A time in which female bodies are farmed, treated as fertile ground which need only be properly tilled to yield lost crops, to recover prematurely felled populations: this body agriculture, with its taming and wielding of the means of reproduction, is the biofuel of Bina Shah’s dictatorial Green City in Before She Sleeps. In this compact novel, Shah accelerates the prevailing patriarchal logics of Pakistani society, which she sees as treating women as “second class citizens,” to confront the persistence of gender-based oppression with feminist protest and rage.
An outspoken advocate for women’s rights in South Asia, Shah has twice won the AGAHI award, her native Pakistan's award for excellence in journalism, with her work regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian, The Independent and The New York Times. Harvard educated and Lahore based, Shah is also the author of two short story collections and five novels, including A Season for Martyrs (2014), a text which intermingles the political turmoil wrought by the return of self-exiled Benazir Bhutto—the first democratically elected female leader of a Muslim majority country—with Sufi myths, forbidden love, and the history of Pakistan. Shah now turns her hand to speculative fiction, using a future society structured around the control of reproduction, to dramatise the subjugation of women in contemporary Pakistan.
The current redux in feminist dystopias emerges within a political climate where, in US for instance, the Roe v. Wade ruling (affirming the constitutional right to abortion before the third trimester) is increasingly under attack, while, more broadly, global access to contraception is contracting. Contemporary feminist dystopias interrogate how reproductive rights are weaponised for ideological purposes, demonstrating how the reduction of women to raw material maintains and (re)enforces what queer theorist Lee Edelman has termed “reproductive futurism.”
Reproductive futurism demands that all sociopolitical decisions must be made in relation to the future Child, an abstraction which “remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” (No Future: Queer Theory of the Death Drive, 2004, p. 14) The logic of reproductive futurism thus secedes the pursuit of justice in the present to the ever-suspended, speculative future symbolised by the Child. Futurity is thus mobilised as an ideological tool of control and passification, prioritising the rights of persons in potentia over the rights of the already living, ensuring the continuation of current political conditions ad infinitum.
Like Shah, other recent texts, such as Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks (2018), (in which Roe v. Wade has been repealed and abortion criminalised), investigate women’s lives under the moral imperatives of accelerated reproductive futurist societies. However, where texts such as Red Clocks or The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) (to which Shah explicitly responds) chart how hard-fought-for rights are partial, frail, and easily rescinded during states of exception, Shah’s dystopia elucidates upon a future society in which such rights have never been afforded in the first place.
Seventy years from now, somewhere in Southwest Asia, and after a nuclear fall-out has decimated the global population, Green City has emerged as the regional powerhouse. A mutated and deadly strain of HPV has killed the majority of women, leaving a ‘gender-emergency’ in its wake:
Women are now an endangered species...the remaining women in Green City found themselves put on an eerie pedestal to bring an entire nation back to life. (p. 35)
In order to ensure the continuation of the polity, the few remaining women of Green City are force-fed a cocktail of fertility drugs and prescribed polygamist marriages, with spouses assigned through the “Perpetuation Bureau” (p. 11). They are then farmed for progeny until exhaustion. With this chronic gender asymmetry, Shah explicitly tackles the prevalence of sex-selective abortions and girl infanticide seen throughout South Asia and China, mourning a missing generation of women “aborted out of existence” (p. 22).
Evading the reproductive slavery of becoming a wife, our main protagonist, Sabine, becomes a member of a clandestine all-female coterie dwelling in the subterranean ‘Panah’—a Persian word meaning refuge. The Panah represents an incipient dwelling for feminist solidarity and resistance, “where rebellious women existed outside the system, traitors to Green City and the largesse of its Leaders” (p. 22). Troubling the erection of a proto-utopia however, is the fact that the women of the Panah must sustain themselves through the black-market economy of sleep; they furnish an elite clientele with an evening of company, but strictly sans sex. The women of the Panah are the escorts of sleep, providing the highly sought after female company which their powerful male clientele crave:
Men’s physical appetites are huge, but their emotional appetites are without end...So instead of selling our bodies, we spend the night with certain men, special men, the most powerful of them. (p. 30)
The society of Before She Sleeps operates ostensibly through the enslavement of the female reproductive body, whilst also being obliquely bolstered by the commodification of intimacy and emotional labour—symbolised by the sleep of the Panah’s women. The female sleeping body is also, as in fairytales, a body in a state of supreme passivity, which can be actioned upon without resistance. The novel’s original title was simply Sleep, making the importance of sleep to the plot explicit.
In Sultana’s Dream (1905), an early utopia written by Bengali feminist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana, having succumbed to sleep on the veranda during a balmy afternoon, is transported to a gender-flipped society in which women are the leaders of government and the inventors of sustainable technologies. Rather than leading to further passivity, here sleep becomes a means of accessing a world where women have full political participation and agency. But this obverse world is temporary (or at least Sultana’s access to it is), as her waking brings an end to this aspirational state. In a similar, although much more ambiguous, dystopian mode, sleep within Before She Sleeps is the central axis through which a Before becomes the after.
Unlike soporific Sultana, for the first half of the novel Sabine is the consummate insomniac, describing herself “as a sleepless sentinel” (p. 14), a temporary shepherd guiding others’ bodies as they pass through sleep’s terrains. In keeping with the novel’s interest in the generation and distribution of care, the Panah leader, Lin decides out of concern to spike Sabine’s tea with an illegal sleeping drug. Lin’s good (although misguided) intentions collide with those of Sabine’s ill-intentioned client, Joseph, whose cajoling leads her to drink champagne—the combination resulting in a potent sedative with dramatically insalubrious effects.
And so, she sleeps.
And so, she wakes.
Upon completing her assignment and leaving Joseph’s house, Sabine is struck down by what will turn out to be a ruptured ectopic pregnancy caused by the sleeping drug/alcohol emulsion. She is hospitalised.
A trigger warning here: many of the women in the novel, including Sabine, are survivors of sexual assault, violations which Shah describes matter-of-factly, whilst remaining sensitive to the trauma of her characters. Shah’s characters refuse to be defined or destroyed by their experiences, instead asserting control over their futures with greater anger and resistance. Shah’s characters could be seen to, as women’s rights activist Sohaila Abdulali has stated on the resilience of assault survivors, “go on, wearing with great dignity a mantle of bitter grace” (What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, 2018, p. 206). These experiences of sexual assault are squarely positioned as contiguous with the stifling patriarchal logics of Green City, where women are consistently dehumanised, as objects which are pedestaled as “Green City’s most valuable resource” (p. 167), and instrumentalised.
Patriarchal control is both systematically meted out, and occasionally flouted, through the various technologies frequenting the text. The architecture of public buildings is saturated with ambient surveillance technology—the hospital to which Sabine is admitted, for example, has to be hacked and co-opted in order to hide her unregistered (and therefore illegal) presence there. The women of the Panah avoid surveillance through covering their bodies in gold dust—a means of diffracting biometric monitoring systems which also emblematises the female body as a beautified commodity object. These women use fully autonomous self-driving getaway cars as a further security protocol. There are even occasional references to the city’s control of the local environment, as “we have defeated the desert and replaced it with this paean to human achievement” (p. 13). These artefacts demonstrate that Green City has attained an advanced level of technicity just over the horizon from our own.
The level of technicity is particularly important when considering the status (or lack thereof) of reproductive technologies within Before She Sleeps. Reproductive technologies feature heavily in contemporary feminist SF, with texts such as Anne Charnock’s Clarke Award-winning Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017) and Angela Chadwick’s XX (2018), investigating the societies engendered by post-womb and/or same sex forms of reproduction.
Green City clearly has the technological acumen needed to alleviate population scarcity through mechanical means: means which would be potentially more cost-effective, less labour intensive and yield a greater rate of reproduction than conventional biology. However, there is no mention of reproductive technology in Before She Sleeps beyond fertility drugs, a strange omission which detracts from the internal consistency of the otherwise excellent world-building. Shah states throughout that Green City is a secular society, so any theological objections to reproductive technologies have been rendered obsolete. Perhaps this omission is meant to signal, then, that the control of reproduction is an integral means through which patriarchal order constitutes and reproduces itself, whilst also perhaps commenting on the cheapness of female life when weighed against technological investment. This being the case, a more explicit discussion of the governmental choice to suspend or prevent reproductive technologies would have been appreciated—although not a disaster for the text, its lack does seem like a missed opportunity.
But to move on: after being hospitalised, Sabine is placed under the care of Julien, a promising young doctor who increasingly falls in love with her, leading him to fight “for a woman he had only just met but already loved” (p. 188). The abundance of instalove/lust which moves the plot forward is partly justified through the consistent description of all three principal female characters as extremely beautiful. Sabine and Julien’s love-at-first-sight plot is also reinforced through the text’s frequent references to Romeo & Juliet. With its current overuse (particularly in YA fiction), instalove is a particularly threadbare trope, as well as perhaps being a thin means of legitimising character motivation. To be fair to Shah, she has stated that:
People in the West reading this book might not find the characters empowered enough, or independent enough, but this is what the world looks like to many women. When it’s forbidden to choose your own marriage partner, even falling in love with a person of your choice is feminist.
Although this point is taken, the overuse of instalove takes up space which could be used to depict other iterations of solidarity by male allies, something which Shah succeeds in doing with the character of Bouthain. Replacing Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence, Bouthain is moved to transgress societal mores due to his enduring belief in, and acknowledgement of, women’s rights. It would have been exciting to see more depictions of male allies based on these ethical forms of solidarity, forms which are not premised upon a romantic connection.
My main quibble with the text, however, is its lack of positive queer representation. Consider: the text centres around an all-female enclave, the members of which are forbidden to have sex with men. Although some women ignore this edict, the text seems to suggest that most of the woman would therefore remain celibate. (Which reminds me of the recent debacle over NASA’s proposal to prevent sexual activity during a mission to Mars by sending all-female crews—to which the internet gave a collective snort).
So, while reading, I was keenly waiting for some positive depictions of queerness. At one point the text does come tantalisingly close, with Sabine musing: “I think I fell in love with her a little bit then, or at least understood how a Client might desire her in a way very differently than how he sees me” (p. 72). Here, female desire for another women can only be understood or considered through a male gaze proxy, thus collapsing the momentary potential for something more radical. In fact, the novel does more directly mention queerness twice—but, disappointingly, only in terms of male-on-male sexual violence. The lack of positive representations of queerness is exacerbated by the novel’s insistence on the naturalness of monogamous heteronormative relations (thereby also collapsing the potential for polygamy to be a viable form of living and loving), and insists on maintaining a clear male/female bifurcation—all of which buttress, rather than erode or threaten, the Green City regime.
Another text which explicitly deals with some of the same themes as Shah, but successfully incorporates LGBTQIA+ representation, is Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male (2017). Shen’s debut novel considers the future outcomes of China’s one-child policy, in a near-future totalitarian state which forces polygamist marriages and mandates the number of children each male spouse is entitled to. King’s text centres queerness, which has been deemed deleterious to society, as the main plot-driver. The novel’s characters chafe against governmental prohibitions, to protect a gay family member and instead form alternative bonds of love and friendship in polygamist groups—and in so doing ultimately celebrating, rather than rejecting, queerness. Queerness in An Excess Male thus acts as a primary source of radicality which troubles the supposed incontrovertibility of pre-established societal ‘norms’.
On the whole, Before She Sleeps is a rewarding text, and an important addition to the genre of feminist dystopian fiction. What makes Shah’s contribution to this literary movement most valuable is its non-western-centric perspective, as it contextualises region-specific sociopolitical, cultural, and economic conditions within the global fight for women’s rights. Before She Sleeps, although not a perfect text, excellently demonstrates, then, the need to support and provide platforms for non-western feminisms, which are generated by and reflect local realities experienced across the world. Only through this awareness and appreciation of specificity can we collectivise to challenge patriarchal formations globally, to realise what bell hooks has defined in Feminism is for Everybody (2000):
Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politic. The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination....a genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving. (pp. 103 - 104)
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