Book Review: Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair

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painted hands by jennifer zobair, muslim american, novel, writer

A few months ago I read Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair. It’s possibly the first fiction novel I’ve read chronicling the lives of Muslim characters who are American, let alone three distinctly individual self-identified Pakistan American Muslim women – three young friends named Amra, Zainab, and Ruhaf.

I enjoyed reading this book and finished it in a couple of days – it is a light read, and I really couldn’t put the book down. The characters were very intriguing, and I felt so connected to the story, curious to know what would happen next, what drama, problem, or internal struggle would unfold, as well as how their friendships would play out amidst the changes in their lives.

I appreciated Zainab Mir, who is kind of a badass, and related to her self-guided spiritual path. I think Amra’s story echoes fears that many women hold about how things can and do change, how we ourselves change, and how we aren’t sure about that change – what does it mean? How does it define us? What do we do when we measure ourselves against ideals we so long held that remain unfulfilled?

While Zainab and Amra are clearly portrayed as very career-driven, Ruhaf is not. Unfortunately, we don’t get to follow this character’s interior story much, as she is more of a foil to Zainab and Amra. It would have been great to learn a bit more about her.

The main characters are very clearly portrayed as upper-middle class, though they seem to be motivated by ambition and passion rather than material pursuit. They are very privileged individuals in terms of wealth and access to education and opportunities. However, this privilege very clearly operates within a framework of xenophobia (a la Zainab Mir and the fate of her role in Eleanor Winthrop’s political campaign) and patriarchy/sexism (a la Amra and her workaholic struggle to make partner as Eric unfairly favors Hank, whilst balancing marriage ideals).

After reading the book, I found myself pondering what seems to be an absorption of these characters in their own lives, cognizant and embroiled in the politics of their faith and gender, but seemingly oblivious to ideas of privilege resulting from their socio-economic status. The characters were fictional, living-breathing-feminist-Muslim-American-women. Their very existence was a challenge to many ideas. Its still something I turn over in my mind, a reflection of my own concern about being unconcerned about my/our place in the world. How much do we tokenize our concerns/causes, and how do we truly reflect a real concern about socio-economic problems in our lives? How do we define caring anyway? I can’t help but ask myself how much I am like Zainab and Amra, challenging some ideas while knowing of so many other battles that need to be fought, and the cognitive dissonance that comes with it all. I dislike something about the characters that I dislike in myself, because I haven’t figured it out.

Lastly, possibly the most striking moment in the book for me is when Zainab divulges her pain and impatience with the Muslim community that desires for her to be a suitable spokesperson, while completely oblivious and unsupportive to the realities of her life. These pieces of the book are written in a heartbreaking manner, and to me reveal the diversity and complexity of the ‘Muslim identity’.

Painted Hands was a fabulous read and I hope you enjoy it. It awoke in my the joy of living vicariously through exuberant female characters, and I’ve missed that joy in books. I’m grateful to Jennifer Zobair for bringing these characters to life.

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