The visual motif of Ayesha Tariq's graphic novel Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter is a glass bottle with a stopper. This bottle steadily fills with the weight of unsaid words through the course of the book. The title, spilling over with words, is heavy with this weight.
This weight is carried by Sarah, the eponymous obedient daughter, who lives with her parents and older brother in an unspecified location in Pakistan. Sarah is almost eighteen, and dreams of independence, travel, and romance. However, her life with her conservative family is an obstacle to the life she really wants.
Tariq has done a superb job with Sarah's voice, which is earnest and vibrant without becoming twee. Sarah is a self-possessed character, who is very aware of the discrimination and double standards practised by her family, whether in the form of a bigger bedroom for her older brother, or in their welcoming of Rishta Aunty (Matchmaking Aunty) into their lives, in order to find a husband for Sarah.
Funny is serious
The subject matter is, of course, quite serious, but Tariq manages to tell Sarah's story with a great deal of humour nonetheless. This is done, for example, via her superb caricature-like illustrations of the family – her father with a permanent scowl on his face, and her brother with a perfectly executed shit-eating grin. It is also achieved by Sarah's lively, direct voice, which lends itself well to cheeky turns of phrase: "Ami. My mother is a worrier. [...] She's very caring. Too caring. She can't stop caring about what other people think."
Through a series of sprawling double-page spreads of Sarah's home, we quickly learn that she lives in a block of apartments. In these pages, the book reads like Sarah's diary: "It's on the top floor. There is no elevator. It's really hot, really small and impractical." We learn that the smallest and hottest of spaces in the house are Sarah's, whether it is her room (smaller than her brother's), or the kitchen, where she has to spend hours washing mountains of dishes.
In the subsequent pages, we see Sarah's days unfold. Her father baulks at the thought of her driving, her mother is horrified at the sight of her in jeans, her brother casually saunters through the door in the middle of the night, and wakes her up from deep sleep to fix him a snack. Her movements are severely restricted, and she must never, ever be seen with a ghair mard (strange man) lest she spoil her reputation. Her extended family, when they come to visit, are just as bad, with gossiping aunts, lazy cousins, and a creepy uncle who – it is strongly hinted – is sexually abusive towards her.
The injustice of it all
Sarah slaves over household chores and fumes inside. As the book grows, so does the list of injustices, and the stoppered bottle is filled with words: "Why should I or you care about what other people think?", "How can you parade me around like that??!", "Why can't you treat us equally? We're both your kids, right?" Meanwhile, Sarah tries desperately to study, while being constantly interrupted by her family who make demands on her time and space freely, for the most trivial of things.
Late in the book, with the bottle brimming over with Sarah's rage, one is absolutely certain that an explosion is imminent. When it does come, it is superbly rendered, in a double-page spread red with rage, with Sarah screaming and tearing her hair out. She sets out to confront her parents, to finally spill the words that she has had to hold inside herself so tightly.
The pages following this are some of the strongest in the book, showing the reader Sarah's larger story. This is no simplistic fairy tale, where one confrontation ends it all. It is a cycle, and Sarah's circumstances cause her rage to grow smaller until it is stoked again, for the next cycle, and for the next bottle of unsaid things on a shelf full of such bottles.
The lack of a fairy tale resolution doesn't make this novel less feminist, nor does it render Sarah weak. Instead, it demonstrates what Sarah must endure everyday and how much she must fight to ensure that she can continue to study and dream in spite of the enormous pressures put on her to conform. Sarah's story is an important reminder that is is not just public spaces that need to be taken back against gender-based discrimination – it is all spaces, including and especially those in the home and in the mind.
Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter, Ayesha Tariq, Penguin India.