The character arc Nazneen follows from submission to agency is not merely a matter of personal triumph. It is a political one as well. She and Hasina are born into a community that considers women inherently inferior to men, and that is built to a certain extent on the assumption that women will never challenge the established hierarchy.
The attitude of their father, Hamid, is representative of the systemic prejudice they will confront as grown women, trying to negotiate a world dominated by males. When infant Nazneen cheats fate and lives, despite being two months premature, Hamid shrugs. He would have preferred a son. Later, when Hasina elopes with Malek, Hamid spends sixteen days at the edge of the village, armed with an axe. He is determined to chop Hasina’s head off should she return. When she doesn’t, he acts as if he never had a daughter. There is no talk of what form of violence he had planned to visit on Malek, if any.
As Chanu’s wife, Nazneen is again undervalued. She overhears Chanu tell a friend that while he is for the most part satisfied with her, he finds her somewhat plain. As an “educated man” who prides himself on his degree in literature and harbors ambitions of being an English civil servant, he esteems Nazneen mostly for her ability to make his life comfortable. She cooks, she tidies up. Eventually, she bears him children. He never asks her opinion on anything and is shocked into a rare moment of speechlessness when she does finally offer it.
When Nazneen considers how unhappy she is in her marriage, she comforts herself with the fact that Chanu is a good husband, meaning he does not beat her. That is the low standard Chanu must meet in order to be considered a suitable spouse. Nazneen, on the other hand, must show her love and reverence for him through daily acts of devotion, one of which is walking a respectful distance behind him when they go out together to the shops or the park.
Hasina, shortly after her marriage to Malek, writes to Nazneen that “Just because man is kind to wife do not mean she can say what she like.” Hasina, it would seem, is unable to hold her tongue like a good wife. Malek beats her and she leaves him, but the news of Hasina’s escape is not greeted with unmixed approval by either Nazneen or Chanu. Instead, they worry about the scandal and about Hasina’s chances for happiness and financial security without the benefit of a husband. The conventional wisdom is that it is better to be married and beaten than unmarried and, hence, unprotected.
A woman’s respectability is measured by her purity and willingness to keep purdah, or a set of Islamic practices that separate women from men. Men inhabit the public sphere, women the private. Should a woman choose to break with such traditions or even be seen as rebelling against them, she opens herself up to gossip and accusations of blasphemy. Men, on the other hand, are permitted any number of indiscretions and then use religion to justify them. This system of double standards leads to ostracism and even death for women and, while it would seem on the surface to benefit men, it leads to suffering for them as well, albeit of a much less dire variety.
Having left Malek, Hasina gets a job sewing at a Dhaka garment factory and writes to Nazneen that all of her problems are finally solved. In reality, her problems are just beginning. The so-called “garment girls” have a bad reputation, according to Hasina’s neighbor, Zainab, who insinuates that Hasina’s position as a working girl is tempting the jute pickers in the building to misbehave. Should they act inappropriately, it would, Zainab says, be all Hasina’s fault. When rumors circulate that Hasina has slept with her friend Abdul for pleasure and Mr. Chowdhury for profit, no one is punished but Hasina. The garment factory owner fires her and calls her a whore, all the while chuckling with Abdul about young men’s inability to resist a pretty face.
Hasina’s friend Monju is an extreme example of where cultural insistence on women’s inferiority to and dependency on men can lead. Hasina reconnects with her friend when she hears she is hospitalized and near death, following an acid attack at the hands of her husband and her husband’s family. Death is Monju’s only escape, and, in keeping with tradition, her husband is never punished for his crimes.
Given the entrenched nature of these cultural and religious norms, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the women who befriend Nazneen and Hasina over the course of the novel play a part in maintaining a system that punishes women for their so-called “sins,” while leaving men mostly unscathed. Shahnaz, a fellow garment girl whom Hasina initially considers her best friend, repeatedly advises Hasina to tamp down her physical beauty so as not to attract negative attention or give any of the religious zealots protesting outside the garment factory more ammunition in their battle against working women. By suggesting Hasina hide her beauty in order not to draw negative attention to herself and her friends, Shahnaz, like Zainab before her, is putting the burden of other’s ignorance and misbehavior on Hasina rather than on the perpetrators themselves.
Similarly, both Razia and Nazneen find themselves targets of Tower Hamlets gossip, and the stories and rumors are spread by women they had thought were their friends. Razia draws disapproval first for her success as a freelance seamstress and later for the fact that her son, Tariq, is a heroin-addicted drug dealer. Nazneen is found wanting when her affair with Karim comes to light. A system that diminishes women inevitably inspires an atmosphere of toxic competition and free-floating distrust.
The relegating of women to second-class status does not only adversely impact the female characters in the story. The men also suffer for their efforts at perpetuating an outdated value system. Chanu, as an educated, modern man, is proud of the fact that he allows his wife to venture outside the home and, later, he buys her a sewing machine so that she can work and contribute to the nest egg they’re building for their eventual trip home to Bangladesh. Even so, he jealously guards her earnings and tells her that he, as her husband, will make sure that the money goes where it should. In that same conversation, he informs her that it is wrong for wives to keep secrets from their husbands, all the while hiding from her the fact that he borrowed a significant sum from the corrupt and cruel Mrs. Islam. Perhaps most significantly, he condescends to Nazneen on a regular basis and dismisses out of hand her small stabs at independence. When he finally discovers the error of his ways, it is too late. She is in love with Karim.
Karim, whom Nazneen thinks the opposite of Chanu, is in fact no different. When Nazneen asks Karim why he loves her, he replies that it is because she is an old-fashioned village girl. It is the same back-handed compliment Chanu gave her when they were first married. What both men mean by “unspoilt” village girl is that Nazneen is willing submit to their will. Karim’s weakness becomes apparent to Nazneen, and he, too, loses her. By underestimating and dismissing women, both men forfeit romantic love, and, as aspiring revolutionaries, they also lose the chance they might have had to achieve the kind of greatness they so desire. Their conventionality damns them both to loneliness and mediocrity.
Ali makes it clear that conservative Islam, as it is practiced in Nazneen and Hasina’s time and community, takes the already difficult life of a woman born to near poverty and fills it with unnecessary suffering. When women are taught almost from infancy that they are not worthy of the same privileges and rights as men, they are left powerless and at the mercy of their fathers, brothers, and husbands, and are often punished for events beyond their control. This system of forced separation and arbitrary inequality motivates women to denigrate one another as they compete for the small shreds of power bequeathed to them by men and society. Lives are ruined as a result. Women suffer and die, and men are made weak and ineffectual.
Cultural and Religious Sexism ThemeTracker
Cultural and Religious Sexism Quotes in Brick Lane
Nazneen listened, breathing quietly and hoping that if they forgot about her they might reveal the source of their woes. It was something to do with being a woman, of that much she was sure. When she was a woman she would find out. She looked forward to that day. She longed to be enriched by this hardship, to cast off her childish baggy pants and long shirt and begin to wear this suffering that was as rich and layered and deeply colored as the saris that enfolded Amma's troubled bones.
Sinking, sinking, drinking water. When everyone in the village was fasting a long month, when not a grain, not a drop of water passed between the parched lips of any able-bodied man, woman, or child over ten, when the sun was hotter than the cooking pot and dusk was just a febrile wish, the hypocrite went down to the pond to duck his head, to dive and sink, to drink and sink a little lower.
“Why should we give dowry? I am not a burden. I make money. I am the dowry.”
This is what happen and afterward I cry. All the time I thinking my life cursed. God have given me life but he has curse it. He put rocks in my path thorns under feet snakes overhead. Which way I turn any way it is dark. He never light it. If I drink water it turn to mud eat food it poison me. I stretch out my hand it burn and by my side it wither. This is what he plan for me.
It was, Nazneen realized, more complicated than that. Even if Karim was her future, and could not be avoided, there were problems. Happiness, for instance. That would count against her. Because fate must be met with indifference. For the benefit of her angels, she said, “Whichever way, it does not matter.”
For years she had felt she must not relax. If she relaxed, things would fall apart. Only the constant vigilance and planning, the low-level, unremarked and unrewarded activity of a woman, kept the household from crumbling.
“A girl,” said Rupban.
“I know. Never mind,” said Hamid. “What can you do?” And he went away again.
“Mixing with all sorts: Turkish, English, Jewish. All sorts. I am not old-fashioned,” said Mrs. Islam. “I don't wear burkha. I keep purdah in my mind, which is the most important thing. Plus, I have cardigans and anoraks and a scarf for my head. But if you mix with all these people, even if they are good people, you have to give up your culture to accept theirs. That’s how it is.”