Literature in Pakistan has seen its fair share of representation in certain circles: books about terrorism and religion are easy to find — and apparently easier to write — since the country can provide such fertile ground for characters and plot lines within these genres to flourish. Much harder to tackle are topics within comedy, horror or, in the case of Bina Shah’s newest offering Before She Sleeps, dystopian fiction. Yet Shah does it with aplomb, her book being a sharp, smart reply to that queen of feminist dystopian fiction, Margaret Atwood, who wrote the 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale.
Both The Handmaid’s Tale as well as Before She Sleeps envision a bleak, dangerous future in which sexual reproduction and the rights of women have suffered a harsh punishment. Shah’s book offers another look at the same question posed in Atwood’s story: if, in a male-dominated city the number of women capable of giving birth decreased exponentially, what would they do? In both books, it is the women who ultimately suffer, stripped off their fundamental rights and free will, their worth boiling down to the fact that they possess a womb.
In Before She Sleeps, natural disasters and a nuclear war have laid waste to the land, from which rises Green City, the setting of the story. It is this that sets Shah’s novel apart from other titles in the past, in that the location for this city is South West Asia. While a tremendous amount of dystopian literature has been produced in the West, its trickle to the South Asian regions of the globe has been slow, which makes Shah’s book that much more refreshing to read.
Bina Shah’s novel about a dystopian future paints a fascinating world, rich with detail and intricate in its imaginings and is a smart commentary on social mores related to women
In Green City, a dangerous virus is affecting the female reproductive system, killing women off in alarming numbers. Desperate to maintain population numbers and protect the women of the city, the Perpetuation Bureau — an oppressive, totalitarian government agency — comes up with systems in which women must take multiple husbands and regular fertility treatments in order to ensure that they produce as many children as possible. Carelessly labelled “Wives”, these women must be shared equally between all the husbands, in what is frankly a brilliant overturning of the traditional Muslim interpretation of rules which allow a man to keep multiple wives.
What’s fascinating about this whole venture is that Shah shows women being treated as queens, and yet they are quite clearly completely lacking in any sort of power or agency. While these women are cared for with a degree of tenderness unimaginable in our current world, a select few of them recognise the system for its viciousness in its usage of women and revolt against the set-up, choosing to go down into secret tunnels — literally underground — from where they emerge to provide a completely different type of service to men.
Instead of agreeing to be one of the breeding communities, the protagonist, Sabine, becomes part of a group of women living in a secret hideout called “Panah” (those knowing Urdu will recognise the word and how it encapsulates the refuge these women seek out). These women emerge at night to provide nocturnal companionship to men in the higher echelons of society. These men seek not sex, but rather, companionship and in a complete overturning of the usual plot lines where sex is usually hidden and shameful, Shah’s story depicts platonic company as that which is disgraceful, and thus shocking, to the society our protagonists inhabit.
The story is told from several alternating points of view. We travel with Sabine as she meets a “Client” — a catch-all phrase for those men who have the money and the authority to be allowed access to these secretive women. We then hear from Lin, head of this group of secret women; then from women within this group; and then the men outside it who know of them. Each person, with their shifting point of view, introduces us to a different aspect of this society and to their own notions about what is and what isn’t good within the system. When Sabine, on one of her trips, gets sick and collapses in a public place, she sets off a chain of events that threaten to unravel all the carefully buried secrets, affecting the lives of all who live in or know of this society of closely guarded secrets.
Shah sets up a fascinating world, rich with detail and intricate in its imaginings. While it’s sad that we never get to read from the Wives’ point of view, the women we do meet — Sabine and Lin and also Rupa, another one of their companions — provide us with a complex, three-dimensional look at their lives and the choices that have led them to where they are. The men we encounter — the powerful society figure who is Lin’s lover in the world, the doctor who treats Sabine after her sudden collapse — provide a different outlook, but unfortunately their characters remain less developed than those of their female counterparts. Amazingly, what Shah does best is create a world that still caters to men — an irony in a time and place where the greater percentage of women are dead because of the fatal virus. Throughout the story, the narrative seems to seek to explain how the system struggled and came up with a solution to retain the population, but there is very little discussion about how the women are taught to acclimatise to the new environment, with only the rules laid out in the “Handbook for Female Citizens” proving to be a harsh guide.
There are some obvious flaws in the story, easily identifiable and harder to answer. The biggest is that there are no mentions at all of people who don’t fall within the heteronormative spectrum of sexuality, and no explanation given for why there are no discussions about gender non-conforming identities. It is understandable that Shah might, basing her story in South West Asia, justify this decision on the fact that multiple sexualities are not as yet part of the mainstream conversations or even considered valid and acceptable in these areas of the globe. But it’s still a weak defence for an author based in Pakistan, a country which officially recognised transgender persons as the third gender in 2009, or whose National Assembly passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act this year. There is also, unfortunately, very little discussion about the disease that lays waste to half the population, or what the rest of the world is doing while this is happening in Green City. But since ignoring the rest of the global population in setting up a limited world is a pretty common trait in many dystopian works, we can let this one go.
As a beginning point for those who haven’t yet had any exposure to speculative fiction, Before She Sleeps is a great read. Not only is it a shrewd look at a dystopia that takes into account South Asia’s complicated history with veiling and segregation, it also allows an interpretation that’s global and a commentary on our overall world structure. For those interested in feminist literature as well as works by women of colour, this should be a must read.