A Comparison of the Women’s Swimming Pool by Hanan Al-shaykh and the Perforated Sheet by Salman Rushdie

March 27, 2021 by Essay Writer

In western culture, it is taboo to be covered head to toe, excluding the face, in the middle of the summer heat, but this is a reality that Muslim women are quite familiar with in their everyday lives. The Muslim religion is very strict and governed by the Quran. Many view it as oppressive but those who practice it see it as a religion that frees them from the temptations of the world. The modest dress is to protect the Islamic people who practice it faithfully from adultery and other forms of illegal sexual relations that lead to the breakup of families and corruption of society. “The Perforated Sheet”, written by Salman Rushdie, humorously addresses this very concept of wearing a Hijab in Islamic culture told from a male’s perspective, while “The Women’s Swimming Pool”, written by Hanan Al-Shaykh, brings about a serious point of view on the treatment and practice of veiling women, from the perspective of a Muslim Indian woman.

“The Perforated Sheet” is a short story told from a male’s point of view. The story of the sheet starts when Aadam Aziz, a doctor, breaks his nose praying to Allah. Allah is the name of God in the religion of Islam and requires Muslims to pray five times a day. Also, when Islamic people pray, they sit on their knees on a mat and bow to kiss the ground. While Dr. Aziz is praying, he leans down and hits his abnormally large nose, thus breaking it. After doing this he has “resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man” in a rage of anger and renounces his religion (Rushdie 1712). This absence of religion creates a lasting “hole” that leaves the good doctor vulnerable and gives him an intense need to fill it. The story continues, and Dr. Aziz starts to treat a young woman named Naseem Ghani. The downside, however, is that he is only allowed to treat her through a sheet, and “in the very cente of the sheet, a hole had been cut, a crude circle about seven inches in diameter” (Rushdie 1721). This sheet was demanded by Naseem’s father Ghani to keep her covered and modest. This sheet symbolizes the Hijab, since this it hides the entire body except for the face, which is roughly seven inches in diameter in women. Naseem honors her father, family, and God by keeping her body covered and following her father’s wishes so that she may marry off to a doctor. Although this seems like a positive thing, this analogy pokes fun at the idea of wearing a Hijab, seeing that it would be silly for a doctor to treat his or her patient through a small hole. The irony of the situation is the fact that Naseem is very religious and is considered by her father as a “good” and “decent” girl while Dr. Aziz is more than likely an atheist (Rushdie 1721). This is a plausible idea since Salam Rushdie is an atheist who was a Muslim and a student of Islam.

This sheet is very symbolic in another way. It is stained with blood which represents the line in the Quran, “Recite, in the name of the Lord thy Creator, who created Man from clots of blood” (Rushdie 1712). Rushdie humiliates Muslims by continuing to poke fun at the Hijab by making it a comedic relief for Rushdie’s audience, as shown when Dr. Aziz comes into Naseem’s room and the sheet is held up by three “lady wrestlers [who]…tightened their musculatures, just in case he intended to try something fancy” which was confusing to Dr. Aziz and made him frantic about how he was going to do his job, but he was reassured by Ghani that this way would keep her “modest”. Over the course of three years, Dr. Aziz treats Naseem through the sheet and “[falls] in love”, yet not with her mind, morals, or values but he cared her for in a different way. He longs for her in parts of the body he has seen and parts he wishes to see. He is enthralled with the mystery that the sheet provides, as many people do with religion. Many people follow a religion because of the mystery it provides. It gives a possible explanation to what happens when we die and give us rules and guidelines on how we should conduct our everyday lives. Dr. Aziz is held captive to the thought of what lies behind the sheet and what could be his own type of heaven. Aadam Aziz journeyed many times to the Ghani’s house to see Naseem and he would carefully and thoroughly examine her body in seven-inch sections, working his way from the bottom to the top of her body, excluding a few sensitive areas. Aziz began “to think of the perforated sheet as something sacred and magical” satiating his thirsty desire to fill in the hole he inflicted on himself by the abandonment of religion (Rushdie 1723). This shows an objectification to Naseem by Dr. Aadam Aziz, since he has fallen in love with her in how she smells and with the softness and beauty of her skin, not for her intelligence or thoughts-which is what makes us human. It was a love for parts of a body and mystery but not to a whole person and not to how Naseem Ghani thinks or acts. This all leads to Rushdie’s last stab at the Hijab which was the exclamation, “what a nose!”, made by Naseem Ghani when she finally is able to see the doctor who has treated her all these years (Rushdie 1723). The doctor was a very ugly man and was not comparable in looks, mind, or power to Naseem since she was a very beautiful, young, and sweet girl.

In contrast to the previous male view on a Hijab, the short story written and told from a female perspective, “The Women’s Swimming Pool” shows the struggles that many Indian Muslim women face. The story begins out being told by a narrator, of age to work in tobacco fields, who is “exasperated” and had to “wear [a] dress with long sleeves, [and a] head covering” in the intense summer heat of Lebanon (Shaykh 1728-30). Her grandmother is her guardian and is very devoted to Islam, yet she is against the trip to the all women’s swimming pool by the sea but goes anyways to keep an eye on her granddaughter. The narrator wants to go so bad and it intensifies as she recites in her head “I can’t wait, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink, I want to go now, now”(Shaykh 1732). Then the narrator rushes her grandmother to leave so they can go to the woman only pool, located in the city of Zeytouna. This idea of an all-female pool is a culture shock to the grandmother. She views swimming in public with the chance of being seen it too big of risk to take. When being held to Muslim women standards that they are to be covered such that only her face, hands, and feet are revealed, and the clothing must be loose enough so that the shape of her body is not evident, which is not possible to be compliant with if a woman wishes to go swimming. The grandmother insisted she go with the narrator to the all women’s swimming pool instead of her friend Sumayya. Sumayya was the one who told the narrator about this pool and got it in her head that she needed to go visit it by expressing how amazing it was. The grandmother in this situation stands for the strict Muslim rules in this story and does not want to see the narrator go down the wrong path. She wants the narrator to stay faithful to Islam and not alter her future path.

Once they arrive at Zeytouna by a cab driver, the narrator goes on a hunt to find her long-lost swimming pool by walking around the city inquiring about the about its location. Throughout their adventure, the narrator’s grandmother tries to keep up along the way, but ends up tiring herself out. The narrator finally comes across the pool by the sea and confirms that is just for women. The women outside the pool, taking in the one lira it cost to enter, looked at the narrator with “contempt” and she thought it may have been from her accent and in the way she dressed. Either way, she felt a judgment against her and showed the difference in cultures. As the narrator walked back to her grandmother, excited to have located the pool, she came across her kneeling on the pavement in prayer to Allah in the middle of the busy street. This is when the narrator makes a big self-discovery about herself. She notices how the world has grown and how you can have the best of both worlds by being individualistic, keeping her faith in Islam, and still be able to experience life. She sees this in the behavior and reactions people have to the grandmother. She unglorifies her grandmother when she says she “felt sorry for her [and] for the first time her black dress looked shabby to [her]” because she will never understand that it is ok to go outside your comfort zone and still being faithful. The narrator now knows that it is ok to be Muslim and do what you are comfortable with, in this new progressive world. Although the Islamic religion is very demanding with the rules concerning behavior, ideals, dress, and conduct of its people, women who follow this religion feel that the veiling of their body brings honor to their God by keeping his rules and is empowering to them by showing individuality. This is exactly what the narrator learns from the trip to the all women’s swimming pool.

To some people, a Hijab is something to be made fun of or to think of as silly. To others, it is a sign of prevailing faith in the Qur’an and shows power in individuality. From the male perspective as told in “The Perforated Sheet”, covering women seems silly and degrades the values of women by breaking them down into parts and not for the value of the whole woman. Dr. Aziz falls for a younger, beautiful, powerless woman he has only seen in parts. He also falls in love with the mystery and not with Naseem herself. This shows a man’s fetish and desire for a mystery bigger than himself. When compared to the female perspective of wearing a full body covering like in “The Women’s Swimming Pool”, which showed that wearing a Hijab is a sign of a strong Islamic faith and powerful individuality, you can see how vastly different viewpoints on veiling women are in the eyes of different sexes. In this short story, the woman Indian Muslim narrator goes on a journey to discover that being Muslim and having a strong faith does not have to get in the way of enjoying life. The two stories are comparable in aspects such as both have women being veiled and both have the discovery of something big in the end, yet there are key differences between the two. In “The Perforated Sheet”, Rushdie makes a clear analogy throughout the story that a Hijab is nothing more than a sheet with a hole in it and tells the story from the male’s perspective. Compared to “The Women’s Swimming Pool”, which was told from a female point of view, this short story tells a journey of self-discovery and individualism in being a strong Muslim woman and embracing your differences.

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