Since I did not receive a back cover or any other information about Normal Calm before reading it, I was very surprised when the main character, Amina, was raped, and especially near the beginning of the novel before any momentum to her story had built up. Normal Calm is the story of how rape impacted Amina and, to a slight degree, her family’s lives. Though Muslims are not immune to the statistical average of one in three or one in four women being sexually assaulted in her lifetime, this is a topic seldom touched upon in the greater Muslim community, so I am glad to see the author Hend Hegazi take the subject on.
The rape itself is not graphically depicted. Amina deals with it in a fairly pragmatic way, deciding to go straight into a group therapy programme so that she can get the support that she needs to finish her university studies. Amina reveals her ordeal to her close friends, her family – and then what to do about any potential spouses?
Though I can understand how a rape survivor can technically be concerned no longer a virgin due to having her hymen torn, this story made me consider how grossly unfair it is to condemn a person this way. Amina did not consent to losing her virginity, yet in the eyes of many a woman in Amina’s circumstance is simply seen as no longer a virgin and therefore no longer marriage material. This creates a slippery slope for Amina: should she compromise her own integrity for people who essentially already have questionable values? The virginity issue is the only issue ever addressed with concerns to marriage, which (perhaps naively) surprised me. I found it deeply upsetting, though likely realistic, that so much emphasis was placed on Amina’s ‘loss of virginity’ rather than her well-being. Rape has long term, lasting effects on survivors and, while perhaps not everyone has the potential to be a partner to someone who has experienced this kind of trauma, that is not addressed by concerned parties. One potential husband says, “I have no way of knowing how many other men you’ve been with”, as if Amina’s rape was a possible gateway to promiscuous behaviour.
As a sexual abuse survivor, reading Amina’s mother’s reaction was very difficult for me. You can hope that your family will support you through hardships, especially those inflicted on you by someone else, but you just never know how they will respond and in some cases the survivor ends up having to be a support system for those who should be doing the comforting! Interestingly, one of Amina’s strongest supporters is her non-Muslim best friend. I found this character, Kayla, to be a great inclusion in the story, and especially liked the way Hend depicted Amina’s da’wah towards her friend.
I am so glad that Hend wrote this book and hope if offers some solace and insight to its readers. The novel is sold through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Brooke Benoit is an editor for SISTERS magazine, a sometimes visual art maker, a fairly radical unschooling mama to six and a contributor to the recently released anthology Dear Sister: Letters From Survivors of Sexual Violence.
Amina’s mother had started preparing for the engagement party the same day Sherif had met with them. Amina begged her to wait, just a little while, but her mother saw no reason to procrastinate. She forced Amina to go shopping for an engagement dress and, after a couple of days of searching, Amina finally found the perfect dress. One of her mother’s friends added the finishing touches to it to make it fashionable for a muhajaba. It took a few fittings, but Amina loved the result of her entire outfit, including her headscarf.
“The caterers need us to decide on the appetisers, then they’re going to need a down payment,” her mother filled her in.
“Isn’t it kind of soon for all that, mama? We still have about 5 weeks left.”
“Why should we put it off, Amina? I made an appointment with them for Monday. That way you can discuss any changes with Sherif when you see him this weekend. Besides that, we’ll just need to order some flower arrangements as centerpieces and to decorate the house. I can take care of that tomorrow after work.”
“No, mama… please. I want to pick the flowers out myself. But after the weekend.”
Ruwayda let out a heavy sigh, “Fine. But if you don’t take care of it on Monday, then I will.” Amina’s mother couldn’t understand why she wanted to postpone the preparations, but there was a nagging, nervous feeling Amina felt whenever anyone discussed anything about the party. There was something major she had to tell Sherif and the weight of it was so heavy, sometimes she thought it would suffocate her.
Why are you letting your mom do all this, she said to herself. You’re letting her make all these plans and you don’t even know if he’s still going to want you once he knows… once he knows you’re not a virgin.
But of course he’s still going to want you, she convinced herself. He loves you and once he hears your story, he’ll hate that you experienced something so horrible, but he’ll continue to want you.
But the final thought in this conversation with herself was always, But he’s Egyptian…he won’t get it…and he’ll blame you, just like dad did.
The next day, Ruwayda knocked on her daughter’s bedroom door. “Are you ready, Amina?” she said as she walked in. Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “Come on… I don’t want to be late.” Then just as quickly as she’d come in, she walked back out, leaving Amina anxious and confused.
“Are we going somewhere? Did I know that we’re going somewhere?” Amina asked, following her mother. But her mom didn’t answer; she grabbed her keys and purse, checked her headscarf in the mirror and just said, “come on. I’ll wait in the car while you put on your scarf and shoes.” She had one foot out the door and one hand still on the door knob when Amina insisted, “Mama, why are you in such a rush? What’s going on?” Her mom’s behaviour was too suspicious for her to just ignore.
“I’ll tell you in the car,” Ruwayda said, standing outside now, but still holding the door open. This just intensified Amina’s suspicion.
“If you don’t tell me now, I won’t come.” She stood just inside the doorway, arms crossed.
“I have a doctor’s appointment and I want you to keep me company.”
Bull. Her mom was used to running all her errands, including doctor’s appointments, all by herself. She actually preferred it that way, so that she could go at her own pace and no one else’s dillydallying or rushing would get to her. Amina just raised her eyebrows, making a visual proclamation of what was going on inside her head.
Amina’s mother let out a sigh and hung her head for a minute – she was defeated. She stepped back inside and let the door swing half shut. But when she spoke, her voice wasn’t softer or unsteady; she knew this was her only chance to get her daughter to do what needed to be done, so she continued to speak with authority.
“The doctor’s appointment is for you. We have exactly half an hour, so be quick and go get ready.”
“But I’m not sick, mama. And I just had my physical a couple of months ago.”
Ruwayda didn’t say anything. Amina racked her brain, trying to figure out what was going on, but for the life of her, she just couldn’t. “I don’t understand, mama. A doctor’s appointment for what?”
Her mother’s face was stern and she looked her directly in the eyes, “To fix what happened.”
“To fix what happened?” Amina repeated to herself. “To fix what happened?” She hoped if she said it enough times she would be able to resolve the ambiguity. She was right. Now, instead of confusion, she was astonished.
“You want to restore my virginity!” The sentence started off as a whisper, but the final word came out as a scream. “Why would you do that?”
“Amina, you don’t know how Egyptian men think. This is important; if Sherif finds out on your wedding night that you’re not a virgin, he’ll divorce you. It’s that simple. Is that what you want?”
“He won’t divorce me, mama. He loves me. He’s going to understand and anyway…”
But Ruwayda cut her off, “it doesn’t matter if he loves you. It’s a matter of honour and he won’t be able to get past this. He will divorce you.”
“He won’t divorce me because I’m not going to wait till we’re married to tell him. I had already planned on telling him this weekend.”
Now it was her mother’s turn to be stunned. Gasping she said, “Amina, you can’t do that. He won’t want you. Don’t do it, Amina.”
“Oh, you think it’s better for me to trick him?”
“He won’t want you, Amina,” Ruwayda repeated.
“Please stop saying that. He WILL want me, he’ll understand. And if he doesn’t, then it’ll be a good thing I told him before the wedding.”
“But if you just get this procedure done, he won’t ever have to know.”
“I can’t trick him. And I don’t want for there to be anything I can’t tell him.”
“Amina….” her mother paused, searching for the right words. Then she found them, “he won’t want you.”
“Well, mama, I guess if he doesn’t want me, then he doesn’t deserve me.” She held back the tears long enough to turn around and walk away from her mother. Please, God, let her be wrong.
Hend Hegazi is an Egyptian American freelance writer and editor with a degree in biology from Smith College. Her first novel, Normal Calm, was published in January 2014 by FB Publishing. Her second novel, Behind Picket Fences, is due out in July 2016. Hend currently resides in Alexandria, Egypt with her husband and four children. To check out her books, keep updated with her writing, or contact her, please visit her website, www.hendhegazi.com.