Shabanu's brief adolescence centers on coming to terms with her gender. She spends her childhood enjoying the freedoms of a boy. Her passion for camels and the freedom of a herder's lifestyle, however, conflict with her parents', husband's, and society's expectations of her. As a woman, she must give up her independent ways, adapt herself to her husband's way of life, and learn to obey him.
To some extent, Staples suggests that gender roles are rooted in biological sex. She depicts male camels fighting viciously and female camels suffering the perils of birth. The camels cannot control these behaviors and situations but are left to act on instinctual urges or bearing the risks their biological makeup requires them to bear. Staples draws parallels between these animal behaviors and human behaviors: Shabanu repeatedly observes men fighting each other with bitter and unreasonable passion, and she sees Auntie in the throes of labor. The gender roles that result in men's violence and power and women's submission and lack of freedom seem to be a part of the desert's makeup.
At the same time, Shabanu's very difficulty in accepting the strictures of her gender suggests that the roles do not spring from nature itself but, instead, are encoded in and enforced by a rigid social structure. If gender were "natural", Shabanu would, like Phulan, look forward to marriage unquestioningly. Women like Sharma and Fatima further demonstrate that individuals can resist gender roles, although they must pay a price for their resistance. Shabanu's final confrontation with her father shows her making an informed, conscious decision to accept the roles that she must fulfill. The fact that she sees them as a choice, albeit a constrained and very difficult choice, shows that gender roles provide her only with a template of how to be in the world, not a prescription. Gender does not express who she is on the inside.
Shabanu focuses more broadly on the individual's struggle against society. Humans benefit from living in organized groups: we receive physical benefits such as protection and access to pooled material goods, and we receive emotional benefits of companionship and understanding. However, we pay a price for these advantages. The price often consists of the individual's primal desires or understanding of him or herself. As members of society, we must learn to curb our selfish and destructive urges, and we must learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others.
Dadi most clearly exemplifies this struggle between acting according to what one wants and acting according to what is expected of one: he is torn between his real and undeniable love for his daughters, his desire to do "what is best" for them, and his real thirst for power and authority, which has been reinforced by his culture. At times he indulges Shabanu; at times he disciplines her because he worries about how others will react to her behavior; still, at other times he disciplines her out of anger. The closing scene of the book sums up his struggle: anger overcomes him and he beats Shabanu mercilessly, yet once his anger is spent, he is crushed and bewildered by his behavior.
Just as Shabanu waits on the whims of fate and the adults around her, the entire family waits on the whims of nature. Shabanu depicts nature both as a source of unexpected blessing and a source of unexpected loss. Rains come and fill the toba, and droughts come and dry it up again. Sandstorms come and kill both strangers and loved ones, while the camels unexpectedly lift the family's spirits with their dancing and tomfoolery.
The desert plays a role in creating Shabanu's dire predicament: if the drought and sandstorm had not driven them to Mehrabpur a month early, she may never have seen Nazir Mohammad before Phulan's wedding. If Mithoo had not stumbled on the treacherous desert floor, she would have escaped to Sharma's. At the same time, however, the desert sustains Shabanu and gives her strength. Her time alone in the desert lifts her spirit, and the desert birthed her tough self- reliance and unflinching thirst for life. Nature's power constantly reminds Shabanu how fragile life is, but that knowledge makes life and stolen moments of happiness all the more precious.
Storms play a crucial role in the development of plot in Shabanu. Storms mark turning points and periods of transition. They promise relief and portend change. The first storm brings a reprieve: the family can stay in their beloved desert home until Phulan's wedding. The second storm takes away what the first has given: dust fills the toba and brings Grandfather to his deathbed. The third storm occurs after Hamir has been killed; it brings Shabanu a desperate hope that everything will return to normal and that the cruel workings of fate will be washed away. The final storm welcomes the family, now without Phulan, home to Cholistan. It offers the family a good omen, and indeed, their home, which the sandstorm had buried, has been swept clean by the wind.
For the most part, models of good feminine behavior surround Shabanu: Mama is a perfect and happy wife, Auntie is obedient and fruitful, Bibi Lal and Kulsum are faithful widows. Shabanu latches onto examples of women who do not fit this mold with tremulous excitement. She observes intently when the Bugti men come looking for their runaway daughter and understands the significance of her father's comments that the girl will be killed when they find her. She shares the story with Phulan, expressing certainty that the girl is now dead. The story recurs to her when she is running away from home. The story offers hope that alternatives to wifely obedience exist, but it also has a clear moral: disobedient women risk death.
Sharma also embodies an alternative to wifely obedience. Sharma's story offers hope and has a more ambiguous moral. Shabanu clings to and idealizes Sharma's story. Sharma, who seems happy and strong, does not exactly contradict this idealization, but she repeatedly reminds Shabanu that her way of life is not easy and should not be chosen lightly.
Three fights between men affect the course of Shabanu's maturation and future: the fight between Kalu and Tipu, the fight between Dadi and the man near the shrine at Channan Pir, and the fight between Nazir Mohammad and Hamir. Each fight escalates in significance, though each in and of itself is momentous. The first fight offers a prototype for the following fights: two camels, bent on murder, fight for the right to mate with the females of the herd. The fight imperils both the camels and Dadi, who tries to break up the deadly fight. The fight at Channan Pir demonstrates Dadi's prowess and popularity, but it shocks and repels Shabanu. The fight forces her to see the parallels between human male behavior and the unreasonable, bloodthirsty behavior of the male camels. This prepares her for the final fight, in which two men fight for the right to a woman's body. Nazir Mohammad, lustful and greedy, shoots the inflamed Hamir, who, more than anything, sees Nazir Mohammad's behavior as an insult to his honor.
The long cloth used by women as a head cover, the chadr symbolizes womanhood. Phulan wears and feels proud of her chadr, although at first she wears it awkwardly, stumbling over its edges. Shabanu wears the chadr reluctantly and only for practical reasons: it keeps her head cool. Later, she finds it useful as a way to hide her face from men who frighten her. After the fair at Sibi, Shabanu becomes acclimated to the chadr, using it to store and carry things, and she grows to see it as a thing of beauty: she admires her sister's figure in her chadr and sees it as a brilliant addition to the colors of the landscape.
As the two girls draw near marriage, they begin to accumulate jewelry. At first, jewelry delights the girls: Shabanu admires the glass bangles Dadi buys her on the way to Sibi and Phulan's beautiful ruby nose ring. Later, when Rahim- sahib showers Shabanu with jewels, she takes no joy in them. Jewels symbolize physical beauty and riches, but Shabanu realizes how beauty and material comfort pale in comparison to happiness and personal freedom. The jewels become an emblem of Rahim-sahib's claim on her. He adorns her for his own pleasure.
Camels are the desert man's wealth and way of life. They make Shabanu and her family laugh during trying times. Shabanu takes refuge in their warmth and reliable, uncomplicated companionship. Camels symbolize a way of life free from the constraints of society: a herdsman relies only on the desert and the sky. Moreover, camels offer a life free from emotional strife and complication: they are loyal, respond well to a warm heart, and do not demand certain behaviors or require explanations. Camels offer Shabanu an alternative to the inscrutable and unjust ways of the world around her.