Secrets of the Henna Girl – Launch Party, The Foreign Office, Whitehall, London

Last week saw the Spinebreakers attend the high-profile launch party event for Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed.

A powerful and moving teen fiction debut about the illegal practice of teen forced marriages, held by Puffin Books and the Muslim Writers Awards (in association with the Forced Marriage Unit, Dawson Cornwell and the Henna Foundation) in the Locarno Suite at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall in London.

The event was planned to coincide with International Women’s Day 2012: ‘Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures’.

  • 10 million under 18 girls in the world (1 girl every 3 every seconds) become child brides every year - According to leading children’s charity Plan UK
  • The UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) receives over 1,700 calls from at-risk girls annually. - According to the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU)

Here our Spinebreakers look back at the night…

It is International Women’s Day and I am standing in the Locarno Room in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Westminster waiting to be enlightened about an issue which desperately needs the public’s attention – gender empowerment and forced marriages. I stood and strolled in the room for an hour and a half but I was not tired – I was inspired.

This even was not an awareness campaign, it was a book launch marking the beginning of “Secrets of a Henna Girl’s” journey – a novel depicting the horrors of forced marriage while informing its readers how it can be overpowered via the heart rendering story of its heroine, Zeba Khan. Sufiya Ahmed raises the issue of exploitation of Islamic culture and the Holy Quran by Muslims to justify their inhumane actions in society in her novel. She bravely enunciates – “Islam does not approve of forced marriages” and this message comes across clearly in her work which is thoroughly researched by her to make it true to life, she says. Others were as excited in their oration as the star of the night with speakers ranging from Charles Hay from the FCO to Shahien Taj from the Henna Foundation who emphasised the relevance of Ahmed’s work and helped in portraying forced marriages as a real threat to thousands of women around the globe.
A true eye opener indeed. Best wishes to Sufiya Ahmed!

At first when I found out about the concept of the ‘Secrets of The Henna Girl’, I was worried. With such a delicate subject matter, I feared Sufiya Ahmed would either convey a preachy light parable or worse, a book too dark & violent for Puffin. All my fears were put to rest during the book launch at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office last week. Despite only starting the book now, all my doubts faded fast due to the abundance of support behind this novel. We heard speeches from everyone involved in every aspect of the book and most importantly, the people working behind the scenes. After hearing the support in the speeches from Shehien Taj and Anne-Marie Hutchinson both advocates working towards turning Forced Marriages illegal in the new legislation, I had every belief that this book would live up to it’s potential pedestal. A side note, one of the greatest achievements of the novel and the night is how the author actually divulges further into how Islam is vastly misunderstood by the majority of people and actually sets about to correct these misconceptions. As this was my first book launch, I had nothing to compare it to but I know that it has set the bar quite high for the succeeding events.

The book launch for Sufiya Ahmed’s Secrets of the Henna Girl was unlike any I’ve come across.  Firstly, it was held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Secondly, an awful lot of attendees seemed invested in Ahmed’s book. Yes, that’s always the case. But book launches aren’t usually attended by representatives from the FCO, law firms, and covered by the Islam Channel. Such organisations are hoping that Ahmed’s book will raise awareness of forced marriages, that it will encourage any young people who might find themselves in the position of Zeba Khan, Secrets of the Henna Girl’s protagonist, to seek help. Maybe Ahmed has reason to be nervous, as sweetly modest as she came across during her speech, with so many hopes riding on her book. But maybe she doesn’t. Secrets of the Henna Girl is already receiving rave reviews, and the amount of support she’s received from organisations such as the Muslim Writers Awards certainly can’t be hurting her case unless, as some of the speakers expressed with concern, people believe the misconception that Islam condones forced marriage. As Shahien Taj, director of the Henna Foundation, pointed out, Islam does not condone any form of violence. Other notable myths that need to be dispelled, highlighted over the course of the evening, include the notion that only women are subjected to forced marriages, and that a forced marriage is the same as an arranged marriage.

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