Sadika's got a HUGE problem: She's a girl. Not only is she a girl, poor thing (and I say poor because she's literally impoverished in every way possible, both physically and psychologically), but on top of having had the misfortune of being born female in a severely gender-biased society that considers girls chattel, she's got a Pakistani matriarch-of-all-matriarchs for a mother that makes even Leona Helmsley seem genteel and generous by comparison.
So what does a poor girl like Sadika get to look forward to growing up in a confined, filthy Islamabad neighborhood? Not much, other than getting married off asap (one less mouth to feed after all, and such a pity, isn’t it, Khanum, Sadika’s mother figures, wasting food on girls). Getting married off, that is, assuming her poor (but hardworking) parents can scrounge enough goodies together for an attractive-enough dowry to tempt even the pickiest of prospective future mother-in-laws out shopping through the neighborhood for prospective future daughter-in-laws whom they can ultimately declare to that particular future daughter-in-law’s mother, should they find a girl good enough: "Yes, yes I do; I'll take your okay daughter to be my magnificent son's wife." Never mind what the fifteen-year-old girl thinks about her fiance, because her opinion in the matter doesn't matter (and of course she knows damn well never to express an opinion regarding anything). Women, in this culture, are to be seen and never heard.
But the women talk amongst themselves, when their husbands are away at work, nevertheless, as women throughout the whole wide world have been prone to do throughout the ages. And here's where Hina Haq (who definitely has a bone to pick with Pakistani culture, but picks the bone clean with humor and clever psychological insight rather than with anger or cynicism) really shines, in deftly detailing how the women, who supposedly have no voice, right?, have so much voice that they - and not the men - are really the ones running the family show. Husbands here in Hina Haq's Pakistan don't want to be bothered about arranged marriages and such, they just want to eat good food and smoke good tobacco and laze about or procreate as much as possible. Nothing wrong with that! Men are men no matter what culture or tribe they belong to (God - and Allah indeed - bless them!); but the women are very different. Different, that is, in how they work behind-the-scenes pulling all the necessary strings to obtain their dearest family objectives.
Khanum's dearest objective, of course, is arranging a marriage for her oldest daughter, Sadika. When her plans ultimately fail, and Sadika shames her family because the future groom-to-be, a Pakistani living in America, used to American women making overt affectionate advances (advances that in Pakistan would be punishable offenses by law) chooses Sadika's younger sister, Zafary, more in tune with what Americanized-Pakistani men really want - flirtation & titillation - over the more culturally appropriate, won't-even-hold-his-hand, or play footsie's with him, Sadika. So Sadika is punished, basically, for being a good Pakistani girl! As if she had any clue what he - though he turned out to be a worthless cretin anyway - really expected from her in courtship. She just did as she was taught: act submissive and shy around potential suitors, and don't make much eye contact either. So of course the loser chose Sadika's more gregarious sister. Sadika's mother, nevertheless, ships her off to America as punishment for failing and irreversibly shaming the family, to live with her aunt's family in what amounts to "life" as a minimum-wage housekeeper working morning, noon, and night; and to "live," I might add, with the same family that houses the happy (though soon-to-be, very unhappy) newlyweds, Zafary (Sadika's sister) and the worthless groom who rejected Sadika.
But then, then, as Sadika outshines her cousins at college; cousins who, to their dismay, soon realize how erroneously they viewed her as being not very bright, she develops enough self-confidence and assertiveness to protest her atrociously underpaid housemaid-enslavement directly to her aunt's, the proud, Ashfaaq Beebe's, face. And then all beautiful, liberating heaven breaks loose for brave, heroic, and finally vindicated, Sadika.
She soon meets a rich (though humble and gentle) American college boy, from a proud American family, much too proud to approve of an exotic, shy, timid girl like Sadika from God-knows-what Pakistani village. Sadika's definitely not the girl this mother dreamed of for her son. But they - Michael and Sadika - against the objections of almost everybody, fall madly in love. But will their meddling and disapproving family's let them live happily-ever-after?
Do yourself a favor and buy this underappreciated Pakistani-expat American debut, to find out.