Author: Farzana Doctor
Publ: Dundurn Press, 2020, ISBN: 9781459746398
Reviewers: Asma Sayed and Jacqueline Walker
Farzana Doctor is a Canadian author and activist whose writing focuses on themes of social justice, LGBTQ2S+ experience, racism, feminism, trauma, and healing. Doctor was born in Zambia and spent her early childhood there before she and her family immigrated to Canada. Doctor’s ancestry is South Asian, with roots specifically in the Dawoodi Bohra, a Muslim community. She is trained and works as a social worker and practices as a psychotherapist in Toronto. She has achieved widespread recognition both for her fiction and non-fiction.
Doctor has published four novels to date. Her second novel, Six Metres of Pavement, won a Lambda Literary Award in 2012 in addition to being short-listed for the Toronto Book Award that same year. The novel also won the One Book One Brampton award for 2017, and in 2018 the CBC named Doctor one of the ‘100 writers in Canada the world should read.’ Her forthcoming works include a collection of poetry, titled You Still Look the Same, as well as a novel for young adults.
Her latest novel, Seven, focuses on the practice of khatna especially in the Dawoodi Bohra community. In her work as an activist, Doctor raises awareness about the tradition of khatna and advocates for an end to the practice. Many activists consider khatna a form of female genital cutting (FGC), something which ultimately violates the bodily autonomy of girls and women. Doctor has volunteered extensively with the organization WeSpeakOut to ban khatna within her community. Her personal experiences inform her writing on the personal, familial, community and wider socio-political dynamics at play regarding the practice of khatna, as well as about other areas of tension within the community. Thus, Seven can be seen as an extension of her activism.
Seven takes place primarily in India in 2016. Sharifa, the protagonist, lives in New York with her husband Murtuza and their seven-year-old daughter Zeenat, who is referred to as Zee. The family visits India for a few months while Murtuza works as a visiting professor at an Indian university. During her trip, Sharifa tries to put together the stories of her ancestors in India. Thus, while most of Seven is written from Sharifa’s first-person point of view, the plot is interspersed with ancestral narratives which parallel those she constructs as she gathers information. As their trip presents the opportunity for an extended re-immersion in Dawoodi Bohra community and culture that Sharifa and Murtuza have not experienced since their youths, the pair must navigate feelings of belonging and foreignness while in India. Though the trip is intended to function as an opportunity for the couple to spend time healing and fostering closeness in their marriage which has been on shaky grounds, the social upheaval about khatna and its significance in their community extends into their personal experiences, eventually becoming a central focus for the two.
Sharifa directs her time and energy on a project exploring her family’s history, but it does not prevent her from becoming entangled in the kinds of family and social dynamics she wished to avoid. Sharifa’s research helps her recreate her family’s history from old documents and interviews with members of her extended family, and leads to her learning more about what previous generations of women in her community experienced as they navigated patriarchal structures within their communities, practices, and relationships. As such, her initial distance from the topic of khatna becomes difficult to maintain. Sharifa’s understanding of her own experiences and those of the subjects of her research, especially as they are firmly tied to the present controversies surrounding khatna, simultaneously develop throughout the novel, eventually allowing her to claim a position on the issue more confidently. Both Murtuza and Sharifa find themselves moving from the position of detached observers to more actively engaged community members and as they do so, they discover many family secrets. Sharifa’s dual discoveries of the multigenerational efforts to disrupt patriarchal expectations within the family and within the Dawoodi Bohra community illustrate women’s commitment to advocate for themselves and others who are at risk, even from within oppressive circumstances.
Importantly, Doctor reveals to readers the day-to-day sexual, psychological, emotional, and physical consequences that women subjected to khatna must live through. Women’s challenges with intimacy, pain, inability to feel sexual pleasure, and difficulty fully embracing their desires demonstrate the potential for significant difficulties for khatna survivors. Through various characters in the novel, Doctor shows how people are divided on the issue, while also making clear the connection between various traumatic outcomes of khatna and the sinister intent behind the practice. Khatna essentializes women and girls to their bodies and seeks to control their sexuality in keeping with patriarchal norms. Even more troubling is the young age at which girls are expected to undergo khatna; the book’s title ‘Seven’ alludes to this, as most of the girls in the novel undergo khatna at the age of seven.Ultimately, the novel affirms that khatna is a severe form of gendered abuse, one where the traumatic mental, physical, and sexual consequences for women and girls are acute.
Although its subject matter is serious and heavy, the novel keeps the reader engaged until the very end. Given the book’s themes of trauma, trust, resistance, gendered violence, and sexual violence, it is likely of interest to readers and scholars of gender studies, trauma studies, and sexuality studies.