THE IMAM’S DAUGHTER: My Desperate Flight to Freedom
Hannah Shah's memoir of life in a strict, unforgiving and abusive Muslim household is as remarkable as it is compelling. That Shah --- not her real name, for reasons that become obvious --- endured such an unimaginable childhood and adolescence stands as a testament to each person who helped her escape the cruelty of her family, to her own spirit and courage, and ultimately, to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
The eldest daughter of the local imam (Muslim spiritual leader) in a Pakistani community in northern England, Shah discovered early on that the slightest hint of disobedience --- especially from a "useless" daughter --- would result in serious and painful repercussions. But the beatings she suffered as a toddler paled in comparison to the sexual abuse her father inflicted on her for 10 years, starting when she was five years old. Though her mother and perhaps one or more of her siblings were aware of what was going on, everyone looked the other way. After all, her father was the leader of the Pakistani Muslim community, and as such he deserved honor and respect. And of course, his wife and other children also were afraid of him and of what he would do to them if they confronted him --- or worse, reported his actions to the authorities.
For days at a time, Shah's father would lock her away in a filthy, rodent-infested cellar after raping her. There, she would try to escape to the "lavender fields" of her childhood imagination, a place where the "loneliness birds" took her whenever she needed to seek refuge. Little did she know that she would one day discover a place of refuge that existed not in her imagination but in reality --- a reality that she only began to get a glimpse of as she started to visit the homes of her school friends, whose parents not only had conversations with them but also showed affection for them. What she witnessed was a far cry from what her father had told her and the Muslim community about the wretchedness of the hateful "whites."
Through the kindness and concern of some of those whites, at 16 Shah found the means and the determination to leave home on the very night that her father had arranged for her to travel to Pakistan to marry one of her cousins. Her escape brought shame upon her family, a "sin" that was punishable by death. For years, she was forced to move every few months as her father, brothers and other Pakistani men hunted her down with the intention of killing her. Their hatred reached a crescendo when they discovered that Shah had done the unthinkable: She had converted to Christianity.
Shah's anonymous account of life under the hypocrisy, abuse and strict control of her Muslim father was eventually publicized in newspapers and other media, and as a result Shah became acquainted with other Muslim women and girls whose stories are similar to hers. Today she maintains a website through which she ministers to others trapped in oppressive or abusive situations.
THE IMAM'S DAUGHTER is one of those books in which the importance of the message far outweighs any missteps in the writing. Fortunately, there aren't many missteps. Yes, the book gets off to a slow and uneventful start, and yes, some of the chapter-ending cliffhangers are maddening, since both the next chapter and the one after that still leave you hanging. But those are but small glitches in the overall context of a story that had to be told --- regardless of the consequences.
--- Reviewed by Marcia Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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