by Bina Shah
The year was 1984, and a burst of articles and essays were published in Time and Newsweek about how our world was different than the one George Orwell had imagined in his dystopian masterpiece 1984. I was only twelve years old then, but I read the novel that year and it left an impression on me that has taken me years to truly process and articulate. Writing my dystopian novel Sleep, about a society where an oligarchy uses technology and torture to maintain an order based on strict gender control and repopulation, is my answer to both what I read and witnessed growing up and living in South Asia.
As an adolescent, I resented the deep-rooted patriarchal traditions of South Asia that dictated where I could go, how I should dress and conduct myself, and what I was supposed to do with my life. As a grown woman, I learned to resist — through my writing. Sleep portrays a group of women who resist the system of gender oppression, but they’re unable to truly escape it. So they go underground and subvert the system, using their intelligence, their sexuality, and their wisdom about what men lose out on when they too submit to patriarchy.
Orwell’s impassioned warning against fascism echoed what we were witnessing on a daily basis in Pakistan, ruled by dictatorship. A scene where Julia is beaten by the police and then arrested frightened me terribly, perhaps because only the year before, women protesting in Lahore against General Zia’s Hudood Ordinances, twisted interpretations of Islamic law, were beaten and arrested by the police. This iconic photograph from a 1983 protest on Lahore’s main street is what I imagined that scene from 1984 to look like.
The deadly combination of dictatorship and patriarchy stayed with me as I went to the United States for college. At Wellesley, I read The Handmaid’s Tale but I couldn’t relate to Atwood’s vision of a fundamentalist Christian republic. My own experiences were far more visceral than Atwood’s visions. Today much is being written about how parts of The Handmaid’s Tale are an actual reality for many women in the world, especially in orthodox Muslim societies. But no North American novel could relay the insecurities of a young girl or woman in the cultural wasteland of Zia’s Pakistan.
As a writer and social observer, I have seen great misogyny in Pakistan, and in its neighbors, Afghanistan and India. Sometimes I ask myself if men hate women so much that they want them all to cease to exist. Then I wonder what a world without women would look like. That world is already true in parts of rural India and Nepal, where men resort to sharing wives because the male-female gender ratio has dropped perilously low, thanks to gender-selective abortions and female feticide and infanticide. I was determined to write about this world, which is steeped in shame and science. In this, I was inspired by Brave New World, in which Huxley wrote about reproductive technology and the chemical-assisted manipulation of reality to achieve utopia.
What I’ve distilled through all of this in Sleep is a paean to women’s resourcefulness, the importance of male allies and friends, and faith that we can redress the imbalances of our societies.
Sleep will be available in the summer of 2018. It will be published by Delphinium Books and sold at all major bookstores.
About Bina Shah
Bina Shah is a Pakistani writer and commentator who writes a monthly column for Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in Pakistan. She also contributes to The New York Times, Granta, The Independent, Al Jazeera and The Guardianand appears frequently on the BBC World Service and NPR’s PRI The World. Educated at Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she is an honorary fellow of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Her novel Slum Child was a bestseller in Italy, and she has been published in English, Spanish, German and Italian. A Season for Martyrs is her U.S. debut. She lives in Karachi where she is known as one of the country’s top feminists and advocate for girls’ education and women’s rights.