vacation and returning, telling the daughters that now they are married? To men they have never met or seen/heard of. And that they now might be locked up till the day they die. One of the main characters is Leila. She is a 15-year-old who has a lot of thoughts, about a lot of things. She remembers an old relative dying in Morocco, and being carried out of the house, as a corpse, was only the second time that the woman was outside. The first having been when she was taken to the house as a bride!
I don’t know how common the book’s theme is, but it is set in Helsingfors/Helsinki, capital of Finland, where most people speak Swedish. The Helsingfors that it portrays is horrible beyond words. The life stands out as very ugly and society likewise. At the centre of the entire story, stands a family of four. The father, Farid, is a Muslim from Morocco, who drives a bus and is what his wife calls a Ramadan-Muslim. He really doesn’t play a big part in the book, except that his actions have deep repercussions on the rest of the family. As often as he can, he brings the family to Morocco, to meet and socialize with his relatives. He seems to be the only one that has emigrated. In Morocco, his daughters get to see, how women can get trapped in to all sorts of unpleasant things. Like becoming married to a man they don’t know. Both his daughters fear that when they become of marriage age, their father will return to Finland, saying that they are now married. Their father really is a weird one. At times he becomes a fanatic, living in the mosque, praying during all his free time, and forbidding TV watching. But then he always snaps out of it, and starts drinking, smoking and doing his usual thing and they all draw a sigh of relief.
That is, his daughters do so. Not their mother. From what I understood, when the oldest daughter Samira, turned 13, her mother Sarah became a complete fanatic. No, the word is too weak for what she has become. She is worse than a fanatic. She and other women like her, Finnish women that have converted to Islam, meet up to give each other moral support but not just that, but to criticize everyone that they do not think live properly and to find more things that according to them, are forbidden. It seems like they thrive on finding things that should be forbidden. They read their own things in to the Koran and then impose the rules on their families. Well, at least Sarah does. The others do not dare to confess, that they are not as strict as they pretend to be. Except perhaps the woman, who ordered a complete Burka from Afghanistan, since she felt that people on the bus, were trying to make eye contact with her and she could not stand it. Sarah, started wearing hijab when Samira was 13, and she stopped the subscription to the newspaper her husband always read in the morning, because Mohammed forbade pictures in the home. She threw away all the girls little childhood drawings, burned the photos of the children, threw out the TV, since she considered that as pictures as well. One week, she bought a yellow shirt for her daughter Leila, only to throw it away the next week, because the only proper colour to wear is black. Sarah really is nauseating in her fanaticism. You want her locked up somewhere. The front of the book is very much an attribute to Sarah’s thinking. She one day comes home with a sheet full of bar codes, that they must look out for in the supermarket, because the bar codes contain the information, according to her, which items contain pig. Or other forbidden things. Her ways have not got her fired from her job in a travel agency, but she is not allowed to deal with customers anymore since her negativism frightens the customers. They have hidden her away, far from the view of customers.
Both the daughters react to their horrible mother. It’s difficult to say which one does so the more. Samira gets to have a normal childhood till she turns 13, when her mother becomes this ghastly nightmare. When she starts nearing high school graduation, she fears that her dad is going to come home one day and tell her she is married. But he instead says, education first, marriage later. She is grateful and choose a really long education but she still can’t really breathe easy. One day, she just packs up and leaves. She runs to a shelter for women and then social services gives her a flat of her own with protected identity. Problem is that she stays in the same town, continues at the same university and then she takes a job in a greasy hamburger place which many of her old friends frequents. It doesn’t take long, before her best friend, Jasmina, finds her and Jasmina becomes a frequent visitor to Samira’s flat. The two of them, starts quite a wild life, for Muslim girls, hanging out in bars, drinking etc. Till Samira meets a boy named Piter. He knew her from school and is doing his military service, being two years younger than her. His best friends are skinheads, so perhaps not the best boyfriend to get. But the two of them fall in love and start a relationship, in secret, except Jasmina knows. This is 2006. The book jumps back and forth between 2005, 2006 and 2007. And between Leila and Samira.
Leila, is 15 in 2007 and is in her last year of high school. The way she reacts to her mother’s fanaticism? She is running wild. Literally! It’s called Parkour and I had never heard of it before. But these youth gangs meet up and then they run like idiots. Over park benches, over car roofs… Two rules apply, you can’t ruin property and not scare people. She does this running around, with her ex-friend Linda Lindqvist. Or is she her best friend? Well, three years earlier, they were best friends, until Leila went to Morocco and missed the first two weeks in high school. When she arrived, she was an outcast. A mulatto that got bullied from day one and the worse bully was Linda! Leila, who sounds like a pretty girl, dresses in slouchy sweat-trousers and a hoody which she pulls over her face as far as she can. Her mother says it is forbidden according to the Koran to look like a boy, that a woman must look like a woman and dress in Hijab. Leila refuses but feels that she is covered as the Koran says for her to be, with her hoody. Her parents seem to not care about their daughters at all, except they make sure they live like good Muslims. Her parents don’t know all the abuse Leila suffers in school. Nor do they know that she after school runs around doing Parkour, nor do they know she goes to watch TV at Linda’s and reads gossip magazines there as well. Because even though Linda bullies her in school and always calls her a whore, they spend a lot of time together in their spare time.
Things get really bad for the two girls in 2007. Samira first discovers Leila, at a club, and calls social services. She asks her mother to let Leila move in with her instead. But Sarah refuses. Then Samira changes. She and Jasmina, have long discussions on Islam and what is true Islam and not. Jasmina tells Piter, that Samira will only marry a Muslim, no matter what Samira says and she is right. Samira breaks things off with him and starts wearing a Hijab to the University lectures. This is when Piter disappears and Samira falls down stairs at home and ends up in a coma. People suspect Sarah, Farid, the Imam who had told Sarah to straighten out her daughter, other Muslims… Leila’s schooling goes downhill. She doesn’t care about anything anymore. Sarah wants her to start wearing Hijab and she and her friends force it on Leila one day. But she doesn’t bend. The bullying gets worse. She doesn’t go to classes but goes to visit her sister instead, talking to her even though she never gets a response. She doesn’t tell Linda, but Linda soon gets her own problems. Through a misunderstanding, she becomes the target for bullying as well, and Leila backs her up like the true friend that she really is. Linda loves Britney Spears, and when Britney shaves her head, both Linda and Leila do the same thing. Leila in support of now bullied Linda, and Leila hands the bag with the oh so sinful hair, to her mother.
Does this book have a happy ending? Not really in my view. Sarah finally explains why she is the way that she is. Her husband Farid did what most Muslim men in Finland do, perhaps also elsewhere. He blamed his Finnish wife for not being able to be a proper Muslim, like he could have been with another woman, born Muslim. So Sarah decided to become the proper Muslim wife which he said he did not have, in order that he can become the proper Muslim he said he can’t be thanks to her. She gets rid of everything Finnish and becomes a proper Arab wife, gets rid of her own culture entirely. And yet, he doesn’t change HIS ways. Even though he has nothing to complain about anymore. Now she had the culture that was not hers, a husband that didn’t follow Islam, and no way to go back to her own culture again. Fatima, her friend, who she discusses everything with, finally tells Sarah to lighten up. Sarah points out that Fatima’s daughter goes to the cinema and Fatima says “I know. I am a Muslim but I am also a mother.”
Samira finally wakes up but she is not herself at all. Piter is there to help her, dressed as an imam, having converted to Islam because of what Jasmina told him, and he is forced by Samira’s parents to marry Samira. Leila, has to go another year in high school after missing too many lessons, but she has Linda there with her so she doesn’t seem too bothered by it. And she even attends mosque with her mother now and then, not because she is forced to, but because she is afraid of her own salvation.
What this book is really about is how fanatics of Islam has forgotten the most important thing in their religion. A part that I watched months ago, in a documentary about Islam. The part that Islam and the Koran is all about personal interpretation. What these fanatics do is to do away with that fundamental rule, and they come up with cultural rules and then saying that they are religious rules. Sarah sat and made up her own rules over and over again, that no-one else had heard of, and when they pointed it out to her, she called them Ramadan-Muslims. And as far as I understand things, it is these self-made rules and interpretations that lead to al-Qaeda and terror bombings.
Before Samira turned 13 her mother believed in freedom of religion. She only wore a headscarf when going outside and Samira was allowed to take part in gym class, swimming lessons, go to friends’ Birthday parties, have Finland-Swedish friends and attend school Christmas parties and school year ending ceremonies. But then Sarah decided there was only one way to be a Muslim. Her girls were not allowed to do any of those things anymore. When Leila is in the last year of school and is forced to attend the obligatory school Christmas show, set up by her year, her mother locks her in to her room after having removed the locks and handles on the door and windows. Leila has to break the window and run out in the snow in just T-shirt, socks and sweat-trousers. Being afraid that the teacher will notice her absence and punish her. When she arrives in wet socks, not outer clothing nor shoes, noone even notices at school!
The book’s most interesting discussions are between Jasmina and Samira because they are trying to make sense of things. (Jasmina it turns out, has converted to Islam, because she is afraid that Sarah will not let her be friends with Samira, if she finds out she is a Christian from Iran.) They discuss why all Muslim men regard women as whores. Why it is that the Koran says that believing men and believing women must avert their eyes and not look at each other, and yet the men look, and they are allowed to sit at their kitchen tables talking about their whores, when their fathers are present and they do not even get a rebuke by the latter. Why it is considered alright by their fathers to talk like this about women and girls. But how the fathers will become abusive if the girls show as much as a hair-straw under their Hijab. The girls proclaim that their hair has become their sex organ and that they have to protect their hymen by wearing a veil/hijab and when they are married, they have to prove that their vagina belongs to a man, by wearing the hijab.
The most shocking discussion is when the two girls are reading an article from East Africa. Jasmina who is very well-informed all the time, says that the Koran says that “a woman must feel pleasure when having sex, that it is the husband’s duty, and it says that she is allowed to divorce him if he does not”. In this article they read about the Muslim practice of “clitoridectomi”. In other words cutting off the clitoris and sewing the girl together. The article warns that the girl can be so tightly closed that it can take up to four days for the groom to penetrate her. It tells the men that where they don’t succeed a knife must be used for help and then over the next months they have to work on the hole to get bigger. This meaning that the scar tissue gets torn over and over again. Jasmina and Samira agree that it sounds like mining and wonder where the woman is in all this. Jasmina’s comment being “Who describes what she thinks and feels while her husband is working on making the hole bigger.” She adds “How far away from that can you get?”, meaning what the Koran says it should be like for the woman.
In a way I wonder why I read books like this? They make me so angry. But what can one do about it? Yes, it is a novel, but this goes on daily in our Western countries. And of course in the Muslim countries. How can one protect the Muslim girls that do NOT want ancient cultural rules, as their life guide lines?