The Limits of What Is Possible:
Reimagining Sharam in Salman Rushdie's Shame


Jenny Sharpe

University of California, Los Angeles

Copyright (c) 1997 by Jenny Sharpe, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

  1. 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 preassigned meaning.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 castrates.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 Hyder" (124).

  8. 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.

  9. 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."

  10. 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 feminists:

    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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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).

  13. 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).

  14. 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 (Shah 284-85).

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.


  1. The real-life incident behind this fictional account was a racially-motivated attack on Rushdie's sister (Rushdie, "PW Interview 50).Back

  2. The strategy of shaming wife-beaters was developed in India, where the corrupt legal system favored male offenders.Back

  3. Sharam is not restricted to Pakistani culture alone, but appears as a code of conduct throughout the Indian subcontinent (Wilson 42; 99).Back

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures . London and New York: Verso, 1992.

Amos, Valerie et al. A Special Issue. "Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives." Feminist Review 17 (1984).

Bryan, Beverley, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe. "Chain Reactions: Black Women Organizing." Race and Class 27 (1985): 1-28.

Grewal, Inderpal. "Salman Rushdie: Marginality, Women, and Shame." Genders 3: (1988) 24-42.

Mani, Lata. "The Production of an Official Discourse on Sati." Europe and Its Others . Volume 1. Colchester: Unversity of Essex Press, 1985. 107-27.

Rushdie, Salman. "PW Interviews." Publishers Weekly 224 (November 11 1983): 49-50.

_____. Midnight's Children . New York: Penguin, 1981.

_____. Shame . New York: Vintage, 1984.

_____. The Satanic Verses . New York: Vintage, 1988.

_____. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 . London: Granta, 1991.

Shah, Shaila. "We Will Not Mourn Their Deaths in Silence." Charting the Journey: Writings By Black and Third World Women . Ed. Shabnam Greway, Jackie Kay, et al. London, Sheba, 1988.

Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The 'Manly Englishman' and the 'Effeminate Bengali' in the Late Nineteenth Century . Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

Wilson, Amrit. Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain . London: Virago, 1978.

Back to Contents Page || Back to Jouvert Mainpage