By Neha Kirpal
Karachi-based journalist, columnist and blogger Bina Shah has authored two short story collections and four novels. The award-winning novelist’s work has been translated into Urdu, Spanish and Italian.
In her latest novel Before She Sleeps (Macmillan), the 48-year-old paints a dystopian picture of a South Asian city where gender selection, war and disease have skewed the sex ratio to alarmingly low levels, and where the government uses terror and technology to control its people, especially women, whose only job is to produce children for multiple husbands.
We spoke to her about the book and feminism in modern-day Pakistan and South Asia.
Why did you categorise Before She Sleeps as feminist dystopia?
Actually “feminist dystopia” was a category created by book critics who were writing about a wave of books that emerged in late 2018, all running along similar lines. Each outlined a dystopian world in which women’s bodies, fertility, choices and lives are dictated to them by a patriarchal society, in various iterations.
Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male writes about a China in which women marry multiple men; Leni Zumas wrote about abortion being illegal again in Red Clocks; and in Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, genes go awry and women are monitored in pregnancy.
The publication of these books coincided with the popularity of the Hulu series based on Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and so the genre “feminist dystopia” was born. Margaret Atwood said in 2018, “The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.” At the very foundation of feminist dystopia is a nod to that truth.
Was The Handmaid’s Tale an inspiration for your book?
I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was in college in the US, but more influential than that to me was George Orwell’s 1984, which I read as a young teenager growing up in Zia’s Pakistan, an Orwellian era in our history from which we’ve never quite recovered.
After I wrote early drafts of Before She Sleeps, I reread The Handmaid’s Tale, and was reminded of those days when women’s bodies were subjected to immense repression and distorted religious diktats. Women were thrown in jail for going to the police and saying they’d been raped; this was somehow turned into a charge of adultery.
I thought to myself, ‘Whatever’s going on in Gilead, worse goes on in the real world.’ So if a comparison must be made, my book is a counterpoint, a hyper-projection of what might happen in the East as opposed to the West.
There is a tendency to conflate South Asian women as one category. Do you think this is unwarranted since there is such diversity in gender across South Asia, such as caste, class, religion and language? How does a fiction writer navigate through the length and breadth of women’s diversity in South Asia?
Each South Asian woman comes from a specific and unique background that is usually reflected in her writing. My Sindhi and Muslim identity is most strongly represented in my previous novel A Season for Martyrs.
The Indian writer Meena Kandasamy, a Tamil Dalit, writes beautifully about the Kilvenmani massacre of Dalits in Tamil Nadu and also focuses on Dalits in her political activism. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things honed in on Syrian Christians in Kerala, which is her own background.
The more South Asian women writing, the more the diversity of our world will come to light with our diverse voices.
How far have government and nongovernmental bodies helped women in Pakistan awaken to their rights and roles as citizens? Or do you think that modern laws and the Constitution have not facilitated women’s emancipation?
Our Constitution enshrines us as equal citizens; our laws have been undergoing a gradual process of reform to bring the legal system in line with this Constitutional right. Enacting change in a patriarchal, conservative country is slow and painful, but there are changemakers, reformers and leaders in both governmental and nongovernmental bodies, women and men with a progressive vision of gender.
We have encountered a lot of opposition from society and will continue to do so for decades. I don’t anticipate this fight being over any time soon.
The younger generations of South Asians have massive exposure to world affairs through social media. Has this led to greater empowerment of women or to society getting more conservative and patriarchal?
Social media has led to an awareness of women’s rights, which has led to a backlash where the conservative and patriarchal elements of society try to reassert the misogynistic status quo. It has also enabled feminists and women’s rights activists to connect with each other in Pakistan and around the world, which is something that is quite powerful and unstoppable.
I don’t think society is “getting more conservative”; we’re just becoming more enlightened about the insidious ways in which it presents itself in our lives.
Your book is described as a “truly terrifying way to imagine a world of post-religious authoritarianism”. Were they any real-life events that went into the building of the thriller?
Not particularly. Unlike A Season for Martyrs, which was very much inspired by real-life events and historical figures, Before She Sleeps is built on images that I had: a woman collapsing on the street, a dazzling city skyline at night, neon lights and high towers, a girl wearing a nose pin for the first time, an ambulance crashing through a fence.
On the other hand, the conditions for women in Green City are inspired by the seclusion that the purdah system of Muslims in South Asia practised, and how women were kept segregated from men in places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
While the book is about female seclusion and suppression in a highly patriarchal society, it’s also about rebellion and trying to take back control. What is your hope and vision for Muslim women everywhere?
My hope for all women everywhere is the freedom to make choices, the opportunities to have good choices and the respect and dignity that women deserve by virtue of being women, not sisters, daughters or mothers.
What is the most challenging part of the writing process for you?
Every part of the process is challenging, but I think getting the first draft out is the hardest part. Creating an entire story out of nothing is mentally taxing work. And it can go on for years. People don’t realise the long-term commitment you have to make to writing a book. It’s years out of your life, and sometimes it doesn’t even get published.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary South Asian writers?
I love the work of Tabish Khair, who has a unique sensibility and writes with a lot of compassion for women, as in his book Jihadi Jane. Usman T. Malik’s science fiction is masterful and addictive; so is Tishani Doshi’s poetry. I’ve quoted from Girls are Coming Out of the Woods at the beginning of the book I’m working on, a sequel to Before She Sleeps, to inspire me as I try to nail down that elusive first draft.
First published in eShe’s October 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control