The premise of my dystopian novel set in South West Asia, Before She Sleeps, is that war and disease have decimated the female population of the region. A new authoritarian regime emerges that seeks to do two things: restore the female population to normal numbers, and keep tight control on a society made unstable by the sudden imbalance of the male-to-female ratio. They do this using a combination of technology and terror, tracking women and their fertility, assigning brides to multiple men, and punishing anyone who rebels against the new order.
I didn’t just dream up this scenario: I envisioned it based on what is already happening in pockets of the world, particularly in South and East Asia, to girls and women. Only yesterday this quote appeared in the Economist, on prostitution in China: “China’s skewed sex ratio, caused by a traditional preference for sons that has encouraged abortions of female fetuses (a problem exacerbated by a now-abandoned policy of limiting couples to having only one child) means there will be a growing demand for commercial sex from men unable to find wives.”
I’d also read an article back in 2012 about a remote village in Nepal, where several brothers share the same wife in order to keep their wealth within the family. Polyandry was seen as an intelligent solution to the question of survival: meager food supplies and the possibility of a husband dying and leaving a woman uncared and unprotected are real concerns for these people who live in a mountainous region and are isolated from the rest of the world.
And then there’s the example of India, Pakistan’s next-door neighbor: according to Indian officials, India is missing 63 million girls who should be alive today. Instead, they are dead due to sex-selective abortions and poor nutrition and medical care. My research for Before She Sleeps led me to read India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War on Women by Sunny Hundal, a short tract on religious and cultural attitudes towards women and how they cause the real-world consequences of gender selection and neglect of infant and young girls.
In Pakistan, my own country, sex-selective abortion is not practiced as widely, because many Muslims believe abortion to be unlawful in Islam. However, girl children are equally neglected in terms of nutrition and medical care, as they are in India. This results in women who suffer from malnutrition, anemia, and all sorts of other health problems. It’s easy to see how physical weakness could make women more susceptible to a disease that could wipe them out, like the fast-mutating form of HPV that I imagined decimating the remaining women of the South West Asia Territory, leading to the “Gender Emergency” that takes place in the years before the events of Before She Sleeps.
Linking a Dystopian World to this One
All this is to say that when writing a dystopia, it’s vital to link the conditions of that world to what is happening in this one so that your readers not only understand what happened but that they believe it to be possible. And that’s what makes dystopia so frightening. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in the 80s, people read it but were able to comfort themselves with the idea that such events could never happen in a nation as developed and progressive in the United States. Today, in 2018, they are coming back to The Handmaid’s Tale and realizing that, to their horror, the world of Gilead is not as far-fetched as they thought.
As for Before She Sleeps, I want to leave my readers with the message that if we don’t take steps to reverse the poor treatment of girls and women in our nations, the world of Green City could be right around the corner.
Here are additional insights from Bina Shah on her dystopian novel Before She Sleeps.