Three Daughters of Eve
By Elif Shafak
Peri, a wealthy Turkish housewife, is on her way to a dinner party at a seaside mansion in Istanbul when a beggar snatches her handbag. As she wrestles to get it back, a photograph falls to the ground - an old polaroid of three young women and their university professor. A relic from a past - and a love - Peri had tried desperately to forget.
The photograph takes Peri back to Oxford University, as an eighteen year old sent abroad for the first time. To her dazzling, rebellious Professor and his life-changing course on God. To her home with her two best friends, Shirin and Mona, and their arguments about Islam and femininity. And finally, to the scandal that tore them all apart.
After reading this book I can easily see why it has been on the Turkish bestselling list since it was published there in June. Not only is it a good story but it is also beautifully written – a rare combination.
The protagonist Nazperi, or Peri, is a good person in the eyes of her friends and family. “A fine wife, a fine mother, a fine housewife, a fine citizen, a fine modern Muslim.” Peri is increasingly experiencing a crisis of identity, “she could no longer tell how much of each day is defined by what was wished upon her and how much of it was what she really wanted.”
Peri is on the way to a dinner party when her handbag is stolen from her by a beggar. In a moment of recklessness Peri gives chase and in the ensuing tussle a Polaroid is dislodged along with memories from her past. The Polaroid is of four people; a professor and his three female students stood outside the Bodleian Library in Oxford, “forever trapped inside one of the coldest days of that Winter.” We learn the importance of the Polaroid as the novel progresses and why the memories it evokes are so full of guilt.
I have always wanted to visit Istanbul so I was excited to discover that the book was set in this intriguing city. The author says “All the same this city bordered on Europe. Such closeness had to amount to something. It was so breathtakingly close that Turkey had put one foot through Europe’s doorway and tried to venture forth with all its might – only to find the opening was so narrow that, no matter how much the rest of its body wriggled and squirmed, it could not squeeze itself in. Nor did it help that Europe, in the meantime, was pushing the door shut.”
One of the main things I enjoyed was the way the author allowed the reader to gain an insight into Turkey as a country, into Turkish cultures and Turkish beliefs. She also gives wonderful descriptions of the food. “Amidst the decaying days, a mixture of scents – fried aubergine, ground coffee, freshly baked flatbread, simmering garlic – emanated from the open windows, so strong it permeated everthing.”
Some elements of the book were hard to read, like the glimpses into police brutality:
“Old habits die hard. Not that there were no changes. Falaka, the beating of the soles of feet was, for the most part, replaced by suspension by the arms for hours – a cleaner method that left fewer marks. Burning with cigarettes and the extraction of nails or healthy teeth were also outdated. Shocks were quick and left almost no traces. So was forcing prisoners to eat their own excrement, drink each other’s urine or spend hours in septic tanks. No visible signs of maltreatment. Nothing for nosy journalists to detect should they appear without warning.”
The thing that makes this a stand out book for me is the frank discussion on the inconsistences in how men and women are treated in both Turkish and English society. “Whether driving or walking, a woman did best to keep her gaze unfocused and turned inward, as if peering into distant memories. When and wherever possible, she should lower her head to convey an unambiguous message of modesty, which was not easy, since the perils of urban life, not to mention unsolicited male attention and sexual harassment, required one to be vigilant at all times. How women could be expected to keep their heads down and simultaneously have their eyes open in all directions was beyond Peri.”
Another example she gives is relatively commonplace, “A tourist couple – Europeans by the look of them – were taking pictures in the courtyard of the mosque. The woman had covered her head with one of the long scarves provided at the entrance. Someone – perhaps a passer-by must have warned her that her dress was too short; she had tired another scarf around her waist to cover her legs above the knee. The man, by contrast, had sandals and Bermuda shorts, apparently no one had seen as a problem.”
The author is rightly keen to point out that the Middle East is not the only area of the world where women’s rights are still an issue. “Ask people around here, who needs feminism…they’ll say, oh women in Pakistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia but not Britain, we are so over it! Surely not Oxford, huh? But the reality is different. Did you know that female students do unusually badly here? There’s a massive gender gap in exam results. A freshwoman in oxford needs feminism just as much as a peasant mother in rural Egypt.”
Initially, Peri’s story jumps from present day Istanbul to her childhood and back again. I loved the quaint description of her childhood home, “Theirs was a two-storey house, the colour of sour cherries. Throughout the years it had been painted several different hues, salted pine green, walnut-jam brown, pickled-beet purple. “
Peri is a complex character due mostly to influences from her childhood and her ensuing role as peacemaker within her family meaning that she was too busy trying to avoid conflict to discover an identity of her own. During her early years Peri was aware of a conflict between her parents, “a breeze of tension at home, which grew into a full-blown gale whenever her father and her mother happened to be in the same room.” Their marriage is one of mutual resentments built up over time so that over the years they are barely able to spend time together without a full-scale row ensuing.
At some point her mother had joined a religious circle and under the influence of the preacher her views on religion had become more intense. “She now not only declined to shake hands with the opposite sex, but also refused to sit on a bus seat that had last been occupied by a man – even if he vacated it for her” and she was so fearful of coming into contact with any form of pig that she refused to use shampoo or have any kind of snacks in the house, even halal, in case there was some gelatine in there.
“Religion had plummeted into their lives as unexpectedly as a meteor, and created a chasm, separating the family into two clashing camps. The younger son, Haken, irredeemably religious and excessively nationalistic, took his mother’s side, the elder son, Umut, in his effort to diffuse the conflict, remained for a while neutral, though it was clear from everything he said and did that he leaned towards the left…All that put Peri, that youngest child, in an awkward position, with both parents striving to win her over, her very existence became a battleground between two competing worldviews.”
Despite spending some time praying in mosques during secondary school she still seems to lean slightly more towards her father’s point of view but for different reasons. “It troubled her, however, that the women’s sections were either tucked away at the back or lodged upstairs behind curtains, always secluded, separate, small.”
Peri finds refuge, from the battleground that is her home, in any book she can get her hands on. “She was determined to excel in every subject, from literature to maths, from physics to chemistry. It becomes clear throughout the book that Peri is closer to her father than her mother and through his guidance and encouragement, as well as her hard work, she gets into Oxford University.
At university Peri becomes close friends with two girls, Mona and Shirin. When Peri first meets Mona she is wearing a magenta headscarf wrapped like a turban and Kohl on her eyes. Iranian born Shirin is described as having a ‘striking’ figure, full make up and voluminous black hair and ‘the bearing of a Sultana she might be in another time’. Each girl is used to display contrasting views on attitudes to religion and other aspects of culture.
On her first meeting with Shirin she is aware that she is disdainful of women who chose to cover their heads ‘a disdain she feels no need to hide.” Peri feels that Shirin is ‘blunt and intrusive’ but she still feels in awe of her as she has feels she has “lived twice as much as she and seen more of the world than her entire family had in total.”
Mona on the other hand explains that her hijab is not only a testimony to her faith but it also gives her a feeling of peace and confidence. She describes herself as a Feminist Muslim and says that its not her problem if people believe the two don’t mesh. She makes an important point, one that a lot of people who aren’t Muslim need to take into consideration when they argue that women in the Muslim faith are oppressed – and that is the important of choice. Mona argues, “If I, with my headscarf, don’t challenge stereotypes, who’s going to do it for me? I want to shake things up. People look up at me as if I’m a passive, obedient victim of male power. Well I’m not. I have a mind of my own. My hijab has never got in the way of my independence.”
This book discusses the way people blamed an entire religion for the acts of a few people in the aftermath of 9/11. As Mona rightly states “she was proud to be a young Muslim woman , loved her faith with all her heart, but was frustrated by the amount of prejudice she has had to deal with almost everyday. ‘People who don’t know anything about Islam make gross generalizations about my religion, my freedom, my faith.”
There were so many thought-provoking points made in this book, points that force readers to think about ‘the Other’ in society; “Every day, I have to defend myself when I’ve done nothing wrong I’m expected to prove that I’m not a potential suicide bomber. I feel under scrutiny all the time- do you know how lonely that is?”
The seminars the three friends take with Professor Azur focus not only on God and the nature of religion but also teach a more general message of tolerance.
Finally, I am going to end my review with my favourite quote from this book, one which strikes me as particularly relevant after the events in both America and Turkey this week – the American election and its aftermath and the arresting of several journalists in Turkey. “Ideas must be challenged with ideas. Books with better books. However stupid they might be you can’t shut down people’s voices. Banning speaking is no way to go.”
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