Life is both sweet and cruel to strong-willed young Shabanu, whose home is the windswept Cholistan Desert of Pakistan. The second daughter in a family with no sons, she’s been allowed freedoms forbidden to most Muslim girls. But when a tragic encounter with a wealthy and powerful landowner ruins the marriage plans of her older sister, Shabanu is called upon to sacrifice everything she’s dreamed of. Should she do what is necessary to uphold her family’s honor—or listen to the stirrings of her own heart?
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“Staples has accomplished a small miracle in her touching and powerful story.” —The New York Times
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Reading Group Guide
1. How is the life of Shabanu’s family affected because the family has no male children? How is their financial well-being affected? Explain how having no brothers has shaped Shabanu. Do you believe that having a son is a high priority for a family in your culture?
2. Many people love animals, but Shabanu’s affinity with the camels, especially with Guluband and Mithoo, is extreme. What freedoms does Shabanu obtain from her job of caring for the camels? List things she learns from the camels that help her to understand human beings.
3. When Shabanu begins to realize that Guluband might be sold, Dadi says, “What Allah wills cannot be changed” (p. 49). How does Shabanu feel when it really happens? Why does she reject her impulse to take the animal and run away (p. 56)? Later (p. 63), Shabanu has intellectually accepted her father’s decision, but emotionally it is a different story. Explain why she feels she has lost her joy, her freedom, and her identity. How do you interpret her statement (p. 85) that the experience has taught her “both the strength of my will and its limits”? How does this foreshadow later events?
4. One of the novel’s minor themes is the relationship between father and daughter, a tricky one in any culture. What makes it even more complicated in Pakistan? Note the times when Dadi acts from his feelings about Shabanu and those when he follows tradition. For example, examine the scene when the camels fight (pp. 23–26). When Dadi does things “for her own good,” is he being a responsible father, or is he trying to break her spirit? How do you think American culture affects father-daughter relationships?
5. Shabanu is the name of a princess. Considering our Shabanu’s character and station in life, what is appropriate and inappropriate about her name? At the bazaar in Rahimyar Khan (pp. 70–74), do you think it is her name or her nature that causes the shopkeeper to give Shabanu the valuable gifts? Defend your answer with examples from the story. The shopkeeper’s kindness touches Shabanu’s heart. Explain how her gratitude may be more important than the items themselves.
6. In the United States, how long are the young considered children? How long does childhood last for Muslims? At thirteen, Phulan is supposed to be a woman. Point to her conflicting feelings about her role and her forthcoming marriage to Hamir. Why does she wear a black chadr?
7. A dilemma is any situation requiring a choice between equal—often equally unpleasant—alternatives. Explain Shabanu’s dilemma when she and Phulan meet Nazir Mohammad and his hunters. Shabanu’s choosing to save her sister from rape leads to the story’s climax. On p. 154, why is Shabanu angry at her sister? “She was asking for it” is still used as a defense by rapists. Does Shabanu’s anger show an antifeminist response or is she, too, a victim, but a victim of her culture?
8. Irony is the use of words to express something other than—often the opposite of—their literal meaning. The chapter explaining that Phulan will marry Murad and that Shabanu is promised to Rahim is titled “Justice.” First discuss the irony of the title, then look at the decisions made in this chapter in terms of the customs of Shabanu’s society.
9. Shabanu has always displayed her independence, and her mother has been understanding. Why do you think her mother slaps her when she says she will go to live with Sharma? Sharma accuses the family of having bought Phulan’s happiness and their security by selling Shabanu. Do you agree or disagree? How is this arrangement different from their having arranged Shabanu’s marriage to Murad? Defend or attack Dadi’s argument.
10. Sharma tells Shabanu she has two choices: Keep Rahim’s interest by learning the tricks of women or come to live with her. Considering the culture and Shabanu’s character, predict what she will do. What would you have done?
11. What is Sharma meant to represent in the story? Is she wise or simply a rebel? Shabanu faces her future armed only with Sharma’s advice: Keep your innermost beauty locked in your heart. What does this mean? Do you think it will protect Shabanu?