Being a Canadian woman writer of European descent, I came into Fauzia Rafique’s The Adventures of SahebaN without background knowledge of the role (Mirza) Sahiba plays in much of traditional Punjabi culture. The beauty of Rafique’s text however, is how my lack does not impact my understanding of how the narrative turns a cultural model for perfection (Sahiba) on her head to showcase the flaws of that very perfection, and (in particular) to show that a woman can be honourable, and pure, and loyal, without bowing to the restrictive ideas and expectations that society and religion place upon her.
Right away announcing her departure from the traditional “folk” Sahiba, Rafique creates her double in SahebaN, the Relentless Warrior. From the moment she is born, SahebaN questions those around her; but in a world where questions from a woman, and especially a brown one, are not taken seriously, she finds only silence. Readers soon recognize her universe as a barely veiled image of our own, led by none other than Civil Magicia, a “fantastical” governing head that perpetuates inequality, and which seems dedicated to controlling the natural chaos of humanity. Yet, as our uninhibited (and repeatedly misinformed) SahebaN rises and falls through CM’s imposed hierarchies, readers get the chance to rejoice through her struggle as she continually flouts the very authorities trying desperately to regulate her existence.
“SahebaN is the feminist warrior I hadn’t realized I was missing.”
It is within this frame that I came to know SahebaN as the feminist warrior I hadn’t realized I was missing. She fights back against those who would dare oppress her by using her very femininity as her strength, at one point, literally pushing a bloodied menstrual pad into her potential rapist’s face! (Yes!)
But while these moments – presented hilariously in quite the Vonnegut-like fashion – had me laughing aloud, I felt at the same time humbled by the remembrance that the injustices SahebaN faces aren’t so different from the ones that I do. Indeed, Rafique barely lets readers forget that her satire is meant to expose the ridiculousness of inequality, whether it be class-, gender-, or race-related.
And for sure, SahebaN isn’t the only hero in the narrative standing up to the patriarchy. Rafique herself does the same in this writing by filtering and balancing her own feminist perspectives through the eyes of two fictional editor/ narrators, and further, by incorporating these views directly into the language they’re using to tell SahebaN’s story. From the presence of dual pronouns throughout, to conjoined word-play during the narrative’s latter half – for example, “a promising starting pointlocation” or, “SahebaN retortedadded” – Rafique points to the absurdity of making different two sides of the same coin.
Within the barely-there bounds of Rafique’s language play, then, readers get the sense that these layers of narrative can provide a comfort against instability. Only by listening to them all can we settle upon anything. And by disregarding whether THIS is more “r!ght” than THAT, the narrative effortlessly subverts the conflict of trying to choose the one over the many.
“Rafique has succeeded in creating a feminist commentary that no audience is safe from.”
In short, I believe Rafique has succeeded in creating a feminist commentary that no audience is safe from. It is unapologetic, but hilarious; ridiculous, but sobering. Her journey does not seem so alien as to be far from our own, and in the end, without fighting to maintain the control Power requires, SahebaN is swept into – but not lost among – the collective, dancing to her own rhythm, beating the drum of change.