The Significance of Shame in Women of Shame 

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The Significance of Shame in Women of Shame

Although shame has been linked to many male characters in Shame, it is the significant association of shame with the female characters that will be in focus in this essay. In what follows, the effect of shame on the lives of women in the novel will be explored. In Shame, there are several important female characters. Bilquis Hyder, firstly, is the wife of Raza Hyder and the mother of Sufiya Zinobia and Naveed, also known as Good News. Rani Harappa, secondly, is the wife of Iskander Harappa and the mother of Arjumand Harappa. Then there is Sufiya Zinobia (Shame), who marries Omar Khayyam Shakil (Shameless), and Good News, who is arranged to marry Haroun Harappa (Arjumand’s cousin) but who instead, marries Talvar Ulhaq. Arjumand remains single after being rejected by the love of her life, Haroun. Shame is the story about the contrasts between shame and shamelessness in general and about the marriage between Sufiya Zinobia and Omar Khayyam. Moreover, this story, with a magical realism narrative, is about how the Beauty becomes the Beast.

Bilquis Hyder and Shame

Bilquis’ story begins with her living in a lavish Empire in Delhi of India where she is regarded as a princess. Her father is killed during the Partition of 1947 in a bomb explosion planted by religious extremists. This incident starts the magical realist narrative since Bilquis eyebrows and clothes blow off because of the impact of the explosion which leaves her standing naked with only her dupatta (shawl) to cover her womanly parts, her modesty. She is later rescued by her future husband, Raza Hyder, who romantically proposes to Bilquis by saying that “it is the privilege of a husband eventually to remove [her clothes]… but in our case, the reverse procedure will be true. I must dress you, top to toe, as befits a blushing bride” (Rushdie 65). Jacques Lacan’s insights on metonymy that is related to displacement where the unconscious substitutes a person or object to another object that is somewhat related to first object, comes to play a vital role in the interpretation of this incident. In this case, Bilquis becomes the first object who is related to the second object which is the Partition of Pakistan and India, since she belongs to the latter. Her green dupatta becoming a metonymy in Shame can be seen as an emphasis on the significance of modesty in Islam and Pakistan since colour green is a traditional colour of Islam. As Pakistan was created because of the unity of this religion, symbolically, Bilquis becomes a representation of the new pure nation. She becomes the embodiment of the nation that has nothing on the surface but clutches Islam as a shield. This interpretation of the underlying symbolism can be linked to the event of Bilquis migrating later to Pakistan and being seen as a “mohajir,” literally meaning immigrant, by her husband’s family. Rushdie calls this new country “Allah’s new country” (61), by which he seems to suggest that religion was the single and insufficient base for creating that new country. However, as Sabrina Hassumani argues, Rushdie does not illumine the fact that the country was created by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to give the Muslims a sense of unity and nationhood. Hassumani asserts that Rushdie does not justify this unity for the independence from the British and Indian rule but sees instead a country that “lacks imagination” and that will always be ‘a wrong miracle’ for him (49). Her comment refers to the incident where the narrator seems to refer Bilquis’ shame of being dishonoured with her womanly parts on display to convey the idea of Pakistan taking form with only an Islamic shield.
The marriage of Bilquis and Raza Hyder produces a son, who unfortunately dies in the womb by being strangled by the umbilical cord. This incident comes to play a vital role in the story. After the death of her baby, Bilquis finds it hard to conceive again in the house of Bariamma (Raza’s grandmother) where forty men and women also reside. When they move out to a military residence, Bilquis gives birth to a girl, Sufiya Zinobia. The parents first refuse to accept this baby since Raza has wanted a boy to carry on his legacy. In his anger he exclaims “Genitalia! Can! Be! Obscured!” (89). Rushdie gives suggestions of a misogynist society already in the beginning of the novel with the case of Omar Khayyam’s mothers, who are oppressed and hated by their father. General Raza Hyder is a perfect example of how a misogynist man would react to the birth of his firstborn daughter. Accordingly, a son in the family means a support for the father, someone who will keep the pride of the father by joining the same or an even better occupation than him. Firstly, having a daughter means that she needs to be kept in isolation so that no man can look at her and that the pride and honour is kept safe in the family. Secondly, a daughter becomes a burden for her father since she has to be married off with a heavy price on the dowry to a respectable husband. In the life of Bilquis Hyder, Sufiya Zinobia will come to act as a shameful girl who blushes whenever her presence is noticed. Sufiya Zinobia blushes for shame for the first time when her father refuses to accept that she indeed is a girl.
Jean-Paul Sartre is quoted in the book Scenes of Shame emphasising the definition of shame as “shame of self, it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging” (Adamson and Clark 9). Bilquis gives birth to the girl who is not accepted by her family something that gives the girl reasons to blush. Already in infancy Sufiya learns to blush as a reaction to of her father’s outburst in front of her. Sartre’s observation illumines the situation of Sufiya when she feels that her presence has been recognized by Others. The judgment comes in the form of her father’s irrational behaviour. Raza is irrational since he has yearned for a boy, a reincarnation of the son who died a while before. Sufiya’s unconscious starts to build up with shame which she later deals with by adapting a form of violence and destruction in herself.
Consequently, when Sufiya contracts a high brain fever, Bilquis takes her to a local Hakim (a wise man who in this case is a doctor) who gives her medicines which would, as he warns, slow down brain development. Bilquis notes that guilt and shame mixed into a potion would be a probable cause for this judgement. She feels guilt for having visited a certain Mengal Mahal cinema regularly. As Catherine Cundy contends, Bilquis sees this incident as a failure of her duty, as a wife, because she has not given birth to a son (58). Bilquis’ sense of failure continues when she gives birth to another daughter, although, this time it may not be the child of Raza. As already stated, the patriarchal system in Pakistan favours sons more than daughters. Jamil Rashid has conducted a study related to this matter and states that since daughters are seen as heavy expenditure they are less “wanted.” From a Marxist feminist perspective, Rashid also points to the evidence that women are part of a lower social class in a capitalist society. They are seen as only expenditures with no financial gains as they are not allowed to work outside of their homes. Sufiya gradually grows up on a physical level but her brain freezes from time to time and does not give her mind enough time to catch up with the body. The second daughter, Good News, is treated with love, because she was “supposed” to be born a girl as opposed to the first-born Sufiya who was “supposed” to be a boy. Rushdie makes Sufiya the shame of Bilquis who in her guilt and despair calls Rani Harappa and lets her know that “I must accept it: she is my shame” (Rushdie 101). One can assume that since Shame was published in 1983 when Pakistan was under the military dictatorship rule of President Zia Ul Haq, evidently it could be presumed that Rushdie makes use of Bilquis and Raza’s situation as a representation of the patriarchal society of Pakistan under President’s strict Islamic regime. When Bilquis is pregnant with her second daughter, Good News, the narrator suggests that the father of this child is not Raza, but rather the cinema executive, Sindbad Mengal, whom Bilquis had been visiting. From a psychoanalytical perspective, this event could be translated as a condensation process where Bilquis, an infidel wife, represents other kinds of things. For instance, the image of the infidel wife of Colonel Raza could be linked to the representation of Pakistan, the land of purity. It is a Muslim country in which people are expected to be honourable, but here they are cheaters to their country. As the narrator reminds the reader why he is not writing specifically about Pakistan, he reveals the sins committed by the Pakistani people such as “smuggling” and “the boom in heroin exports” (Rushdie 70). While the military is conquering the enemy, much like Raza who is also away in a gas field battle, Bilquis being unfaithful to her husband and becoming pregnant as a result, it could be seen as a symbolic representation of the Pakistani people becoming corrupt and betraying their country. In contrast to Bilquis’ impurity, Rushdie creates Sufiya Zinobia as an idiot who essentially is innocent. Rushdie’s sense of purity lies in Sufiya’s deranged character since to him, she is “somehow clean (pak) in the midst of a dirty//world” (120-121). Along with the Pakistani people, Bilquis is also represented as dirty, however, and one should not forget that she migrated from ‘the land of idolaters’(83) to the ‘land of pure’, does this then mean that Rushdie’s use of metonymy involving Bilquis represents both Pakistan and India?
Nonetheless, the narrator suggests that when Bilquis is pregnant with another man’s child, she tries to divert her guilt onto Raza. Earlier in the novel, Raza and Iskander are seen in at party where both are flirting with Pinkie Aurangzeb (wife of Joint Chief of Staff, Marshal Aurangzeb). However, fortunately for Bilquis, Raza loses her to Iskander. This incident is replayed by Omar Khayyam at a dinner party at the Harappa’s, where he reveals this secret to Bilquis.

Sufiya Zinobia and Shame

Sufiya Zinobia Hyder, the Beauty, is a girl trapped between three identities: the idiot, the shame, and the Beast. Sufiya is born blushing for shame since she is a girl and not the hoped-for reincarnation of her dead brother. For this reason, she is resented by her parents, which could mean that her mental disorder is not merely caused by the medicine given to her. Rather, a blush on this new-born baby is enough to make a judgment for its future. The baby that blushes embodies the shame of being born a girl who later becomes the sole reason of destruction for her family. Her marriage to Omar Khayyam–the man who is not allowed to feel shame–is a union between shame and shamelessness. What happens when the two opposites meet? There is destruction, failure and death.
Furthermore, Sufiya’s shame comes in the form of her being afraid of the rejection of her mother, which relates to what Adamson and Clark suggest that there lies a “doubleness of experience” in shame. The authors quote Helen Lewis who states that shame is experienced both by the self-consciousness and by self-imageries. By this she means that self-consciousness involves what a person directly thinks about him- or herself, whereas, the self-imageries involves the process where the person experiences shame as a result of what other people might think of oneself (11). Sufiya’s shame could be interpreted as the doubleness of experience in shame; self-imaging because since from birth her parents have seen her as “a wrong miracle”, as she was supposed to be born a boy. Because of this view of what others have thought about her, she feels the inner self-conscious shame which later turns into violence.
The shame which Sufiya embodies turns her inside out. The shame that Sufiya embodies is none other than that of a magical realism since she, having been a Beauty, becomes a Beast. Nonetheless, Sufiya’s embodiment of shame represents the shame of her father, sister, society and even the country itself. Rushdie writes in the novel that the character, more specifically the violence, of Sufiya stems from three different real-life events he experienced in London. Firstly, there was a Pakistani father who killed his daughter because she had sexual relations with her white boyfriend. Secondly, there is another Asian girl who was beaten by white teenage boys, who instead of anger felt shame. Thirdly, there was a boy who was found in a parking lot who burned himself to death. Rushdie’s mixture of the three real-life events created the character of Sufiya, the Shame. From a psychoanalytical perspective, as Arthur Asa Berger writes in Cultural Criticism, the method of Claude Lévi-Strauss analyses myths as breaking stories down into small sentences and writing them on to a card “which is numbered and keyed to the story. Each card shows that a certain function is linked to a certain subject” (123). Eventually these cards become bundles with numbers corresponding to functions in the story. When these cards are assembled together with their individual number (1s together, 2s together etc.), one is able to find the hidden message behind a myth. In Shame, Rushdie uses this method and blend it with his magical realist style to create Sufiya Zinobia and her mythical violence, the myth being the Eastern patriarchal culture of shame. Sufiya’s shame does not only represent the shame of the characters of Peccavistan, rather, it represents the shame of the East as Rushdie states that this idea needs to “breathe its favourite air” (Rushdie 116). Rushdie’s analyses of shame can be related to the card-system which Lévi-Strauss describes. Rushdie seems to draw different angles of shame, assembling them into a single character which becomes the creation of an energetically blazing creature who repents from the mythical Eastern shame in the form of violence.
In the first twelve years of Sufiya’s life, she is subjected to her mother’s ignorance and hate, something that increases her blushes of shame. Judith Butler emphasises that “the existence and facticity of the material or natural dimension of the body are not denied, but reconceived as distinct from the process by which the body comes to bear cultural meaning” (Butler 520). Sufiya is ignored and unloved by her parents and her sister because of the fact that she was born a girl, and on top of this, she is retarded. Her body then blushes shamefully for her faults and since shame has been connected largely to the Pakistani culture by Rushdie, Sufiya bears the culture of shame in her body, as a violence boiling inside of her waiting to burst. Sufiya Zinobia is not normally developed. If she were she might have been accepted by her family. But Good News destroys this dream as well since she says to Sufiya: “who would marry you with that hair, even if you had a brain?” (Rushdie 136). As claimed by Heidi Hartman, “patriarchy is not simply hierarchical organization, but hierarchy in which particular people fill particular places” (180). Her Marxist criticism comes forward here in relation to how Sufiya is treated by her family. Although, it has been argued in this essay that the female characters of Shame are placed low in the hierarchy, what is evident in Sufiya’s case is that she is placed in an even lower class. Because of her nickname shame, and being a retard, even the women in the novel degrade her, and not only men. Hartman’s assertion fits into the story since the particular group she writes about concerns the different social classes in which women are placed in, Sufiya’s illness makes her part of the society in which only retards belong to which further makes her inferior to not only men but rather women as well.
In connection to this, Berger writes about the concept of the ego. He quotes Hinsie and Campbell who state that the ego’s “prime function is the perception of reality and adaptation to it” (107). In other words, the ego is the self of a person who reacts to what people say or do, and also to the world as a whole. Burger further analyses that “the ego defends itself, from anxieties and other attacks, by using a number of “defense mechanisms” (107). Probyn writes that shame is something that is felt inside of a body; however, this inside is indeed the ego which feels the shame and reacts to it.
In the case of Sufiya, anxieties related to shame for being born a girl, are dealt with by the defense mechanisms. Sufiya deals with this shame in the way that she finds is most effective, that is, by using violence. The way that Sufiya deals with her shame, proposes to the psychoanalytical reader that this violence can be seen as projection because she turns her anger and shame into a form of violence to be able to condemn her parents for making her feel inferior, not only as a daughter but a human being as well. Sufiya’s ego reacts to shame with violence, something that begins when she is twelve-years-old. During the night when everyone in Sufiya’s house were asleep, she sleepwalked into her neighbours house where two hundred and eighteen turkeys lived together with their owner Pinkie Aurangzeb who not long time before has been the love interest of Raza Hyder. When her family members look for her they find her sleeping in the turkey-yard. The sight before them stuns them all while they stand there looking at the ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Sufiya embodied the violent shame for the first time which started her transformation from being a Beauty to becoming a Beast. The two hundred and eighteen turkeys were not killed by the wind which had blown strongly that day, however; they were decapitated by the bare hands of Sufiya who had torn off their heads and through the hole between their necks she had drawn up the insides of them. This power which comes into the tormented Sufiya can be explained by the narrator; “twelve years of unloved humiliation take their toll” (138). Sufiya’s first official outburst can be analysed in many different ways. There are numerous possibilities discussed in the novel itself as the narrator questions whether Sufiya is being a good daughter to her mother when she kills the belongings of her father’s presumed mistress or if it is the anger of Raza who refuses to remove the birds on Bilquis’ eruption. The narrator, however, does not offer an understanding of this incident from another perspective. An innocent view of this incident would be that of psychoanalytic perspective whereby Sufiya’s inner consciousness, her ego, is troubled by the hatred from her mother which is why she takes form as shame, a violent creature who seeks to revenge. Berger writes that “the dark shadow is the dark side of the psyche, which we tend to keep hidden from consciousness, an element in our personalities that must be recognized and dealt with” (128). Sufiya’s dark side is the beast lurking inside of her, the unconscious which comes out in a violent form. The shame which Sufiya feels, the reason why she blushes whenever she is recognized by the world is the shame of being a deranged female. Her shame is the dark shadow which she unconsciously brings out from time to time until she, because of her husband’s infidelity, has had enough.
Furthermore, another perspective of her outburst would perhaps be the different symbolic embodiments of Sufiya. Firstly, Aijaz Ahmad believes that she is the “embodiment of the principle of redemption” (Ahmad 145). The reason as to why Ahmad makes this claim is because Sufiya, in a sense, is gaining possession of her freedom. Her embodiment of her mother’s indictment turns her from the Beauty to the Beast which in itself is her style of a rebellious act. Nevertheless, Ahmad is committed to his argument which to a Marxist feminist reader could be seen as a pragmatic discourse. He claims that Sufiya’s violence in its most potential form is linked to the imperialistic and misogynistic myth of “the image of a free –or freedom-seeking –woman as a vampire…” (Ahmad 150). A Marxist feminist reader would agree with the description of Sufiya since it marks two important figures of her identity. Firstly, she is empowered to the extent of being able to single-handedly destroy the career of her patriarchal father, while her second identity is the fact that she is a retarded child. By juxtaposing the two identities of Sufiya, Rushdie attempts to shed light upon the oppression and resistance of women in the Pakistani society which is where the magical realist style comes to play a big role. Sufiya’s behaviour and actions would not be considered normal in a real world; however in Rushdie’s Shame her reactions are all logical in a sense. Sufiya beheading the turkeys seems to be an accepted response to her mother’s attitude towards her.


Rani Harappa and Shame

In Shame, Rani Harappa becomes an example of a person who is so unaware of her conscious that the development of being emotionless comes easily to her. Although she is able to resist the effects of patriarchal society, Rushdie does not let her escape from feelings of shame which come to Rani in the shape of her shameless and ignorant playboy husband. Although Rushdie’s portrayal of the female characters gives the impression of misogynist society, Rani Harappa is able to gain some measure of respect and dignity by the end of the novel. In what follows, from Marxist and psychoanalytical perspectives, there will be a discussion to which extent Rani is affected by patriarchal society.
Rani Humayun is the cousin of Raza Hyder who marries the millionaire, Iskander Harappa. Rani’s oppression begins with her “first genuine wifely remark” (Rushdie 80) when she is denied by her husband to choose friends for him. Similarly, she is not seen as a woman who is able to freely rejoice her freedom in the lavish home of Iskander. The constant invasion of her privacy by the peasant girls makes her feel worthless, a passage where Marxist feminist reading can help the analysis. Although Rani is the wife of the owner of the house, she still does not have her rightful authority over the house, which in a sense makes her alienated from “her” property. The idea of alienation is, in the Marxist perspective, someone with no connection with others (Berger 50). This concept means that people who work for others do not feel satisfaction and there is a “sense of being a commodity” (50) felt by workers. Likewise, in patriarchal societies women are seen as workers of the home which in this case is evident as Rani stays at home and is seen merely as an asset. Therefore alienation affects her psyche and as she starts to talk to herself in front of her mirror. Although she does not let her psyche become unstable in any manner, shame comes to her in many forms, almost making her insane.

Table of contents :

Previous Research
Theoretical Approach
The Significance of Shame in Women of Shame
Bilquis Hyder and Shame 
Sufiya Zinobia and Shame
Rani Harappa and Shame
Works Cited


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