Awais Khan's 'Someone Like Her': One woman's quest for justice and survival

Awais Khan's 'Someone Like Her': One woman's quest for justice and survival
Book Club: Set between Pakistan and London, Awais Khan’s latest story delves into misogyny, abuse and perseverance.
7 min read
30 August, 2023
Someone Like Her is a story of love and family, of corruption and calamity, of courage and hope [Orenda Books]

“Welcome to Pakistan, where men can evade justice forever.” Ominous and foreboding, this hopeless sentiment is voiced by a character in Pakistani novelist Awais Khan’s latest book, Someone Like Her, published by Orenda Books on August 17.

From the back of a Vespa in Multan to the tube stations of London, the story follows Ayesha, a protagonist who finds herself in danger after becoming the obsession of a wealthy and powerful man in Pakistan.

Ayesha works for a charity supporting victims of domestic violence, which helps a victim whose face was knifed by her husband, and whose case is later dropped in court by her family. There it is – a man evading justice, and he isn’t the only one to get away with such a crime. The country has countless untried cases of attacks and femicide, yet women are pressured to stay silent and endure the abuse.

"Awais successfully throws the spotlight onto the misogynistic monsters of the world while also highlighting male heroes who are allies to women – empathetic of the injustices they endure and motivated to rectify them"

Marriage is the top priority for young women in this society, where being single at 27 is deemed a tragedy. Turning 30, writes Awais, is “akin to turning 60”, reflecting the social customs that still dictate much of South Asian culture.

As hard as she tries not to be a pawn in this gender-based patriarchy, Ayesha finds herself in the thick of it after rejecting Raza’s advances, which only push him to pursue her more vigorously. When she does make accusations of misogyny or express activist sentiments, she’s told to “save that crap for social media – it won’t fly in Multan.”

Many female readers will feel for Ayesha – our strong beliefs about women’s rights and equality often fall on deaf ears within communities so deeply entrenched in patriarchy. These readers will be equally frustrated to witness Ayesha overlook certain red flags and find herself ensnared in the very sort of predicament she combats daily through her job.  

Her relationship with her parents is also complicatedly navigated, teetering between emotionally manipulative to loving and supportive. “You don’t need me to tell you what happens to girls who challenge the status quo in Pakistan. They die, Ayesha,” says her mother at one point, both aware of the patriarchy but also to a point, complicit in it. Some readers might find it difficult to feel the empathy that she has for her gold-digging parents, who early on in the story, seem to happily sacrifice her safety and well-being for the promise of financial security.  

But when it comes to antagonists in Someone Like Her, there’s only one clear villain: Raza Masood. Raza is an exaggerated, fearsome, ultra-wealthy archetype misogynist who can buy people, and have people killed with the snap of his fingers. Not only is he obsessive and egotistical; he is pure evil. As Ayesha notes, he’s “not a man of 36, but a demon.” Beyond derogatory and disturbing, his dialogue is downright disgusting, and perhaps warrants a trigger warning – a decision that Awais says is ultimately the publisher’s.  

“We find it hard to read and God knows it was hard to write, and yet there are women who go through this all over the world,” says Awais. “They suffer through it physically and mentally and emotionally. No words can capture that. No words can mitigate that.”

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Abuse at the hands of men, be it by honour killings or acid attacks, is a focal theme of Awais’s work. Someone Like Her comes only two years after his previous novel, No Honour was released. “As an ally, as a man who will always stand for the rights of women, who is constantly trying to learn and educate himself in a patriarchal world, I do gravitate towards issues of women’s abuse that have surprisingly not been tackled much in Pakistani literature in English,” says Awais.

“I think as a male author, I must use whatever influence or knowledge I have to put an end to such practices that still exist in our society. The response from the UK has been overwhelmingly positive because our diaspora there is very strong, and they recognize these old traditions.”

Overall, Awais successfully throws the spotlight onto the misogynistic monsters of the world while also highlighting male heroes who are allies to women – empathetic of the injustices they endure and motivated to rectify them. Such is the case with his character, Kamil, who is the complete opposite of Raza. In fact, he is a victim of abuse himself, an element that Awais delves into through the support group that Kamil attends. “A Pakistani man in therapy? Now I’ve seen everything,” remarks one character.

Throughout Someone Like Her, Pakistan is often painted with negative strokes, and at points, escaping from the country is seen as the only refuge. “Sometimes, I feel that there is a lot of pressure to show Pakistan in a positive light and any writer who doesn’t is considered to be scoring brownie points with the West,” says Awais. “If something is happening right in front of your eyes, will you say nothing just because of what people outside of Pakistan might think? I think I am more concerned with telling a good story, highlighting our truth so we see ourselves better.”

Someone Like Her echoes Awais’s trademark themes of the entrapment of women and dramatic escape from it. A London kidnapping scene at the hands of Russian goons hired from the dark web may be a bit far-fetched, but it’s written in typical Awais Khan fashion, as is the trademark desperate getaway attempt he pens. And even amid all the action, this is a love story of sorts.

As a Pakistani woman, I personally found Ayesha difficult to relate to. While she’s a layered and nuanced character who defies stereotypes, she’s also self-sacrificial and endures unthinkable extremities for the sake of her loved ones. But perhaps I’m just more selfish than Awais’s noble protagonist. I resonated more with Kamil – a character who is like a breath of fresh air; a calming pillar in the highs and lows of this story. But Awais points out that Kamil “is just a normal Pakistani man in his mid-thirties who is trying to go through life as best he can. He seems like a hero because we are so used to men like Raza, that a decent man seems like a hero.”

Still, Pakistan needs more Kamils. The world needs more Kamils. And the world needs to read about more men like Kamil.

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Parts of this book – especially Raza’s scenes –  made me feel deeply disturbed, disgusted and terrified. But perhaps that was Awais’s intention all along. Real life can be disturbing, disgusting and terrifying, especially for victims of abuse, the tragic case of Noor Mukadam being one of the rarely-publicised cases to come out of the country. But newspaper headlines are just the tip of the pile of atrocities that befall women in the country; millions of other cases go unreported. As one character asks in the story:

“When will this country be safe for women?”

Awais emphasises that violence against women is far from a “Pakistani” issue – it occurs all over the world. “I write when I feel uncomfortable or when something bothers me, and I write stories to make sense of the world, to correct on paper at least what cannot be corrected in real life,” he says.

“Gradually, hopefully, these things will change if we keep on writing about how wrong they are.”

Hafsa Lodi is an American-Muslim journalist who has been covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Teen Vogue, Vogue Arabia, The National, Luxury, Mojeh, Grazia Middle East, GQ Middle East, gal-dem and more. Hafsa’s debut non-fiction book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, was launched at the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Follow her on Twitter: @HafsaLodi