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.