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Shabanu

Suzanne Fisher Staples

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Given Sharma's ideas about power in relationships between men and women, who do you think is more powerful in Pakistani culture? Why?

Sharma argues that women can manipulate men and retain power over them by keeping part of themselves aloof from men. Thus, women who learn to make men want them have a great deal of power: their husbands, driven by desire and passion, provide for their wives and try to win their favor. At the same time, we can see these very women as relatively powerless: society has placed them in the position of needing a man to support and protect her. If a woman cannot successfully win her husband's heart, he can cast her aside, treat her poorly, and beat her. Moreover, a woman must hope and pray that no physical harm befall her husband, for if he dies, she will be a husbandless widow the rest of her life.

However, in Sharma's final exchange with Shabanu, she tells the girl that she always has a choice, as long as she has herself. This suggests that no matter how constrained we are by our social situation, we have absolute power to decide how we will react, even if that reaction is just internal. We have the power to forgive, to make peace with our reality, to draw out the dear memories Sharma tells Shabanu to tuck away inside of her. Thus, ultimately, our gender in and of itself does not give us or deprive us of power. Our power lies in how we decide to react to and interpret situations.

If you asked Shabanu if she wished she had been born in the United States, what do you think she would say? Why?

Although Shabanu*clearly longs for the freedom and self-determination that many Americans take for granted, she would not trade her life in Pakistan for anything in the world. First, she loves her homeland passionately. More than anything, she is a girl of the desert. Her very heart comes alive when she has her arms around the neck of a beloved camel or when she is wandering over the empty, windswept dunes. She would feel trapped and constrained in most parts of the United States, where roads, houses, people, and stores crowd the landscape. Even in the wildest parts of the United States, one remains relatively close to civilization. Few Americans have obtained the kind of self-sufficient lifestyle that Shabanu loves.

Secondly, Shabanu's homeland, with all the constraints it has put on her freedom, has actually given her a valuable lesson about the source of freedom. Shabanu understands that freedom is more than simply being able to do or have what she wants. She understands that a person must create freedom: freedom springs from the ability to control one's emotions and reactions. It springs from the ability to remain happy and at peace in the face of adversity.

Describe the character of Auntie. Does Staples want us to despise or feel sorry for her? Why do you think so?

Auntie acts fussily, selfishly, and shallowly. She harps on Shabanu, she gloats to Mama about her sons, and she seems happiest when bad fortune befalls her in-laws. She is fat. Staples does not draw a particularly flattering picture of her.

At the same time, Staples weaves Auntie's story, bit by bit, into the narrative. Even Auntie's parents thought she was fat and ugly. Her husband sent her to the country to live with his relatives. Often, recalling these facts, Shabanu feels sorry for Auntie. She sees Auntie as another woman caught in a set of circumstances that take away her joy and which she can't control.

Staples does not clearly endorse either attitude. Auntie acts inconsiderately to the very end of the book, though this fact does not diminish the hardness of her life. Auntie is like Phulan; she allows herself to rest her happiness on the circumstances around her.

Suggested Essay Topics

Describe Phulan and Shabanu. How are they similar? How are they different? Who is stronger? Who is happier?

Based on Shabanu's story, what similarities and what differences do you see between life in Pakistan and life in America? What do you think causes those differences?

What do some of the animals' names mean? What do these names tell you about Cholistani people in general and Shabanu's family in particular? What else in the book supports your observations?

Was Shabanu right to try to run away, or was she foolish in doing so? Why do you think so?

Is Shabanu more or less free than Phulan? Sharma? Nazir Mohammad? An American teenager?

Who is the strongest man in the book? Why do you say so? Who is the strongest woman? Why? Be sure you define "strength" in your answer.

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