The Oppression and Retaliation of Women in Pakistan and Islamic Society in the Novel Shame

On the surface, Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame appears to focus on men, placing great emphasis on male characters like the anti-hero Omar Shakil and the political rivalry between the corrupt Raza Hyder and Isky Harappa. However aside from figuratively highlighting political corruption in Pakistan, Rushdie also seeks to subtly point out the deeply ingrained attitudes toward women in Pakistan and Islamic societies in general. Through his use of magical realist and unreliable narration, Rushdie is able to portray an exaggerated, but realistic picture of the female gender’s struggle in Pakistan and Islamic society, and the trauma inflicted upon women as a result of culturally ingrained oppression by said societies. Muslim women’s voices struggle to be heard, yet Rushdie allows them to be heard in Shame. As Cathy Caruth explains in her trauma theory article, trauma in essence is “always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available,” (Caruth 4) hence Rushdie uses female characters in the novel to voice their hidden oppression to the clueless Western world. By portraying Sufiya Zinobia as a “beast” toward the end of the tale, Rushdie is able to create an imaginary world in which women are allowed to retaliate against their male oppressors. Under the guise of magical realism, Rushdie creates an all too real portrait of the real world disassociation shared by many in the Islamic religion, a disassociation that enables oppression to continue- trauma that Shame attempts to crush.

In traditional Islamic culture, the national religion of Pakistan where Shame takes place, women are viewed in society as subservient beings, existing only to reproduce and to indulge the sexual needs of men. Pakistani society follows the religious teachings of the Quran, the prophetic text of Islam written by the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. Devout Muslims live their lives according to strict Shari’ah law, which trace their origins from the Quran. Today, interpretations of many important historical texts vary widely, like The Constitution in the United States and the teachings of The Bible in Christianity, hence Shari’ah law varies as well. While some countries leave little room for modern interpretations of The Quran, such as Pakistan and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, some Islamic nations such as Bahrain and Kuwait are a little more accepting of modern interpretation, allowing alterations and adjustments to some of the archaic ideals imposed in The Quran. Strict interpretation of The Quran places women on a pedestal as objects, possessions of their male family members growing up until marriage, in which a woman’s ownership is transferred to her husband, who is expected to protect and provide for her. Women have little say in their independence, and in devout Islamic nations such as Pakistan, a woman cannot divorce her husband, and only in rare cases, such as in the case of male impotency, are divorces granted on behalf of a woman. Salman Rushdie clearly points out this jaded Islamic view of women in his novel, citing the ingrained oppression imposed on women by societal constructs that have been enforced for centuries under strict Shari’ah law.  In the Quran, women are viewed as conniving and lustful by nature, and if left alone with a man for any period of time will attempt to act on their innate, uncontrollable sexual desires. This is evident in a passage from The Quran I found in an article by Dr. Jamal Badawi, which highlights Islamic injustice and oppression of women, “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well aware of what they do” (Noble Quran 24:30). Modesty is stressed greatly throughout Islamic societies, especially Pakistani society, which is evident in the scene in which Rani is wearing her traditional dupatta- a covering worn by Muslim women out of “modesty” while running through the streets naked in the aftermath of her father’s suicide in his cinema. Rushdie’s commentary is evident in his narration of the event, “the dupatta of modesty had stuck to her body, fixed there by the congealed blood of the many cuts and scratches of whose very existence she had been unaware” (Rushdie 61). Even in a near death situation, Shari’ah law is so culturally ingrained in Pakistani society that Rani notices her public nudity, and the shame that goes hand in hand with such an outrageous display, before noticing physical damage she endured in the explosion, the irony of which Rushdie highlights in this section of the book. In a study conducted in rural Pakistan in which researchers interviewed “hard to control” women in society, women who defied cultural norms stressed in Islamic society, one such woman is described as being hard to control, “God, oh God, why did you make her so hard to control?” (Flowers, queens, and goons: Unruly women in rural Pakistan 2). Control is stressed greatly in Pakistani society- the very essence of this idea of control is central to Rushdie’s theme of oppression in the novel, as he outlines the methods in which female characters such as Sufiya and the Shakil sisters debase this traditional notion of control.

Through his portrayal of the character of Rani’s father, Mahmoud “The Woman”, Rushdie subtly criticizes the oppressive gender-biased views ingrained in Pakistani society. Rushdie outlines Rani’s childhood, citing that Mahmoud treated his daughter like a princess, evident in his ironic words, “why do you lift your hand daughter? A princess does not serve” (Rushdie 56). Rushdie explains that Mahmoud eventually “lost his empire” (Rushdie 58) due to the fact that he had too much “tolerance”. With narrative dripping with scathing irony, Rushdie criticizes Pakistani society in this scene, explaining that Mahmoud’s love for his daughter and “tolerance” of other nations in an open display of defiance in which he chose to show whatever movies he wished in his theater, would eventually prove to be Mahmoud’s undoing in a society where independence and tolerance are not tolerated at all. Mahmoud eventually is driven mad by the nickname bestowed unto him by society- “Mahmoud The Woman”. Such a nickname implies such shame and disgrace for a man in Islamic society that an emasculated Mahmoud goes mad and commits suicide, blowing up his beloved cinema out of sheer shame. Rushdie’s point is clear- Muslim men have been trained to believe dearly in their supreme patriarchal and divine rights in society that to be mocked and called “a woman” is the ultimate insult to male honor. Mahmoud echoed these sentiments clearly to his daughter before losing it completely, “Woman, he sighed resignedly to his daughter, ‘what a term! Is there no end to the burdens this word is capable of bearing? Was there ever such a broad-backed and also such a dirty word” (Rushdie 58). Rushdie makes it clear in Mahmoud’s clear statement that there is no such thing as “tolerance” in such a devout Islamic nation like Pakistan.

Throughout the novel, Rushdie deliberately shrouds real-world political events and Islamic cultural references with magical realist narrative devices that serve to paint a picture of a fantasy world. Magical realism is a literary device use in many trauma narrative as a way to disguise an all too real reality criticized in said works of trauma literature. In his article, Ronald Granofsky describes narrative devices such as magical realism as a way to “attempt to narrate contemporary trauma by turning to one of several narrative modes: science fiction, rigorous realism, magical realism (warping the real world to provide an allegorical view), black humor, and dystopian novels” (Granofsky 3-4) which goes to reinforce Rushdie’s deliberate clouding of reality in the novel using magical realism, as a way to “warp” the real reality in Pakistan.

Magical realism exaggerates reality, yet is actually based on real historical events and figures. According to the writer Bruce Holland Rogers in his article,“What is Magical Realism, Really?” magical realism serves to portray a reality endured by oppressive cultures such as Islam in an objective light to Western audiences who have never experienced such a reality before, hence magical realist narration is necessary to convey an author’s point- this world is so jaded, you wouldn’t believe me if I tried to seriously narrate this story as an ultimate truth, even though everything in the novel you are reading is based on truth. Rogers sums up the purpose of magical realism succinctly with, “but the literature at its best invites the reader to compassionately experience the world as many of our fellow human beings see it”. In the beginning of the novel, Rushdie laces the story of the scandalous pregnancy of the three Shakil sisters with magical realist elements, exaggerating the extent of the sisters’ shame to the point that they hole themselves up inside their mansion and never leave, which of course is exaggerated for dramatic effect. Yet Rushdie’s message is clear- Pakistani culture dictates that extramarital affairs are sins and go against the grain of the Islamic religion, and the sisters’ shared shame as a result of the pregnancy causes them to voluntarily isolate themselves from society.

Rushdie exaggerates the union of sisterhood and the female gender overall in the eyes of Islamic society by claiming in the novel that all three sisters seemingly experienced pregnancy together so as to hide the true mother’s identity. “They felt identical pains; in three wombs, a single baby and its two ghostly mirror-images kicked and turned with the precision of a well-drilled dance troupe…suffering identically, the three of them- I will go as far as to say- fully earned the right to be considered joint mothers of the forthcoming child” (Rushdie 13). Rushdie exaggerates his narration here with magical realist elements- in the real world one cannot experience physical contractions and elements of childbirth simply by imagining it in one’s mind. However Rushdie is subtly criticizing Pakistani society through his portrayal of the sisters- the teachings of female lust have been so ingrained in Islamic society that the other two Shakil sisters are willing to take the fall for the “mistake” of the other sister so as to save the sister in question from humiliation and public shame, which in a sense makes the sisters more powerful- they band together as one and fight through the struggle as a team, inspiring female unity that in traditional Islamic society would not be a reality. By banding the sisters together, Rushdie helps to unite them, and on a larger sphere, unites all women in a sisterhood- imagine a world in which no one specific individual woman can be singled out by society and shamed– she is not alone. The Shakil sisters are by themselves powerless, yet together in the story, they are the ultimate team, united by gender and blood, they eventually are able to topple a dictator, more importantly a man, together without hesitation. Magical narrative serves to invent a magical world in which Muslim women are empowered together- Rushdie suggests through his portrayal of the Shakil sisters that united, women can revolutionize the Islamic world and fight for their rights, yet in present time, said unification is only available in literature.

In the novel, Sufiya Zinobia is portrayed at first as the ultimate manifestation of shame, yet as the novel progresses and Sufiya ultimately becomes “The Beast,” she actually comes to represent the hidden power in the female race, and gives hope that Muslim women do in fact have the ability to challenge archaic gender roles imposed in Islamic society. Sufiya serves to emasculate male figures, evident in the novel when after luring a group of young men into an alleyway with the promise of sex, she proceeds to reverse gender roles, having her way with them, then discarding them violently, literally ripping their heads off with her bare hands in an unreal feat of strength (this is also an example of magical realism). Sufiya represents the manifestation of years and years of oppressed women who have finally had enough- “The Beast” manifests in her and terrorizes the land, ravaging the nation and giving traditionally oppressive Muslim men a taste of their own medicine. Rushdie ironically refers to Sufiya as a manifestation of shame, which she is actually the contrary, “there was once a young woman, Sufiya Zinobia, also known as ‘Shame’ (Rushdie 207). In terms of trauma, Sufiya displays tell-tale signs of Dissociative Disorder. As described in Sue-Mei Slogar’s article on “Dissociative Trauma Theory”, Sufiya blacks out during her episodes in which her inner “beast” takes control of her body, causing her to commit incredible feats such as when she rips the heads off turkeys and later terrorizes the countryside killing at will. Having been born “blushing with shame” and being a victim of oppressive Islamic society herself, Sufiya essentially disassociates herself from reality, enabling her to blackout and fulfill secret inner desires of retaliation without even knowing it, much to the horror of the male characters around her. When in Islamic society does a woman inspire fear in men? Through Sufiya, Rushdie reiterates his point of cultural oppression which is central to Shame, and hints again that women are much stronger than they appear.

Along with utilizing magical realist narrative, Rushdie also at points in the novel becomes an unreliable narrator himself while using antimimetic narration to further exaggerate reality in the novel, even putting himself in the novel and stating that the novel in no way is about Pakistan, which of course, is all just to add effect to his overall message in the novel. A prime example of said narration is evident in his first person narrative by Rushdie in the novel, “I think what I’m confessing is that, however I choose to write about over-there, I am forced to reflect that world in fragments of broken mirrors, the way Farah Zoroaster saw her face at the bolarded frontier. I must reconcile myself to the inevitably of the missing bits” (Rushdie 66). An author putting himself in the novel and admitting that he’s not even going to try and bring up all the different aspects of what is wrong with Pakistani society and Islam as a whole? According to a narrative theory article by Brian Richardson, such antimimetic, unreliable narration as that attempt to “play with, exaggerate, or parody the conventions of mimetic representation: often they foreground narrative elements and events that are wildly implausible or palpably impossible  in the real world” (Richardson 20). Going hand in hand with magical realism, Rushdie further drives home his point in the novel by simply admitting that his novel is simply a fairy tale, and only in fairy tales are women allowed to rise up in oppressive Islamic society, and “destroy a dictator” for such events would be monumental landmarks in time that are not likely upcoming events in the Muslim world today.

The central question posed by Rushdie in Shame is simple: how can women go about breaking down societal constricts in traditional Islamic society that paint them as subservient beings and oppress female freedoms? Through writing this essay, I have come to a better understanding of trauma. Trauma comes in many different forms, yet all trauma cries to be heard- cries for an audience, no matter how unspeakable one’s trauma may be. Antimimetic narration and magical realism can help mask harsh realities posed in many trauma narratives to shield audiences from the unthinkable, yet the fact remains that many people live through said “unspeakable” trauma every day. I have come to the realization through this course that although some trauma theory topics are difficult to read about, trauma is much more difficult to those who must live through the pain, and if getting skeletons out of the closet entails writing a shocking trauma theory narrative, than so be it- trauma victims must voice their stories in order to cope, heal, and accept the horrors they have experienced. Rushdie suggests women must band together and fight fire with fire- together and unified, women can revolutionize society, In a culture that has been ingrained with oppressive ideals since its beginning, Islam today retains many oppressive stances against society, namely women. The Shakil sisters, who in the beginning of the novel seemingly portray weakness, end up “toppling” the dictator, Raza Hyder, in the end. In his death, the sisters’ collective “hatred” and anger are symbolic of the manifestation of trauma inflicted upon the oppressed female population in Muslim society, as evident in the end of the novel, “they found the dejected palace of the sisters’ haughty pride standing defenseless, at their mercy, and they were amazed by themselves, by their hatred of the place, a hatred which oozed out of sixty-five-year-old forgotten wells” (Rushdie 302). In Rushdie’s fictional representation of the Pakistani nation, the “oppressed” gradually realize their inner strength, and ultimately succeed in overthrowing their oppressors. By insisting that, “fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy tale, so that’s all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken, either” (Rushdie 68) Rushdie is not so subtly making a silent war cry- when, citizens of Pakistan, when will you take action? What will it take- what does it take to push you over the edge? How does one topple a dictator- how does one modernize archaic Quranic teachings? Sufiya Zinobia terrorizes society, breaking down former societal boundaries and proving that women are just as, if not more strong and determined than men. The three Shakil sisters exact revenge on Raza Hyder as well, proving that women are not as weak and submissive as traditional Islam attempts to make them out to be. Times are constantly changing, and Rushdie suggests in his “magical” and fictional world that women have the inner strength to fight back- they just have to find it. The citizens of Pakistan and the Muslim world today are all subject to constant oppression, as their religion dictates their day to day lives. Will it ever end? Sufiya, the representation of shame on the surface, yet years of anger due to oppression brew inside her until “The Beast” manifests- Rushdie warns that a revolution is inevitable someday, “the power of the Beast of shame cannot be held for long within any one frame of flesh and blood, because it grows, it feeds and swells, until the vessel bursts” (Rushdie 304-5).

Works Cited

Badawi, Dr. Jamal. “The Status of Women in Islam.” Islam’s Women. Islam’s Women, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. <>.

Caruth, Cathy. “The Wound and The Voice.” Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. 2. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

<http:// mod_resource/ content/1/ Caruth%20The%20Wound%20and%20the%20Voice.pdf>.

Chaudhry, Lubna N. “Flowers, Queens, and Goons: Unruly Women in Rural Pakistan.” MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO, Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://>.

Granofsky, Ronald. “Introduction.” The Trauma Novel: Contemporary Symbolic Depictions of Collective Disastor. Vol. 55. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. 3-4. III. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. < mod_resource/ content/1/Granofsky%20The%20Trauma%20Novel.pdf>.

Richardson, Brian. “Antimimetic, Unnatural, and Postmodern Narrative Theory.” Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2012. 20-25. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. < 170157/ mod_resource/content/1/Richardson%20Antimimetic%20Narrative.pdf>.

Rogers, Bruce Holland. “What Is Magical Realism, Really?” What Is Magical Realism, Really? Speculations Online Journal, 2002. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.  <http://www.writing- sf/realism.shtml>.

Slogar, Sue Mei. “Dissociative Identity Disorder: Overview and Current Research.” Student Pulse 3.05 (2011): n. pag. Student Pulse. Student Pulse- Online Academic Student Journal, 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

< overview- and-current-research>.


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