150. My Past is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani

You know a book has hit a sweet spot with me if you’re reading this review LITERALLY the next day of finishing it.

My Past is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani is a memoir that hit my heart and soul, and for the first time I felt represented by a South Asian female author who isn’t writing to please the West.

In 200 pages, Zeba Talkhani beautifully, calmly and simply puts in words the struggles every desi girl has gone through in our patriarchal society. It doesn’t matter how affluent or well established you are, the roots of patriarchy are seeped so deep that everyone is affected.

Her memoirs begin with stories of her childhood in Jeddah, KSA and Honnavar, India. She talks about the tricky relationship she had with her mother which was often constrained by what society demanded of a mother.

“… if your faith is threatened by a young girl’s questioning, maybe its time to revisit you values. And if your faith excludes one gender’s happiness and freedom, is it a faith worth fighting for?”

Similarly, she describes her struggles with hair loss, how her relatives tried to pull some really below the belt maneuvers to get her to break about it, her time at Manipal College for her bachelors, her exchange semester in Germany, and then her Masters in the UK.

Throughout it all, she tries to find the meaning of being a woman, a feminist, a Muslim, an Indian and how all of these identities can co-exist. She questions how religion has always been used as a no-questions-asked tool by men to conform women to illogical and wrongful situations.

“My religion is better than the men who proclaim themselves to be scholars in public, yet abuse Women and young boys in private. My religion is better than the men who tell me to cover myself while they uncover women without their consent.”

You see, for me personally this book felt like an answer to all the burning questions in my mind, and made me realize that I’m not alone in the way I feel or think when it comes to our society.

Having also lived in KSA for 5 years, I felt more represented in her memoir than any other book that I’ve ever read.

My Past is a Foreign Country is a remarkable story of how a girl had to deal with the beauty standards our society places on young women, specifically  when Zeba was going through a tough time as it is with her hair loss.

“In strict patriarchal structures, beauty also means option. Sometimes these options could mean a wider pool of potential husbands to choose from… But beauty is the illusion of power and choice. Nobody’s beauty has served them beyond their marriage

How the men and women made her feel not upto the marks for marriage because she didn’t look the part.

And so, Zeba Talkhani found strength in books and writing, and fought her way to make a name and a living for herself through education.

The most important takeway from this book for me was that, you cannot please everyone. Even if you check all the boxes that society claims to be the road of success, they’ll still make you feel not good enough.

It doesn’t matter how successful you are in one aspect of your life, your weakness or lack of strength in another will always be exploited.

I always felt that our generation was caught trying to make up for the missed opportunities and lack of resources of the previous one, like we have to share the burden of their lack of ambitions and lack of choices.

“Religion was used to control the youth and ‘Do not question Allah’ became synonymous with ‘Do not question your parents’”

Our relationships with our parents are often constrained and with the decision making power tipped towards them, there is no balance in it. What is more saddening is the fact how ashamed it makes some of us feel if we try to voice our concerns or unjust treatment.

It’s like you’re deceiving God and there is no turning back.

My Past is a Foreign Country talks about intersectional Feminism, the West’s distorted view of Women in the East and how deep-rooted their racism is even if they are in the most well esteemed institutions like Cambridge.

“I supported women doing important activism. I accepted their values and understood where they were coming from. But I felt that the same courtesy was not being extended to me.”

It talks about radical self love and care, which I found realistic and practical.

Throughout the memoir, there is a prominent layer of patriarchy seeped deep within the men and women of our South Asian society, so much so that if someone acts differently or takes a different path, people are dumbfounded because they didn’t know there could be another option.

This book reminded me exactly why the fight for Women’s right shouldn’t be avoided just because it gets hijacked by people with different motives.

It reminded me that more than anything else, I shouldn’t conform just to fit in and that when you faith in the One above, everything will work out. InshaAllah.

Onto the basics:

  1. Rating: 5.0/5.0
  2. Reader level: Very easy.
  3. Favourite Quote: “Knowledge is sadqah. What a beautiful thought. I had known sadqah to be an act of charity. She explained that sadqah is every goodness you can do in the name of Allah.”
  4. Should you read: Absolutely! No doubt in my mind. Whether you’re a boy or a girl, pick this up.
  5. Would I read it again: OF COURSE I WILL.

Till next time,

-Sarah

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