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Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame: A Review

Gender Inequality, women's liberation

Salman Rushdie’s Shame would seem to promote female activism toward gender equality in Pakistan if only through interpretation of Sufiya’s violence against male oppressors. When one considers the methods which Rushdie pushes readers to understand women within Pakistan, Shame more clearly promotes a Western perspective of hopelessly oppressed Pakistani women. As Rushdie gives readers an expectation of an authentic voice, he leaves readers to decide what is relevant within his narration by not providing clear purpose for his fictional and magical realities. Because this necessitates readers to decide women solely relevant against the theme of shame, problems occur when the definition of women becomes little more than an object of shame. Despite the strength that Shame pulls readers to evaluate Rushdie’s portrayals of women, Rushdie’s ability to raise true-life issues of women’s equality is undercut by his inability to produce real women, to provide reliable relations to real Pakistani women, and to demonstrate a sensible source for women’s liberation. Without a reliable sense of true Pakistani women, the form by which Shame understands women perpetuates a fatalist Western generalization of women’s oppression in Pakistan.

Rushdie’s first person narrative leaves the reader to decide what is relevant within Shame by proposing magic and fiction along side authenticity without a clear purpose. When addressing Rushdie’s method of composing ideas in Shame, Rushdie makes obvious to the reader that Rushdie is the first person narrator. Readers are blatantly allotted this information as Rushdie commonly uses asides and personal anecdotes, even inserting his own 22 year-old sister (Rushdie 65). Ayelet Ben-Yishai argues Rushdie attempts at a realistic affect, noting Rushdie’s “confessional narrative” (196) and “specificity and personal tone” (196). The use of the first person narrative pushes readers to expect a relative authenticity to Shame, because Rushdie suggests directly his personal involvement. As readers expect a degree of authenticity from the narrative form, stories with tales of magic (such as the transformation of Sufiya) and self-proclaimed fiction (factual Pakistan and fictional Pakistan likeness) without a clear purpose call readers to connect the authentic proposal. Magical realism forces the reader to look beyond Rushdie’s reality of magic for conventional significance. Further pulling the reader away from textual reality, Rushdie provides a fictional premises like “the country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite” (Rushdie 22). As Cynthia Carey-Abrioux argues “meaning lies somewhere in the interface or dialectical struggle between the conflicting authoritative (or authoritarian) and destabilizing forces” (71). In order to resolve Shame‘s instability, a bridge must fill Rushdie’s gap between what is to be relevant and what is to be disregarded.

The complications of magic and fiction against narrative authenticity seem adequately resolved by the notion that Rushdie wants readers to relate shame and women in concluding what is relevant within Shame. When writing he “would not be talking about Bilquis and the wind” (Rushdie 65) and that he had “never lived there (Pakistan) for more than six months” (Rushdie 66), Rushdie destroys validations of both a realistic interest within the novel and authoritative knowledge of Pakistani reality. Perhaps made obvious by Shame‘s title, Rushdie unarguable encourages readers to ground ideas from its relative place in the scheme of shame. Rushdie writes “between the shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn” (118) with the implication Shame be evaluated within the confines of the axis of shame and shamelessness. The reader longing to understand women with Shame is primarily directed to the dichotomy of shame and shamelessness. Although the process may be arduous, the reader must consider the text externally in this manner to begin relating to women because the lack of narration’s intent comprises Shame‘s direct interpretation of women.

Rushdie’s representation of shame pertains relevantly to women because readers depend upon the arching theme of shame to negotiate women within Shame’s. As Harrison states, “the impossibility of knowing what is the real truth about anything…can be overcome sufficiently for the novel to have ‘shape and form-that is to say meaning'” (405). The theme of shame overcomes Rushdie’s self-constructed barrier of relevance by unifying the relations of characters to the factual Pakistani women they can represent. If only for the ease of the reader, Rushdie provides direct access to shame through the character of Sufiya. Rushdie’s Shame writes “the extremely new being in Raza’s arms began…to blush” (89) and continues with “then, even then, she (Sufiya) was too easily shamed” (89). As “between the shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn,” (Rushdie 118) Rushdie hands readers a character by which this “axis” smoothly turns for the women. Shame makes Sufiya the ultimate structure to relate women and shame; therefore, readers depend upon Sufiya to navigate women. As “the metanarrative engenders shame by making the character Sufiya Zinobia enact it,” (Strandberg 149) shame allows entry into relevant discussion of women within Shame.

As shame is crucial to interpreting relevance of women, Rushdie’s nature of shame de-genders characters by portraying men and women as nothing aside from their possession of shame. Rushdie strongly persuades his Western readers to define shame by introducing the Eastern word connotes of “sharam” and by pinning “shame” against “shamelessness” For the case of “sharam,” Rushdie includes within its meaning “embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world” (33). Rushdie makes shame masculine through “sharam,” as connotations of “embarrassment” and “shyness” only mark male activity against women. Additionally, Rushdie organizes a masculine relation for readers to evaluate shame with, “What’s the opposite of shame? What’s left when sharam is subtracted? That’s obvious: shamelessness” (33) As Ayelet Ben-Yishai comments, “we must note that the positioning of shamelessness opposite shame is not an obvious one” (201). In the technical sense, shamelessness is not the opposite of shame as honor is considered. Shamelessness is rather shame’s negation, which indirectly redefines the relationship between men and women within Shame. Men and women are not to be considered relevantly as opposite, simply divided as those with shame and those without. When Rushdie enters Sufiya’s birth in shame, Sufiya is not entered opposite men but similar to a man with the addition of shame. Women are not understood, as men and women are mere objects of shame. Rushdie pushes the reader to relate women and shame only as much as they pertain to men and shamelessness; consequently, shame, the theme readers necessarily construct significance from women, de-genders the relative notion of women.

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Although the lack of woman’s gender identity goes unresolved, Shame unarguable provides readers a glimpse of a female activism in violence to confront women’s oppression. As evidenced in Omar’s reckless behavior, shamelessness causes his shameful actions against women; readers can possibly conclude shame to begin because male shamelessness as producer precedes female shame. As Standberg argues, “Shameless behavior causes shame when acted upon women, but dishonor when acted upon men. Furthermore, shamelessness can only be defined when pitted against its result.” (146) However, readers can only utilize women in conjunction with the ways women treat and are treated by their male counterpart. In search of a relative trend, the reader of Shame would be foolish to overlook the constant rejections between men and women. Bilquis rejects Sufiya, Iskander rejects Rani and Pinkie, Pinkie rejects Raza, Naveed rejects Haroun, Haroun rejects Arjumand, Farah rejects Omar and Eduardo, and Barbar rejects Omar. Rejection seems to be the most consistent relation; therefore, most pertinent to understand. A seemingly obvious observation upon the nature of rejection is a theme of incompatibility between men and women within the scheme of shame; however, this observation is highly misdirected because women are only products of male shamelessness. As much as men and women incompatibility appeals to argue for the overcoming of women’s shame, nowhere within Shame does women’s shame cause men’s shamelessness. In this respect, Rushdie reduces female activism as motions of shame without gender identity. Shame does provide a more intriguing component to shame, stating “shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence” (118). The quotation becomes an ultimate thesis in Shame, concluding the relationship between men’s shamelessness and women’s shame in the current manner in Pakistan will result in violence. As far as Shame will allow for women, shame’s end in violence becomes the location for constructing an activism toward women’s rights. Although violence does not necessarily confront the problems of gender, the fact that Rushdie proposed women-like objects will be inevitably be pushed to enact furious violence upon men-like objects does allow a measure for activism toward an idea of equality.

Through Shame’s use of the relation between shame and violence, Rushdie constructs women’s violence to be viewed by readers as activism for the cause of the shamed lifestyles of Pakistani women. Rushdie is not noted for any purpose for writing Shame‘s women, let alone to promote women’s rights. Aijaz Ahmad is commented for claiming that Rushdie’s novel is “at best politically useless” (Teverson 48) for the absence of an exacting notion to read Shame‘s characters. Despite the indirectness of his work, Rushdie’s depiction of Sufiya’s violent overcoming of shame undeniably directs conversation toward women’s activism, so to comment upon how Rushdie may have written women in general to be perceived hardly becomes useless speculation. From an initial interpretation, Rushdie’s women fail by directly representing damaging images for women. As Justyna Deszcz articulates, Bilquis Gyder may scold her husband, “but her rebukes are ‘full of curtains and oceans and rockets.'(Rushdie 229-30)” (38) and Arjumand Harappa’s “blind devot[ion] to her father” (38) only supports the masculinity which supports the oppression of women. In extending Justyna Deszce’s argument, Farah’s sexual empowerment is only the product of the male worship of Iskander. In respect to shame, no woman-like objects within the text seem to find empowerment within the scheme of shame. The violence which Shame allows for women’s activism is solely utilized by Sufiya; therefore, Sufiya becomes the heroin character, the character provided direct relation to real narratives, and the character whose action allows for the most significant discussion on women. Rushdie must understand the feminist reader to be directed to Sufiya’s activism to structure any women’s liberation. To understand the cause Sufiya champions, readers turn to Shame’swomen and their relevance to the axis of shame. Bilquis’ shame pertains to child rearing; the reason she treats Sufiya with neglect is the shame of Sufiya not being a son. In contrast, Sufiya’s shame pertains to an ultimate shame of her gender; her birth as Riza’s failed attempt at a son. The three sisters’ shame pertains to their need for over protection, necessitating their constant secluding existence. When Omar uses hypnosis to seduce Farah Zoroaster, Farah Zoroaster becomes the shame of women’s dominated and manipulated existence as sexual objects. Naveed ‘Good News’ Hyder’s shame pertains to the shame of female fertility as she commits suicide because she cannot bear the burden of her annually increasing motherhood. “Sharam” becomes important within context of women’s shame, as male “embarrassment” (Rushdie 33) misconstrues that which should feel normal for these women. Deciphering Shame’s women in relation to shame, the reader is pushed to conclude that Rushdie uses each woman to represent a segment of life oppressed by the shameless of men; consequently, Sufiya’s activism becomes an activity of overcoming the oppressed segments of Pakistani woman’s lifestyle. The purpose of Sufiya’s violence, the sole provision of female activism, becomes to overcome the male shame within the lifestyles of Pakistani women.

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As Rushdie leads the reader to argue women’s violence as liberation over shame, Shame only succeeds to work for women as well as it provides believable women, a viable relation to Pakistani women, and a realistic source for women’s liberation. As Shame’s liberation entails overcoming the oppressed segments of women’s lifestyle, Rushdie must provide the reader believable women in order to both define and overcome gender inequality. Rushdie obviates the oppression of his women, but an understanding of women is necessary to understand that oppression as a product of their being women. Additionally, Rushdie must relate the metanarrative of Shame’s women to factual representations of Pakistani women. Without a relative correlation to actual Pakistani women, Shame’s fictional premises of women have no purpose toward relevant women in Pakistan. Because relationships resolve Shame‘s conflict of relevance, Rushdie’s woman must draw upon real Pakistani women to gain substance. A final requirement necessary for Shame to function for women is a provision for women’s activism to succeed in liberation. Without a means for liberation, women’s oppression is made fatalist and gender equality is portrayed as hopeless in Pakistan.

Because Shame deals directly with women’s inequality to men, Rushdie must articulate an awareness of women before Shame can function as a feminist text. Shame fails to produce women because men articulate the entire space of the novel. Without a clear division between men and women, the female object is only validated within a place of oppression. In the case of Sufiya, she is only woman as much as she is shamed by men. Without an oppressed female voice, Rushdie does not allow readers entry into a liberated female voice. Readers can not be clear about a proper reaction to Sufiya’s violence, and can only determine her action to provide a hope for a male-like agency. The issue goes unresolved throughout Shame because women are not given action beyond reaction to their oppression; therefore, inequality has no direct affect upon a woman’s ability to function as women. Additionally, Rushdie’s use of shame de-genders women by becoming the sole division between men (have no shame) and women (have shame). Samir Dayal agues the only reasonable means by which Rushdie could be constructing women is if Rushdie “seems to be asking the unaskable: that men, especially the subcontinental men, should reconsider their notions of masculinity and the implied trappings of power and therefore violence” (46). Samir Dayal implies that Rushdie must mean for the women to re-enactment a male shame upon the men in order to invoke a male reconsideration of their oppressive devices. Considering Sufiya the sole liberated character, Shame would still lack a mode which real women unable to transform into mystical creatures can enact male devices. Rushdie may have meant for male activity to destroy gender, calling for male action to stop female oppression; however, this proposition assumes a male nature not evident in Shame and does not provide a male entry into female liberation. Without a clear distinction in female agency, Shame does not write on gendered text. Shame cannot work for women because Rushdie, without a reliable sense of women, fails to define women’s liberation, equality, or inequality.

Because Shame‘s conflict of relevance is resolved upon the notion of relating fictional metanarrative with factual narrative, relevance of women relies upon the relation between Rushdie’s women and real Pakistani women. Shame fails to adequately embrace the nuance of woman in actual Pakistan by generalizing upon a Western notion of veiled Eastern women. As Aijaz Ahmad points out, “Rushdie seems to know…the history of corruptions and criminalities of Pakistani rulers…this limited knowledge…only confirms…the world view…” (139). A major problem with Rushdie’s exclusion of Pakistani women is that he limits the extent that Shame can represent Pakistani women. The women of Shame are consistently upper-class and oppressed; consequently, their plight and means of liberation can only speak for that minority of Pakistani women. Furthermore, Shame irresponsibly represents all Pakistani women as oppressed which allows a Western audience (who may know no better) to assume all these women live life under constant oppression as an endurable norm. When considering real Pakistani women, Rushdie’s text provides the women of Pakistan a disservice to their feminist progress. As Shahla Haeri maintains in No Shame for the Sun, “Islam grants legally mature woman…the right to choose her marriage partner and maintains her consent as fundamental validity of the marriage contract” (17). She goes on to further elaborate on the feminist actions within Pakistan, such as the Woman’s Action Forum (27) and the Women against Rape (28). Rushdie’s Shame adds to “the apparent invisibility of the professional Muslim women in the ethnographic literature and academic discourse….[which is] puzzling” (Haeri 29). Any gender equality attained by Sufiya’s violence is gravely undercut by Rushdie’s Western generalization of Eastern women. As real Pakistani women can not relate to Rushdie’s women, Shame‘s meaning for women is made impossibly insignificant.

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In order for Shame not to portray the plight of female oppression in Pakistan as hopeless, Rushdie must provide a viable means for women’s liberation. Shame fails to provide for women’s liberation because women’s sole means of activism in violence does not realistically correct gender inequality. When Sufiya changes into a monster, she evokes violence upon the men who shamed her by decapitating adolescent men, killing the men she has seduced, and lastly Omar Khayyam. Apart from Sufiya’s violence, Rushdie does not provide readers a reliable sense of liberation for his women characters. In order to construct feminist liberation, the reader is therefore left to better understand Sufiya’s violence. As empowering as Sufiya’s violence appears over men, male oppression is the fuel by which Sufiya gains power. Without male oppression, Sufiya’s actions only succeed in attaining dominance similar to which Rushdie’s women are resisting. Rushdie writes “they [women] marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies” (Rushdie 93). By his statement, Rushdie reveals Shame to be an entirely masculine arena, with women merely taking over the male territory by the voice of their victimization. Feminist activism in violence does not correct gender inequality within Shame, but merely switches positions of men and women within shame. As Strandberg agues “Nonetheless, it is only the space of the reverse to male power and ambition, death and revenge that is open to women.” (Strandberg 147) Women’s activism as a reaction to their victimization does not provide a feminine liberation, but reinstates the masculine dominance of female agency. In the case of Sufiya, a character built upon the notion of being acted upon, her actions of extreme violence are only a signification of a masculine re-enactment. In order for Shame to have acted as a feminist work,women need to have a separate sphere to build a liberating action. Interpal Grewal concluded that “Rushdie, therefore, wishes to change the present condition of women by showing how horrific the result would be if it remained unchanged [in order to invoke] a great sense of responsibility and of guilt on the part of men” (138). If Rushdie meant for this “horrific result” to be considered realistic by men, Rushdie’s undercuts his own argument by empowering Sufiya only through magical means. Because violence does not realistically correct gender inequality, Shame fails to work for women byportraying the gender oppression of women as inescapable in Pakistan.

Rushdie has never been necessarily quoted to have written Shame for the purpose of any women’s agenda. He has in fact stated in an interview to have begun Shame as an “excessively masculine tale” (Ben Yishai 194) in which the “women seemed to have taken over…demanding the inclusion of their own tragedies…to see [his] ‘male’ plot refracted” (Ben Yishai 194). As much as the text explicitly points readers to readings of liberation, the great potential of Shame‘s arguments toward women’s empowerment is undermined by the objectifying of Rushdie’s form. Rushdie, through failing to produce a viable sense reality and women, produces no hope for women’s equality.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. “Salman Rushdie’s Shame: Postmodern Migrancy and the Representation of Women.” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 26, No 24 (Jun. 15, 1991), pp. 1461-1471.

Ben-Yishai, Ayelet. “The Dialectic of Shame: Representation in the Metanarrative of Salman Rushdie’s Shame.” Modern Fiction Studies. Vol. 48, No 1 (Spring 2002): 194-215.

Carey-Abrious, Cynthia. “Dismantling the Models of Legitimacy: Salman Rushdie’s Shame as a Postcolonial Novel.” European Journal of English Studies Vol. 2, No. 1 (1998): 66-77.

Dayal, Samir. “The Liminalities of Nation and Gender: Salman Rushdie’s Shame.” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association Vol. 31, No 2 (Winter 1998), pp. 39-62.

Deszcz, Justyna. “Salman Rushdie’s Attempt at a Feminist Fairytale Reconfiguration in Shame.Folklore Vol 115, No 1 (April 1, 2004), pp. 27-44.

Grewal, Inderpal. “Salman Rushdie: Marginality, Women, and Shame.” Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 1995.

Harrison, James. “Reconstructing Midnight’s Children and Shame.” University of Toronto Quarterly Vol. 59, No 3 (Spring 1990): pp. 399-412.

Haeri, Shahla. No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women. Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Strandberg, Lotta. “Images of Gender and the Negotiation of Agency in Salman Rushdie’s Shame.” NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies Vol. 12, No 3 (Dec. 2004): 143-152.

Teverson, Andrew. “Salman Rushdie and Aijaz Ahmad: Satire, Ideology and Shame.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 39, No. 2 (June 2004), pp. 45-60. .