Nazneen puts on her red and gold silk sari for no particular reason. The leaves in the fabric keep distracting her, and at one point, she feels as if the silk is strangling her. She claws at it and goes to her bedroom, convinced for a moment that whatever clothes she decides to wear that day will determine the course of her life. Should she trade her sari for a skirt and jacket and high heels, she could be a high-powered British businesswoman. A tiny skirt and bright top would mean she would skate over life’s difficulties with a handsome man holding her hand.
The sari in this scene represents both Nazneen’s marriage to Chanu and the many traditions and conventions she has, up until this point, followed dutifully in a desire to be a good wife and mother. She feels held back by such traditions and strangled by the vows she has made. Western attire, in contrast, would free her.
Nazneen is out of thread, and she leaves her apartment to go buy some. At the edge of the estate, though, she is greeted by the Secretary of the Bengal Tigers who invites her in for a meeting. Nazneen obliges him, happy that she wore her red and gold sari. She imagines Karim taking the stage and giving a stirring speech, with every word directed at her. For a time, though, Karim does not come. The Questioner moves to open the meeting, but the Secretary wants to wait. Finally, when Karim appears, dressed in a new shirt and jeans, he opens the meeting, asking if anyone in the room authorized the leaflet on Chechnya, the one that had so offended Chanu.
Nazneen’s emotions are always oscillating now between despair and elation, between a strong desire for freedom and equally strong pangs of guilt and regret. The sari is no longer strangling her. She sees it as a way to attract Karim’s attention. His new outfit suggests that he, too, might be trying to impress her.
The Questioner admits to writing the leaflet. Karim wants such flyers approved by committee. The Questioner is contemptuous of such bureaucracy in the face of the war the West is fighting against people of the Muslim faith. He begins distributing horrifying pictures of starving children in Iraq, victims of U.S. sanctions. The photos bring Nazneen close to tears. The Questioner says this is no time for talk; action must be taken. It is time for jihad. But Karim insists that they have to address the needs of their local community first. The room grows chaotic. People pick sides. There is a motion to take a bus to Oldham to show solidarity with the Muslim community there. A musician wants to bring his DJ equipment. The Questioner finds such a suggestion ridiculous. This is no time for disco, he argues.
Given that the Questioner wrote the hyperbolic leaflet, it would seem that much of what he says and does should not be trusted. But the photos that he presents to the group are legitimately horrifying, and the claims he makes about U.S. action in Iraq are not without foundation. Ali purposefully depicts the meetings of the Bengali Tigers as messy and bogged down with bureaucracy and in-fighting to show just how difficult it is as a minority group to speak truth to power and effect real change.
In his zeal, the Questioner begins to lose ground. More and more people side with Karim, including two girls in burkhas who want to be included in the group’s mission but whom the Questioner refuses to acknowledge. Karim makes a short speech, summing up that from now on, all publications will be approved by committee and that messages of support will be sent to Iraq and other Muslim communities around the world. Nazneen goes home to her apartment, fighting the desire to run. She opens the door before Karim can even knock. He orders her to get undressed and get in bed. She climbs under the covers in her nightdress. She is shaking. She is sick and wants to sleep. He kisses her, and she moans with desire.
The Questioner’s knee jerk dismissal of the girls in burkhas indicates that his zeal for social justice does not extend to women. He wants Muslims to be able to practice their faith in peace, but his version of that faith does not recognize the rights of women to have a say in what that means. Nazneen might see sleeping with Karim as an act of rebellion against fate and God, but she is still not in control. Rather, she is taking orders from a man.