The Limits of What Is Possible:
Reimagining Sharam in Salman Rushdie's Shame
University of California, Los Angeles
Copyright (c) 1997 by Jenny Sharpe, all rights reserved. This text may be used and
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- Dreamworlds and fairylands are the sites from which Salman Rushdie
launches his attacks on state censorships, nationalisms, and official versions
of history. Opposing a mimetic model of representation, he suggests that his
fiction does not hold a mirror to reality so much as reflect upon it. Calling for
"books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages
with which we can understand the world" (Imaginary Homelands 100), he
locates the transformative power of the story in its capacity to provide
alternative versions of the past and, upon doing so, to force a questioning of
official histories. Since the ability to imagine different versions of an event
breaks the taken-for-grantedness of social norms and conventions, the
fantastic elements in his novels not only expose state censorships of the past
but also introduce utopian possibilities for the future. The thousand and one
magical children of Midnight's Children are "the infinity of alternative realities"
that the 1976 Indian State of Emergency destroyed. When Saladin Chamcha
metamorphoses into a huge beast with horns in The Satanic Verses , he not
only becomes the racial stereotype of the "Asian immigrant" in Thatcher's
Britain. He is also a dream-devil that grows in the imagination of London's
black community, fueling its fight against racism and police brutality. The
monster inside Sufiya Zinobia, the seemingly small and defenseless heroine of
Shame , absorbs the patriarchal violence enacted against Pakistani women
and unleashes it back upon its source. Her magical power represents
Rushdie's attempt to reorder izzat and sharam (honor and shame) to find a place for women's rage. Yet, as critics indicate, his fantasy of female rebellion fails to be truly liberating (Grewal; Ahmad). Although I agree with their
assessment of Shame , I also see Rushdie's failure to provide a "new and better map" of Pakistani women's reality as an opening for considering the instability
of gender roles. In other words, the failed feminist project of Shame introduces
the possibility of sharam being enacted in a manner that reorders its
- As a Muslim code of conduct, izzat and sharam reproduce the gendered role of female passivity, withholding from women other definitions of femininity. Izzat is the family honor that must be upheld, particularly through sharam as the sign of women's purity. Sharam , as the narrator of Shame explains, denotes "embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world" (35). So long as women experience sharam , family honor is preserved, and in this sense a woman's honor is but an extension of her husband's or father's. A woman who submits to feelings of shame is one who does not step out of line. If she should behave without
shame, that is, shamelessly, then family honor is restored only by punishing
the transgressor. "Violence, and the right to use it," observes Shaila Shah, "is
sanctioned, the so-called crimes of honour being designed to keep a woman in
her place: silenced, mutilated or even destroyed" (284). Yet, the need to punish
women shows that, as a code of conduct, izzat and sharam are not firmly in place; the code requires a continuous enforcement through a violence that acts as a warning to women.
- Sufiya Zinobia, the character to whom the novel's title alludes, is known
as her mother's shame because, as the first-born child, she should have been a
boy. Her parents, Raza and Bilquìs Hyder, are so certain that their first-born
will be a son that they plan his life even before "he" is born. Raza's staccato
exclamation of disbelief--"Genitalia! Can! Be! Obscured!" (94)--as he
searches for the slightest hint of a male sex organ on his daughter condemns
her to the status of a castrated boy. The baby girl blushes in response to her
mother's embarrassment and her father's anger. Her blushing represents a
slow burning that builds with the passage of time. The humiliation keeps
building until it erupts in the form of a beast that punishes male offenders.
Women's feelings of inadequacy feed the beast inside her, causing it to grow
more monstrous each day. Sufiya is transformed into an avenging angel who
attempts to twist off the head of the man whom her sister is forced to marry
and who succeeds in decapitating four "goondas" after they engage in sexual
intercourse with her. The fantastic elements of her character demonstrate
how monstrous women's shame is to look at, if only it were something that
could be seen. Through Sufiyia Zinobia, Rushdie introduces the imaginative
possibility of women's shame producing anger and self-pride rather than
embarrassment and family honor. By creating a magical character that plays
with the gendering of izzat and sharam , he breaks down the taken-for-grantedness of female modesty.
- In view of the violence of Sufiya's actions, how can one ensure that
Rushdie's fantasy of female rage does not also play into men's fears of women?
This is especially the case since her violent outbursts are articulated through
images of her sexual awakening. Sufiya has no sexual knowledge except for
what her mother told her on the eve of her wedding--that she is an ocean in
which men desire to drown. After her marriage, the dormant beast is aroused
whenever she attempts to imagine the sensations of sexual pleasure. On the
night she stalks the four youths, there is the suggestion that she can no longer
control such imaginings: "There is an ocean. She feels its tide. And, somewhere
in its depths, a Beast, stirring" (237). As the novel progresses, the beast
increasingly comes to represent a dangerous female sexuality. The next time
we see Sufiya as an avenging angel is when she thinks her husband wants to
have sexual intercourse with her. As Omar prepares to be decapitated by his
wife, he sees in her hypnotic eyes the hint of desire: "Some flickering, some
dimming of the flame in doubt, as though she had entertained for that tiny
fragment of time the wild fantasy that she was indeed a bride entering the
chamber of her beloved" (317). Although it is her eyes that are riveting, it is
with his eyes that we see her: the desiring woman is terrifying because she
- Aijaz Ahmad reads the fear generated by monstrous women like Sufiya
as the expression of a misogyny that is symptomatic of Rushdie's postmodern
retreat (through the trope of migrancy) from a commitment to political
communities (123-58). Since he considers social realism alone to be adequate
to the task of representing popular struggles, however, Ahmad fails to engage
the imaginative realities of Shame in a meaningful way. Inderpal Grewal, on
the other hand, argues that Rushdie's fantasies of rebellion fail to be liberating
because they draw on a history of women's oppression rather than their
struggles. Sufiya can only passively absorb power, and other Pakistani women
are represented as equally passive or as the agents of patriarchal power
(Grewal 30). She concludes with examples of women's resistance to
patriarchal oppression both in Britain and Pakistan, a history of collective
agency that Rushdie's novel ignores. Whereas Grewal posits an "oppositional
feminist praxis" (26) as a corrective to the representation of women in Shame ,
I want to show how the opposition of "feminist" (i.e. resistive) to "traditional"
(i.e. oppressive) identities elides the performative aspect of gender.
- This essay uses Rushdie's realignment of izzat and sharam as an occasion for examining Indo-Pakistani women's performance of seemingly
"traditional" gender roles, particularly as they are overdetermined by race and
class relations. I argue that the Islamic tradition identified as residual in
Shame is an emergent form structured by British racism and a global economy
that depends on cheap female labor. Indo-Pakistani women in Britain do not
reject this "tradition" so much as negotiate a more empowered place within it.
In the spirit of Rushdie's claim that the political function of the story is to
provide "a new and better map" of reality, I introduce stories of women's
performance of sharam for political ends. These stories are woven into my
reading of events that occurred around the time of the writing of Shame . They are intended as a supplement to the events that appear in the novel by way of
its metafictional claims.
- Through the literary device of a narrator who is a fictional version of
himself, Rushdie presents four stories drawn from the annals of everyday life.
One of the narrative functions of the author-in-the-text is to shatter the
smooth surface of mimetic representation with the shards of silenced stories.
The first two stories speak of Pakistani women as the victims of male violence,
while the other two tell a tale of power and rebellion. The author-in-the-text
describes his pain over learning that a Pakistani father had killed his daughter:
"Not so long ago, in the East End of London, a Pakistani father murdered his
only child, a daughter, because by making love to a white boy she had brought
such dishonour upon her family that only her blood could wash away the stain"
(123). The narrator tries to imagine the stories suppressed by the silence
surrounding the disgraced girl's dead body. He sees a Pakistani woman caught
between two cultures, a girl who hesitates to expose her legs but dances wildly
under disco lights. He even gives her a name, Anahita Muhammad. Despite
his efforts, he is unable to reconstruct her life. That untold story is a ghost
that haunts his novel, ensuring that his storytelling does not repeat the
father's crime. "My Sufiya Zinobia grew out of the corpse of that murdered
girl," he confesses, "although she will not (have no fear) be slaughtered by Raza
- What disturbs the author-in-the-text is that no one from the
Indo-Pakistani community revealed the father's identity to the police or even
condemned him for murdering his daughter. Holding a "diet of honour and
shame" (123) responsible for the community's inaction, he feels a need to take
the story back to Pakistan, "to let the idea breathe its favourite air" (124-25).
Although the author-in-the-text describes his Pakistan as an imaginary
country that is refracted through the experience of an immigrant in Britain and
the perspective of a writer-in-exile, the crucial determinant of race drops out of
a narrative that traces "the roots of violence" (124) back East. While making
visible the invisible baggage the immigrant carries from Pakistan to Britain,
the narrator obscures the role of British racism in the community's response
to a crime of honor.
- I would argue that the tacit condoning of a father's murder of his only
child has as much to do with institutionalized racism in Britain as it does with
customs carried over from Pakistan. The narrator of Shame indicates that,
upon conducting their inquiry, the police came up against the "inscrutability of
the 'Asian' face under the eyes of a foe" (124). Police racism against
Indo-Pakistanis--a lack of response to hate crimes, surveillance of black
neighborhoods, and excessive use of force in making arrests--has been well
documented. A community that conceals evidence behind the racial
stereotype of "Oriental inscrutability" thus withholds information from the
enemy who claims to be speaking on behalf of the murdered Pakistani girl. One
need only turn to the colonial records on sati and child brides to see that British rule was forged in the name of saving brown-skinned women from their own
oppressive patriarchy (Mani; Sinha). In Britain, the popular media isolates the
sexual oppression of women as evidence of the backwardness and barbarism of
"Asian immigrants." Indo-Pakistani communities, on the other hand, perceive
western social and sexual practices as a direct attack on their values. I
introduce this evidence, not to excuse the father who punishes his daughter for
betraying her people, but to demonstrate that his defense of family honor is
complicated by racist practices. These racist practices have to be taken into
consideration in any reading of women's response to "tradition."
- Caught between the overlapping yet contradictory relations of public
and private spheres, Indo-Pakistani women have to negotiate their
subject-positionings on more than one front. For them, the family is both the site of
patriarchal oppression and a social unit that must be defended against racist
attacks. Black women's organizations are thus placed in contradictory
position of having to protest gender restrictions at the local, situated level,
while supporting their men at the national level. One is not surprised to learn
that members of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African descent
(OWAAD), which was around from 1978 to 1983, emphatically denied being
We're not feminists-we reject that label because we feel that it
represents a white ideology. In our culture the term is associated
with an ideology and practice which is anti-men. Our group is not
anti-men at all. We have what I'd describe as a "controlled"
relationship with them. (Bryan et al. 25)
The battle on two fronts is no easy task and the women's relationship with
their men is not always "controlled." The Southall Black Sisters were accused
of "washing their dirty linen" when they exposed cases of domestic violence,
even though the group was equally active in protesting police brutality and
selective immigration policy against Asians.
- In Shame , Rushdie presents "tradition" as a code of conduct that
prevents Pakistani women from fighting British racism. This reading is
evident in the second ghost that haunts Sufiya. The story concerns a
Pakistani girl who was attacked by a gang of white boys in a London
underground train and who failed to report the crime because she felt
ashamed. The author-in-the-text envisions the possibility of an anger that
would transform the girl's humiliation into pride. "And I imagine," he continues,
"what would have happened if such a fury could have been released in that girl
on her underground train--how she would have thrashed the white kids within
an inch of their lives, breaking arms legs noses balls, without knowing whence
the violence came, without seeing how she, so slight a figure, could command
such awesome strength" (125-26). His fantasy is realized by way of the image
of rioting youths on television and a strange phenomenon reported in a
newspaper. The rioters, burning with humiliation, run through the streets
setting fire to shops and police cars. Seeing them on television, the narrator
notices that their shame is replaced with "pride in their power, in having
learned to hit back" (125). The fourth and final ghost of a story is from a
newspaper description of a boy who, without the help of flammable liquids or
matches, caught fire and burned to death. Sufiya has the ability to convert her
shame into a similar source of energy. Her blushing is a psychosomatic event
that causes her face to burn with the intensity of fire. The redness of her face
is the sign of her shame but also of the rage smoldering inside women.
- Sufiya represents the effort to imagine a different outcome for women
who are the victims of male violence. Both the murdered East End girl and the
one beaten on the underground train wear their silence as badges of shame.
Although the punishing hand of the father secures one of the silencing
emblems, the other is self-imposed. Sufiya also feels ashamed, except that her
response is redirected at the outside world. She is an exceptional woman
because she not only feels her own shame but also the unfelt shame of others,
men in particular. Men are forbidden to feel shame, for that would destroy
their pride. This means that they hold their heads high only by disavowing
their shameful actions. "What's left when sharam is subtracted?" the narrator
inquires; "That's obvious: shamelessness" (35).
- The upholding of izzat and sharam points to a double standard. A young girl's dating of a white boy will bring dishonor to her family, while a husband's maintenance of mistresses or physical abuse of his wife does not threaten the
integrity of izzat . Rushdie exposes this double standard when he traces the
source of shame back to men who are not embarrassed by their ignoble deeds.
Conversely, he extend to Sufiya the same capacity for violence that honor
produces in men. In an interview he describes this narrative strategy as a
reversal of the effects of shame and violence:
It struck me that if violence engendered shame, it was also true
that shame engendered violence. And I began to think that this
little cluster of ideas-shame, honor, pride--those three were
somewhere very close to the center of how we organize our
experience, and that nobody had really plucked that thread out
before to look at it. ("PW Interviews" 50).
Grewal correctly argues that Rushdie's reshuffling of shame, honor, and pride
ignores the power differential between men and women, an inequality of power
that translates into an asymmetry of action (35).
- Pakistani women are socialized into having strong family loyalty, the
betrayal of which brings shame upon themselves and their families. Wives
who are physically abused often stay with their husbands in order to preserve
the family izzat (Wilson 99-102; Amos et al. 97-99; Shah 286). But even this
does not tell the whole story. The racism of the police force makes it difficult
for an abused woman to report her husband without appearing to betray her
people. In addition, the series of racist acts directed at controlling the flow of
immigration placed Indo-Pakistani women in a particularly vulnerable position.
Since they were allowed to enter Britain only as the dependents of male
workers, they were forced into a greater dependency upon their husbands than
they would have been back home, where they had the support of their families.
The lack of family support is evident in the case of an Oxford Pakistani woman
whose husband beat her regularly. Whereas her family back in Pakistan
encouraged her to press charges against him, she received no help from her
local community or the police, who treated the problem as a domestic matter
- I want to turn now to a real-life incident of shame engendering violence,
but one that does not stage the fantasy of power that Rushdie imagines. Just
two years prior to the publication of Shame , Iqbal Begum was tried in
Birmingham for killing her husband with an iron bar (Shah 284). Having
endured repeated beatings from him, she finally returned with full force the
violence to which she had been daily subjected. Based on feelings of
powerlessness and despair, her action does not carry the same meaning as a
violence that is sanctioned by patriarchal law. Rushdie's fantasy of women
"striking back" thus enacts a scenerio of female powerlessness. Begum was
sentenced to life imprisonment; however, an Indo-Pakistani and
Afro-Caribbean women's group, the Birmingham Black Sisters, called for a retrial
that resulted in her acquittal four years later.
- The existence of organizations like the Birmingham Black Sisters and
the Southall Black Sisters, as well the Asian women's refuge and resource
centers that emerged during the early 1980s, offered an alternative that was
not available to Iqbal Begum. They not only provided support groups for the
victims of domestic violence but also used the strategy of publicly shaming
those families that condoned the practice. In this regard, they did not reject
sharam as a code of conduct so much as reorder it. The action of shaming men
who abused their wives reverses the effects of shame and violence, not by
making women's shame engender violence but by making men's violence
responsible for family shame. By showing that domestic violence threatened
the integrity of family honor, these organizations appropriated sharam
in the interest of women's issues and social change.
- Although Rushdie reverses the effects of shame and violence in his
novel, the gendering of those effects remain the same. Violence is represented
as an active, masculine response to shame, and silence as a passive, feminine
one. Sufiya escapes the place of her subordination only because she has
access to a violence that is figured as a masculine response to shame. In other
words, women have power only inasmuch as they act like men. The equation
of femininity with passivity adheres to a binary logic that defines the feminine
as the negation of the male term. A simple reversal of the effects of shame
and violence thus maintains the binary logic of gender roles. The reversal
performed by the women's organizations resembles Rushdie's narrative
strategy, but with the important difference of recoding masculinity.
Working-class women also reordered shame, honor, and pride during the
strikes of the late 1970s, but this time in the interest of redefining their
position in the workplace. Indo-Pakistani women joined their men in protesting
racism in the workplace and oppressive labor conditions in the Imperial
Typewriters strike of 1974, the Grunwick Film strike of 1976-77, the Futters
strike of 1978-79, and the Chix Bubblegum strike of 1979-80. The most
publicized of these strikes was the one at the Grunwick Film Processing plant
in North London. Sixty percent of the strikers were women, most of them
Gujaratis from East Africa, who went daily to the picket line despite pressure
from their husbands and fathers to discourage them. The diminutive form of
their militant leader, Jayaben Desai, was a familiar image in the media
coverage of the event. She tells the following story of the attempts of the
managing director (who was Anglo-Indian) to shame the striking women into
returning to work:
He would come to the picket line and try to mock us and insult us.
One day he said "Mrs Desai, you can't win in a sari, I want to see
you in a mini." I said "Mrs Gandhi she wears a sari and she is
ruling a vast country." I spat at him "I have my husband behind
me and I'll wear what he wants me to." He was very angry and
he started referring to me as big mouth. On my second encounter
with Ward [the managing director] he said "Mrs Desai, I'll tell the
whole Patel community that you are a loose woman." I said "I
am here with this placard! Look! I am showing all England that
you are a bad man. You are going to tell only the Patel community
but I am going to tell all of England." Then he realised that I
would not weaken and he tried to get at the younger girls. . . .You
see he knows about Indian society and he is using it. Even for
those inside he has found for each one an individual weakness, to
frighten some and to shame others. He knows that Indian women
are often easily shamed. (Cited in Wilson 64)
The management strategy of shaming striking women invokes a domestic code
of conduct for ensuring a docile workforce. Desai's words, however, prove
gendered identities to be more complicated than the manager's reliance on the
binary opposition of shame and shamelessness might suggest.
- An Indian woman exposing herself on a London street might be deemed
by some to be shameless. Jayaben Desai will not be so easily shamed. She
counters the manager's attempt to expose her to the Gujarati community with
a placard that exposes him to the national media. At the same time, she does
not defend Indian women's tendency to be easily shamed nor does she deny it.
When placed "under the eyes of the foe," she speaks from within the language
of an Indian patriarchy but without subordinating herself to its hierarchy: "I
have my husband behind me and I'll wear what he wants me to." According to
the logic of this sentence, she defers to the authority of her husband but only
because he already supports her. In this manner, she uses patriarchal
authority for authorizing her "shameless" behavior in the workplace.
In the view of Rushdie's claim that "the real risks. . .are taken. . .in
pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase
the sum of what it is possible to think" (Imaginary Homelands 14-15), I want
to add these untold stories of "shame" to the fantasy figure of Sufiya. In doing
so, I do not mean to gloss over the regional and religious differences effaced by
the racial category of "Asian" that designates immigrants from India,
Pakistan, Bangladesh, and East Africa. Rather, I present these stories as
different instances of women's performance of sharam. They show that, given
the overdeterminations of race, class, and gender, women do not reject
"tradition" so much as negotiate a more empowered place within it. Their
negotiations are precariously balanced between the language of patriarchal
power and the silence surrounding femininity. Yet, as my reading of Shame
demonstrates, unless we hold on to some notion of women's performance of
"traditional" identities, we risk subordinating them within the hierarchies of
gender, class, and race.
The real-life incident behind this fictional account was a racially-motivated attack on Rushdie's sister (Rushdie, "PW Interview 50).Back
The strategy of shaming wife-beaters was developed in India, where the corrupt legal system favored male offenders.Back
Sharam is not restricted to Pakistani culture alone, but appears as a code of conduct throughout the Indian subcontinent (Wilson 42; 99).Back
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