Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a harsh critique of the gender-related power struggles of postcolonial Indian society. After generations of purdah—the belief that Muslim and Hindu women should live separately from society, behind a curtain or veil, to stay out of the sight of men—postcolonial women are encouraged to become “modern Indian women” and remove their veils. Countless years in the domestic sphere has branded them as weak, demure, and dependent on men, and the women of Midnight’s Children struggle against these traditional gender stereotypes. However, as Saleem Sinai, Rushdie’s protagonist, tells the story of India’s independence, it is clear that the women wield much of the power, in the domestic sphere and beyond. Rushdie’s portrayal of women in Midnight’s Children dispels the common misconception that women are the “gentler sex.”
Despite new freedoms, the women of Midnight’s Children are still treated like second-class citizens in society. When Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, is first introduced, he is described as a man with a nose so large it “established incontrovertibly his right to be a patriarch.” Noses are often a phallic symbol within Rushdie’s novel, and the size of Aadam’s is a reflection of his supposedly God-given power over women. Additionally, Mr. Ghani, a blind landowner and Naseem’s father, offers his daughter up to Aadam from behind a perforated sheet. Repeatedly claiming that his daughter is sick, Ghani frequently summons Aadam, a local doctor, to their home and forces him to examine her from behind a purdah. Naseem eventually falls in love with the man on the other side of the sheet, but Aadam’s initial visits are a ploy by Ghani to marry his daughter off to a doctor. Presumably, Naseem is not given the agency to pursue a man of her choosing. Furthermore, after Aadam and Naseem are married and she turns into Reverend Mother—an unpleasant and unattractive version of herself in which she rules over her domestic responsibilities with an iron fist—they frequently argue over the best way to raise their family and run their home. When Reverend Mother disagrees with Aadam’s firing of their children’s religious tutor, she is “dismayed; but it is a father’s traditional role, so she could not object.” As the patriarch, Aadam assumes complete control of their family and does not allow Reverend Mary to teach the children her religious beliefs. Similarly, when Saleem’s mother, Mumtaz, marries Ahmed Sinai, he gives her a new name. As Ahmed’s wife, Mumtaz Aziz becomes Amina Sinai, and she has no say in her new identity. Likewise, when Saleem marries Parvati-the-witch, he says, “she took a name which I chose for her out of the repository of my dreams, becoming Laylah.” The name Saleem selects for Parvati has meaning in his life, not hers, and when he changes her name, he assumes control of his wife’s identity just like his father. As women, neither Mumtaz nor Parvati have agency over their own identities, reflecting the broader maltreatment of women in patriarchal postcolonial India.
Despite this unfair treatment, however, the women of Midnight’s Children have a considerable amount of power in the domestic sphere and even outside the walls of the home. When Aadam Aziz fires the children’s religious tutor and Reverend Mother is denied the right to teach her children her beliefs, she says, “I swear no food will come from my kitchen to your lips! No, not one chapati, until you bring the maulvi sahib back and kiss his, whatsitsname, feet!” Aadam has crossed her, and she boldly makes him pay. She refuses to feed him, and in his own stubbornness, he refuses to eat outside the home as well and nearly dies of starvation. It is only after Reverend Mother pretends to be ill that Aadam finally begins to eat, and from her faux sick bed, it is clear that she has won the argument. Aadam again crosses his wife when he allows Nadir Khan, the private secretary of a pro-Indian Muslim politician, to hide in their basement after his employer is assassinated. When Reverend Mother objects to their secret guest, Aadam orders her, “Be silent, woman!” Reverend Mother responds with three years of literal silence, claiming, “Very well. You ask me, whatsitsname, for silence. So not one word, whatsitsname, will pass my lips from now on.” In a power display of her own, Reverend Mother refuses to speak.
In another display of power, when Ahmed Sinai’s failed business attempt leaves all of his assets frozen and his family broke, a very pregnant Amina sneaks off to the race track and gambles for extra money. While her husband sinks deeper into alcoholism and depression, Amina “fights her husband’s fight” and keeps her family afloat, dismantling the idea that a man has to be the head of the household. What’s more, at the climax of the story, it is a woman, Indira Gandhi (the corrupt Prime Minister of India whom Saleem refers to as the Widow), who declares a public emergency in an effort to destroy the Midnight Children’s Conference—the 1,001 children born with supernatural powers on the eve of India’s independence who serve as the metaphorical mirror of the nation—by hunting down each member and sterilizing them in a sinister attempt to control India’s overpopulation. While most members are given forced vasectomies or tubal ligations, Saleem, the most powerful of the conference and therefore the most dangerous, is castrated by the Widow to ensure complete and irreversible sterility. Indira Gandhi’s power is unmatched throughout the novel.
Ultimately, Saleem is emasculated by a powerful woman; yet he is strangely accepting of his sterility. Sexual impotence reoccurs throughout the story, and it seems to matter very little to those it affects, suggesting that sex is not necessarily the most important part of a relationship as far as women, the most powerful, are concerned. After all, Amina spends her life loving an impotent Nadir Khan, and it is only Reverend Mother who openly objects to their sexless marriage. Amina is willing to overlook Nadir’s impotence, but Reverend Mother’s tradition dictates otherwise. Similarly, Padma, Saleem’s companion and audience for the writing of his story, is also accepting of Saleem’s impotence. He refers to his sterility in an almost humorous way, speaking of Padma’s attempts to “resuscitate his other pencil,” but she nevertheless loves him and intends to marry him. Ultimately, the Widow’s power does not lie solely in her ability to emasculate Saleem, it lies with her ability to completely destroy his life. According to Saleem, “women have made me; and also unmade. From Reverend Mother to the Widow, and even beyond, I have been at the mercy of the so-called (erroneously, in my opinion!) gentler sex.” He speaks of a great “cosmic energy, which is represented as the female organ” and Mother India who “there is no escape from.” Despite blatant sexism, the women of Midnight’s Children rule Saleem’s world.
Sex and Gender ThemeTracker
Sex and Gender Quotes in Midnight’s Children
“Change your name,” Ahmed Sinai said. “Time for a fresh start. Throw Mumtaz and her Nadir Khan out of the window, I’ll choose you a new name. Amina. Amina Sinai: you’d like that?”
Women have always been the ones to change my life: Mary Pereira, Evie Burns, Jamila Singer, Parvati-the-witch must answer for who I am; and the Widow, who I’m keeping for the end; and after the end, Padma, my goddess of dung. Women have fixed me all right, but perhaps they were never central—perhaps the place which they should have filled, the hole in the center of me which was my inheritance from grandfather Aadam Aziz, was occupied for too long by my voices. Or perhaps—one must consider all possibilities—they always made me a little afraid.
“Loose woman,” the demon within me whispered silently, “Perpetrator of the worst of maternal perfidies! We shall turn you into an awful example; through you we shall demonstrate the fate which awaits the lascivious. O unobservant adulteress! Did you see what sleeping around did to the illustrious Baroness Simki von der Heiden?—who was, not to put too fine a point upon it, a bitch, just like yourself.”
“Women have made me; and also unmade. Form Reverend Mother to the Widow, and even beyond, I have been at the mercy of the so-called (erroneously, in my opinion!) gentler sex. It is, perhaps, a matter of connection: is not Mother India, Bharat-Mata, commonly thought of as female? And, as you know, there’s no escape from her.”
Parvati’s formal conversion to Islam (which irritated Picture Singh, but on which I found myself insisting, in another throwback to an earlier life) was performed by a red-bearded Haji who looked ill-at-ease in the presence of so many teasing, provocative members of the ungodly; under the shifting gaze of this fellow who resembled a large and bearded onion she intoned her belief there was no God but God and that Muhammed was his prophet; she took a name which I chose for her out of the repository of my dreams, becoming Laylah, so that she too was caught up in the repetitive cycles of my history, becoming an echo of all the other people who have been obliged to change their names…like my own mother Amina Sinai, Parvati-the-witch became a new person to have a child.