Women’s rights have always been the bane of contention between the Middle East and the Western world. With every passing generation women are acquiring equal rights, but in almost all Middle Eastern countries women have little to no rights. This is partly due to the varying interpretations of Quran, just as the Christian Bible is interpreted in many different ways: personal, scholarly, literal, or historical. In some interpretations women are revered, but in others women are treated as possessions. They do not have the rights of education, free speech, or voting. Women are forced into arranged marriages at young ages. In some cases young girls are used as payment for a crime committed by a family member, in a practice called bride price. All of these practices are demonstrated through the book Shabanu, by Suzanne Fisher Staples, which follows the life of a young Pakistani girl who lives in Cholistan Desert. The story focuses on Shabanu’s coming of age and her future arranged marriage. At twelve years old, Shabanu is not interested in marriage; she enjoys her free desert life content tending to the animals that her family raises. Through out the book, Shabanu struggles with the expectations of her culture and its incongruence with her free, strong, and intelligent personality. She seeks both answers to her own questions and a way to escape. Aspects of the Middle East culture are revealed through Shabanu proving that women are at the powerless bottom of the social hierarchy in most of the Middle East.
In Middle Eastern culture it is customary that men and women are brought together through arranged marriages. Girls, once they come of age, are married off to the man that will be the most beneficial to the family’s interests. In Shabanu’s case she is originally betrothed to a relatively wealthy distant cousin who has land that is irrigated and fertile. “Murad would have learned to love you for your intelligence and hard work.” (Staples 207) This quote shows that love is only incidental to the main objective of the union, which is being of service to the husband. This is seen in the statement that Murad would have “learned” to love Shabanu, which means that he did not love her before the engagement was made and is further illuminated by the commercial aspects of the qualities of value: intelligence and work ethic. Much as one would choose a working dog or a slave. Arranged marriages – despite seeming cruel in western culture can have huge advantages: if the daughter was to marry a wealthier man then it could bring great prosperity to the family, as seen in the case of Shabanu. This by no means indicates that arranged marriages are safe or acceptable. A women who is in love with the man she is marring and knows him ahead of time, has a far smaller chance of being beaten or mutilated once married, which is what happens to many women forced into arranged marriages. The continued acceptance of arranged marriage demonstrates how lowly women are considered in Middle Eastern culture. By being used to increase the family status or assets, they are objectified. When they are left to their husband’s bidding and are not allowed to challenge the status quo, it is clear that women are at the bottom of the social hierarchy of the culture.
Bride price- the practice in which the crime of a family member is erased by offering the marriage of an eligible girl, is also common in Middle Eastern cultures. This is illustrated in Shabanu when Shabanu’s family upsets Murad’s landlord. The landlord threatens to halt the water that irrigates Murad’s land unless the family can pay what he wants. “I fear Nazir will want her; that will be the price of freedom for the rest of us, peace for Murad’s family and water for his land.”(Staples 178) This shows how great the object value and how little personal value women have in Middle Eastern culture. The fact the Phulan, a sentient being, may be the exchange price for water rights shows how women are treated much like objects of commerce, replaceable and dispensable. Once again showing how women are treated inferior to men. They are part of the assets of the family, like cattle or money. Women have no say in this matter and once married they must obey the will of their husband and endure the cruelties, just as any other beast of burden. In a current, relative news story, Aesha (who was used as payment through bride price) ran away when her husband beat her. When her in-laws caught her they brutally cut off her nose and ears as punishment. Both the stories of Shabanu and Aesha are perfect examples of how women are treated as the lowest marginalized cast in Middle Eastern culture.
In Middle Eastern culture girls’ marriages happen at very young ages. This is called a child bride. Girls as young as six, are wed to men sometimes four, five, or six times their age. Many will become pregnant and die while giving birth which is the main cause of death for girls in the Middle East. In this book, Shabanu’s sister, Phulan, is betrothed at a very young age to a distant cousin. “Phulan is thirteen. She will marry our cousin Hamir this summer…”(Staples 2) Because there is no surprise or objection to this assertion in the passage this quote conveys that the paradigm of child marriage is completely accepted in the eyes of the culture. The idea of child bride is a horrifying concept to most westerners. The cruelty husbands often inflict is horrifying and the death rate due to childbirth is high because husbands are often highly abusive. However, if one thinks about this in a purely scientific and evolutionary way it does not make sense for females to start having babies as soon as they physically possible. Survival of both mother and offspring depends on the intellect of the mother and all the brain scientists agree that the adolescent mind is rarely stable and incapable of consistent forethought. Both capacities are important to survival. Scientific knowledge demonstrates that having babies by the age of 13 is highly cruel and inhumane. However, Shabanu’s culture acts as though it is ignorant to this knowledge, and uses these young girl’s fertility to their advantage: the earlier a girl starts to have children the more chances she is likely to have sons, who are far more valuable in Shabanu’s culture then daughters. Child bride practices are yet another example of how Shabanu illustrates how women are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Major social structures of the Middle Eastern culture are shown through the tale of “Sabanu” proving that women are treated as inferior beings in the Middle East. Through out the book, Shabanu struggles with the expectations of her culture and her own notions of freedom and intelligence. She relentlessly seeks answers to her questions and a way to escape her forced marriage as payment for a family crime. Like Shabanu, women all around the world are still being forced into arranged marriages. These engagements are often at young ages - child bride. In some cases girls are treated as disposable assets when the bride price is paid. In many interpretations of Islam women do not have the same rights, even though the Quran says that they are equal to men and should be revered and cherished. In today’s world it boggles the mind that women are not yet equally distributed in seats of power, places of higher learning, and the highest levels of commerce and innovation. Today the world is still a backward and violent place and until women, 50% of the intellectual promises of our planet have equal rights the violence and needless waste will never cease.