Monday, June 6, 2016

Literary Wives #21!!

by Annika Milisic-Stanley

Admittedly, I found the cover image 
for this book rather fascinating 
in its simplicity.
My initial thoughts upon seeing it were 
that it certainly did depict the 
isolation any "wife" might feel if she 
was NOT "obedient" in a 
Muslim marriage, 
especially in more traditional 
Islamic societies/cultures. 
Of course, as we learn from reading 
this book, it can also depict 
that same 'isolation' for any woman 
(or partner) in any marriage.

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Kay of whatmeread
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The author contacted us and asked if we would like to read and review her book for the Literary Wives Online Book Discussion Group, and we agreed we would. 
She very graciously provided free copies to each of us in exchange for our honest reviews.
I find it rather interesting that we have read two books 
in sequence dealing with marriages set within Islam. 
However, in my mind, there was little commonality between this book 
and The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun. 
I particularly appreciate the fact that The Disobedient Wife seemed to be very practical 
and dealt with the realities of daily life between married partners. 
This was a book that struck me as 'pragmatic' and I could appreciate that. 
Though both books did deal with the reality of a male expecting his female spouse
to become/be an "obedient" and subservient person in their relationship,
even when subjected to abuse. 
As Harriet states, 
"Tajikistan is a cruel place for a young woman who marries the wrong man." (198)

The thought that kept running through my mind as I finished reading this book was:
While physical abuse/violence is definitely the most dangerous to a person's survival, 
other forms of "abuse" can definitely be just as debilitating in many ways. 
Granted, the danger is more immediate, overt, and obvious with physical violence. As in the case of Savsang, the physical abuse was horrific and should have never been allowed to go unpunished and to continue. This is what scares me most about countries where there are no laws to protect people, especially "wives" or female partners, from such abuse. Or...even if there are laws on the books, the reality is that many times there is no enforcement and no one with political/legal power who will listen to and/or believe victims, especially when they are female, and especially when they are "married" to their abusers. I love the way Milisic-Stanley depicts this in such detail through the simple everyday aspects of these women's lives. They literally have nowhere to turn and no one who will actually help them. In fact, as depicted here, the community/ies overall are supportive of these male abusers! The females actually abuse other females just as badly! Particularly the older females, and specifically mothers-in-law! I can never stop shaking my head when I consider such situations. Perhaps A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaleid Hosseini is the most intimately violent book I've read about the plight of females in traditionally rigid Islamic culture. Though this one qualifies as the second most among the books I've read!

Regardless of the fact that Harriet has plenty of financial resources and is free to plan her days, she proved to be just as 'stuck' in her marriage as anyone else, although she and her husband certainly had no relationship even closely resembling a true partnership with effective communication and sharing and he totally withdrew from his family, effectively abandoning them in all ways except financially. Harriet had dutifully agreed to abandon her own career to "trail" her husband in diplomatic work around the world. This involved a commitment to moving every 2-3 years to a completely different geographic location and culture(s), which can be very isolating in and of itself. It's rather obvious that none of these expat wives are dealing well with the stress of this lifestyle, though Harriet seems to be the best adjusted. However, as Henri pulls away and abandons their relationship and his family, she also sinks into depression and relies on alcohol for her escapism.

By page 50 or so I was a bit sick and tired of Harriet's complaints, while she seemingly overlooked Nargis' own plight of extreme poverty, I was glad to see that she finally did begin to see Nargis for who she truly was and what her life entailed regarding discomfort and inaccessibility to services, having barely enough money to avoid starvation for herself, her children, and her extended family. Even Nargis admits that the only reason her own parents were willing to allow her to move back with them after she left her second husband who consistently beat her and her son, was her ability to work and contribute consistent income to the household! Her own parents!! Harriet did have a good heart and had obviously been generous with "servants" in the past, much to her miserly husband's chagrin! Once she begins to realize what needs Nargis has (for boots, decent weather-appropriate clothing, and increased earnings), she does her best to help. Though at one point Nargis is a bit worried about Harriet's intensity to find her more work to fill what few leisure hours she now has... A couple of months ago I heard a study reported on NPR regarding the development of empathy within people who were "rich" or "well off" and had little to no sense of empathy for others who were less fortunate than themselves. In this study, these 'hard-hearted' people, as I would call them, were exposed to videos depicting hardships faced by individual people. Amazingly, even just a bit of such exposure did increase the participants' sense of empathy and willingness to help others. It didn't take much to create this type of change and awareness of others' struggles among these people. That gives me some hope... 

Nargis has worked hard and saved money to purchase a store in their mahalla, though the irresponsible lazy men in her family almost ruin that for her within the first couple of months! I purchase as much as I can through Fair Trade resources, since I can be assured the artisans (both in the U.S. and other countries) are paid fair market prices for their goods and services. This is how I obtain the tea I drink every day. It is through such organizations that even females can become economically successful, and experience proves that when females have control of a family's finances that money is typically used as it should be--to care for, feed, and educate the children. This opposed to the majority of males who will simply party away whatever money they make, to the detriment of their families, leaving little to none for necessities. 

Milisec-Stanley did a good job of depicting the resulting political unrest of economic decline; once men are unable to find work to support themselves and their families, they can become easy recruits for terrorist organizations and/or other revolutionary and/or criminal institutions and groups. For example, when Jamshed walked into the bar and purposefully sat down to speak with Pouloud, he already knew Pouloud had been working in Russia, but had not yet returned. I'm sure these men were all targeted as those who were unable to find legitimate work in Tajikistan, so they were all the more likely to jump at the chance to carry out illegal activities to earn money. Of course, for me, I am cynical enough to believe that any time one group of people is given power over others (i.e. Muslim males over females) they are more likely to become lazy in their tyranny, though Milisec-Stanley made it clear that when there are no possibilities for work, a society becomes rife with dissatisfied citizens. Additionally, that pushes those who will work toward more nefarious and even illegal activities. As  Henri states, "cotton and aluminum prices have fallen through the floor, so heroin is the main income earner." It is difficult to redirect people from criminal activities to make money when there is no other viable option available. And honestly, when Pouloud recited the daily routine of his life while working in a Russian factory, I could definitely understand why he wouldn't wish to return. It was horrid, virtually unbearable. Though that was the only bit of sympathy that man received from me! However, he was also a product of this specific time and place, to a degree. As a Muslim male he had total control and power (so he thought) over his "wife," and certainly no one would dispute that, not even his own parents! I kept thinking as I read this, that I don't believe any of my three sons would ever abuse their partners or children, at least they'd better not, 'cause they'd better hope it was the police or someone else who got to them first...and not their mother! I would have little mercy on them for such reprehensible behavior! 

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Since I am not enamored by any organized religion, I found it extremely interesting that the Tajikistan marriages were all within the Islam religion, but the one 'western' marriage about which we received detailed information involved a man who was "atheist" in his spiritual/religious beliefs. So while it was obvious to see the abuse heaped upon wives by Muslim males, the 'abuse' Henri commits against Harriet is much more insidious and unseen, at least by her. All she knows is that she is "adrift" without her partner as a means of support (in every way other than financial) or even an active member of the family! She and her children have quite literally been abandoned by Henri. It is not until she sees the Russian woman in his hospital room, who is pregnant with his child, that Harriet totally rejects him as her husband. (With regard to the bomb incident, I found it interesting that the only other person supposedly injured by this device, the gardener, was never even mentioned as to any injuries or his possible death. We are only informed of the westerner's injuries...) Ironically, as Henri pulls away more from his own family, he fires one of the servants and demands that Harriet begin to cook for him and his guests, even though the food supply is sketchy at best, and it requires her to spend much time (and money) shopping for food, etc. While he never physically (or sexually) abuses Harriet, he is abusive to her in every other way, particularly emotionally. 

Wives. As a Muslim female you have no rights within a marriage, unless you happen to have knowledge of and access to services that westerners have established to help females escape intolerably abusive relationships/marriages. This is reinforced by the community(ies) overall, including the woman's own family, etc. Though I did note that Nargis' mother, Gulya, was finally agreeable to her daughter seeking help hiding from her husband once he had admitted he was smuggling drugs and insisting that she join him in these criminal activities. In retrospect, I had to wonder how much of that was to get Nargis out of her house to help protect herself, her husband, and her son (Whom she had always favored and deferred to, as any good Muslim mother would with a male child.) from Pouloud should he come after Nargis as he had promised to do? I couldn't imagine that self-preservation wasn't a large motivating factor for this 'change of heart.'

Yet as a wife of a seemingly 'progressive' western diplomat, you were expected to allow your husband to similarly do as he pleased and remain in the marriage. Granted, at least for Harriet, there was no physical/sexual abuse involved, other than abandonment and neglect, but she was certainly expected to just stand by and stay in the marriage, no matter what. Though unlike Nargis, she did apparently have family who could and would help her, at least to some extent, back in England. And we learn that she had extracted enough financial settlement from Henri to adequately support herself and her children. And, it is in this final stage of their relationship that Harriet proves she had indeed 'seen' and understands what type of help Nargis and her children can use most, as she arranges to pay all schooling fees for the children; providing education for their children is the main financial challenge for parents in most of the underdeveloped countries. Education is not 'free' or automatically provided by these governments. Typically, these governments don't even provide sufficient infrastructure, sanitation or plumbing, etc. These people live alongside their own waste, as did Nargis and her family. 

So what made these two women choose to break free from their respective marriages? It was an internal strength that each of them had and used. The ability to be strong and persevere, regardless of the challenges they faced. We discover that it is Nargis' strength that keeps Harriet motivated to improve herself and advance her own life once she returns to England with her children, cutting Henri from their lives. As she states,
Whenever I feel frightened of the future, uncertain of whether I can manage alone, I think of her.
What would Nargis not be able to do in Britain? 
What could she not achieve without tradition and poverty holding her back? 
Her trials were so much worse than anything I have had to face, yet she prevails. 
She inspires me forward, into my new, uncertain life and gives me the determination to succeed. And so I will. (285)

Much of what this book spoke to me of was the ability of women to be people in their own right. Not to be owned by or beholden to a male in a marriage to determine their life. In my own experience, I agree with those 'experts' who claim many fewer marriages would remain intact if females had financial independence in their own right. This has been true for me in my own experience with marriage. Women who have financial security can leave much more easily than those who do not. It is a matter of economic viability, just as it applies to countries such a Tajikistan where people are unable to obtain work to support themselves. Education and economic opportunity provide stability, for societies overall, and women in particular.

If you haven't read this book, you really should.
I would highly recommend it and would love to know more about the author 
and how much, if any, of this book reflects her own personal experiences.
Islam is not conducive to women being their own people overall.
I can only hope that will change for the better.
In my opinion, there cannot be a stable society when one-half 
of its population is subjugated and controlled by others.

Join us for our next 
Literary Wives read 
in August.

We will review 
How to Be A Good Wife 
by Emma Chapman


  1. Wow, Lynn! You certainly had a lot of thoughts about this novel! It's hard to know what to react to. I personally didn't see a lot of depth in the depiction of either marriage. It's almost as if each husband had ABUSER or NEGLECTER printed on his forehead. I guess I would have liked to see a more nuanced view.

    1. I would agree, the marriage relationships are not depicted to a great depth, but I was okay with that. I thought the best relationship of all was that between Nargis and Harriet. It was enlightening to see Harriet open up.

  2. Dear Lynn,
    Thank you for taking the time to post this lovely review of 'The Disobedient Wife'. If anyone want to know more, there is a book page on facebook: The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley. Thanks again.

    1. Actually, the link to that Facebook page is linked to the author's name in the posting heading! :) I have not yet had time to check it out, but definitely will! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. What I liked most about this book was the relationship between the two women and how they influenced each other. Their situations were so different in one way, but they both felt trapped (or were trapped) by their husbands. I'm not sure if Harriet would have had the strength to come out of herself without Nargis. And Nargis might not have made it without Harriet, because of her financial situation.
    I really enjoyed this book!

    1. Agreed! I did love their relationship with each other! And they each strengthened the other! I loved how Harriet was thinking about Nargis' strength when back in England on her own. What an impact Nargis made on Harriet. :) Glad you liked it, too.

  4. I like your thoughts on the cover of the book. I too looked at it a few times and with more reading of the novel, it meant more as I kept going. Given your discussion of the divide religiously/spiritually between Henri and the other men in the book, I wonder if part of the meaning we can gain from the novel is that it doesn't really matter which religion or culture you are from: we can be cruel in marriage. We can be unhappy in marriage. I saw more of a feminist theme rather than a critique of religion. It was also nice to hear about your commitment to free trade items. I love hearing about the activism!

    1. I would agree with your comment regarding abusive/unhappy marriages not being dependent upon any one religion or culture. I guess that's kinda what I was trying to say, but didn't state it clearly. No matter what a woman's background or situation, her partner can make her life happy or miserable, eh? Definitely get the feminism, that's basically what I was getting at with the fact that Islam in particular isn't conducive to women being themselves. It's not as if I have a ton of money to spend, so I feel it is even more important to be aware of who is being supported by my few dollars! I firmly believe we are all activists when we spend money, therefore, we need to know where it is going. :)