In the Name of Religion: Sexuality and Taboo in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown

Marcel Ebliylu Nyanchi

St. Peter Chanel Marist Major Seminary, Cameroon

Vol. 1, No. 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/bp.v1n1.08


This paper examines socio-cultural and political interpretations of rape, love and sex in Shalimar the Clown to assess whether taboos on these practices in Kashmir are based on cultural and religious laws or are attempts by fundamentalists to re-colonize existing cultural and religious jurisprudences. I interrogate the orchestration of sexual violence through extremist Islamic doctrines like ‘Sharia,’ ‘Hudood’ and ‘Zina’ Ordinances, and ‘Honour Killing’ arguing that religious criminality transcends geopolitical and philosophical spaces. Through taboos on rape, love and sex, Rushdie satirizes the byzantine passion governing the quest for ecstasy in men, and its resultant effects of frigidity in women. Furthermore, the novel valorizes female sexual virility, because fundamentalist superstructures ironically groom sexually weak men, thereby impeding social conviviality. By satirizing taboos on domestic and social metamorphoses, Rushdie interrogates the place of fundamentalist ideology within contemporary world geopolitics. His valorisation of love and sex, suggest that they constitute immutable foundations on which societies should be founded.

Keywords: Religion, sexuality, violence, virility, taboos, geopolitics, fundamentalism.

“From the beginning, men used God to justify the unjustifiable.”

The Satanic Verses (p.95)

The Indian subcontinent harbours major religions; Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity etc and castes groups – Hindus, Muslims, Paravans, Sihks, Sunnis, Shi’its etc. The experiences of women in these groups and religions are different from those in other regions because they internalize patriarchy, segregate and tyrannize women in the domestic and public spheres. Since globalization reduces the world to a single entity, its tentacles are invading and diluting fundamentalist religious constructs. Salman Rushdie’s experiences as an Anglo-Indian Muslim give him a composite knowledge of fundamentalist ideology. His Shalimar the Clown set in Kashmir, India and America depicts how interpretations of rape, sex and love affect notions of taboo in Islam, implying that Islam is experiencing schisms due to fundamentalism and terrorism. These schisms interrogate constructs like ‘Sharia’, ‘Hudood, ’‘Zina’ and “Purdah” which abound the novel as radical moments in religious transformation in Kashmir. Through intersections between knowledge, culture, globalization and sexual freedom, women are violated physically, psychologically and emotionally by socio-religious and historical alliances behind Indo-American invasion of Kashmir. The consequences are splinter fundamentalist groups that attempt to transform Kashmir into an ‘Islamic’ state.

Notably, Kashmiris respect women because The Koran emphasizes the principles of equity, equality, justice, freedom and liberation: “the believers are but a single brotherhood” (49:9). Ironically, sects collude with patriarchal traditions to use Islam to authenticate taboos on rape, love and sex, drawing from “Sharia laws,” although controversies exist among Muslims whether or not these laws abound The Koran. Otto Jan Michiel (2008) examines Ali L. Khan’s opinion that:

Sharia has been thoroughly confused in legal and common literature. For some Muslims, ‘Sharia’ consists of The Koran and ‘Sunnah.’ For others, it also includes both with classical ‘fiqh. Most encyclopaedias define Sharia as law based upon The Koran, the Sunnah, and classical ‘fiqh’ derived from consensus (ijma) and analogy (qiyas)… The Koran and the ‘Sunnah’ constitute the immutable Basic Code, which should be kept separate from ever-evolving interpretive law (fiqh). This analytical separation between the Basic Code and ‘fiqh’ is necessary to dissipate confusion around the term ‘Sharia.’ (p.28)

To Otto, many people hardly distinguish between local norms, practices and tradition from religious laws. Adherence to “Sharia” tends to ascribe undesirable practices which overlook custom and culture. Although fundamentalist believe “Sharia” is God’s law, they differ as to what exactly it entails. Anitta Kynsilehto (2008) argues that scholars challenging patriarchal readings of The Koran and the ‘Hadiths’ demonstrate that it is not the texts themselves, but their “interpretations that allow for patriarchal traditions to persist. The Koran, contains principles of gender equality and wider issues of social justice, thus laying grounds for challenging patriarchal traditions” (p.4). Consequently, Kashmiri Muslims hold different views of “Sharia,” and that is why Shalimar the Clown mirrors the schisms and satirizes forms of violence committed on women.

Sexual Violence and Taboos

The publication of Shalimar the Clown in 2005, after the world trade centre bombings became another radical moment in Rushdie’s writing after The Satanic Verses (1988). The novel satirises fundamentalist ideas on women in Kashmir which Rushdie (1992) justifies his attack on fundamentalism that:

Actually existing Islam has failed to create a free society anywhere on earth, and it wasn’t about to let me, of all people in favour of one. Suddenly I was (metaphorically) among the people whose social attitudes I’d fought all my life – for example, their attitudes about women. (PP.436-37)

Justifiably, Kashmiri women are entrapped because terrorists hinge on sex for publicity in order to intimidate governments and the public. To them, just the name “woman” is derogatory because likening a man to a “woman” denigrates him to a weakling and a failure.  The case of Colonel Hammirdev Suryavans Kachhwaha who receives a gift of two dozen lady’s bangles on his birthday symbolizes failure as his father denigrates him saying:

‘If a Rajput is still alive on his thirtieth birthday’ […]’we give him women’s bangles to express our disappointment and surprise. Wear them until you prove they aren’t deserved.’ ‘By dying, you,’ his son sought clarification. ‘To win favour in your eyes I have to get myself killed.’ (p.95)

Rajpur folklore enjoins warriors to die before the age of thirty. By not dying in war, the Colonel becomes a “woman” and a failure in Rajpur mythology. Similarly, girls become sources of frustration for fathers who lose the respect to articulate in society. The case of Max Ophuls is peculiar because despite his daughter’s (Kashmira) attempts to please Ophuls with pet names like “Max”, “Maxine” and “Maxie,” he does not understand that she is “begging him to stop mourning the male child he’d never had, to give up that old-fashioned sadness which he carried everywhere he went and which both wounded and offended her” (p.14). Despite Ophuls’ wealth, he is unfulfilled because he feels the weight of his unborn son sitting up there jeering at his failure. Unlike Ophuls, some parents sell or kill girls which intensified after Indira Gandhi’s assassination as Rushdie (2003) opines:

The murder of children is something of an Indian specialty. The routine daily killings of unwanted girl babies, the massacre of innocents in Nellie, Assam, in the 1980s, and the Sikh children in Delhi during the horrifying reprisal murders that followed Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination bears witness to our particular gift, always most dazzlingly in evidence at times of religious unrest, for dousing our children in kerosene and setting them alight, or cutting their throats, or smothering them, or just clubbing them to death with a good strong length of wood. (p.344)

After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, angry Hindus invaded, destroyed and murdered Sikh women and girls in the name of a retributive religion…Full Text PDF