Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, 240 pp, RL 4
With Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed introduces young readers to the many gendered disadvantages experienced by girls in Pakistan, from access to education to indentured servitude. Published in 2018 and inspired by Malala Yousafzai, Saeed's narrator is an intelligent, observant heroine who is brave enough to use her voice to speak out for what she wants for herself and all girls.
Amal Unbound is instantly engrossing, with short chapters that make it hard to put down. From the packed school room, two students to one desk, to the low-ceiling houses where electrical blackouts are frequent, Saeed sets the scene, giving readers a strong sense of what life is like for Amal's family. From there, Saeed layers in the many inequities that exists for girls in Pakistan. When her mother gives birth to her fifth daughter, Amal notices the disappointment on her parents' faces and hears the sympathy expressed by visitors, and she begins to notice the ways boys are valued over girls. Amal wonders, "Was it the same when I was born? Sometimes I wish I did not pay such careful attention."
Amal loves learning, school and especially poetry, asking her best friend Omar to borrow books from the library at his boys' school, which is markedly better than the meager collection at the girls' school. As her mother suffers from (an unnamed) postpartum depression, Amal misses school to care for her younger siblings. When an accident in the market causes Amal to unknowingly insult Jawad, the much feared son of the wealthy village landlord, she discovers her father, like many villagers, is in financial debt to Jawad. As a twisted act of generosity (and with no regard for her education), Jawad allows her father to pay off his debt through Amal, taking her on as servant in his home. Amal's indentured servitude exposes her to Jawad's physical and verbal cruelty, including the fact that all her earnings go toward her room and board, making Amal's return to her family and education an impossibility. Despite this, Amal manages to find small joys, from sneaking books from Jawad's library to teaching a younger servant how to read and write. It is Amal's ability to read, along with an American educated teacher she meets at a village literacy center (established by Jawad's father in an effort to gain political clout) that provides her the opportunity to change her fate.
Saeed's superb storytelling offers readers a window into the struggles of life in Pakistan, from socioeconomic challenges and the realities of indentured servitude, along with examples of the power of education, especially for girls, to transform lives. Amal Unbound also opens the way to a larger, global conversation about gender equity and the many aspects of existence it affects for girls everywhere.
Also by Aisha Saeed