A Look at Women in Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust: Part II

Part I of this review ran last week. You can read it here.

Why do Muslim women merely serve a sexual purpose and a way to “feel power over another human being” in Eteraz’s relationships in Children of Dust?  The answer to this question ultimately lies within the convoluted cultural-religious matrix Eteraz finds himself in as he attempts to form relationships with women.  At a young age, he learns a cultural understanding of relationships with women when his mother admonishes him for “playing” with Sina: “Good boys don’t play games with girls” (19). The lesson is that he is not to engage with girls or women on any sort of level that may result in an eventual emotional attachment or healthy relationship.

Amongst his numerous relationships with women in the book, Eteraz’s relationship with his mother is the longest (and thus most well-developed).  While a child in Pakistan, he describes her as an “inveterate storyteller,” (37) whose influence seems to have affected his own decision to write his story.  As he grows older, his relationship with her transforms—he rebels against his mother’s “mantras that impressed on me the immorality of interacting with females” (130).  But this relationship is not something I found most intriguing–I am instead interesting in further examining the “girls he met along” his journey.

As Eteraz begins to navigate his burgeoning attraction to the opposite sex during high school, he concludes that, as a Muslim, he should attempt to confine his attraction only to Muslim women. He defines the “ideal woman” as “a virgin, stripper, actress, homemaker with a PhD” (135)—he finds women’s sexuality to be the most ideal quality, followed by the ability to be a “homemaker,” and finally intelligence to be the lesser ideal quality in his “ideal woman.” Eteraz does not describe at length any attributes he finds attractive in Muslim women that are devoid of his (sexual) intentions.

Eteraz expresses interest in an “Egyptian chick,” Amal, that attends his Sunday school at the local masjid, and he decides she is someone he is able to “pursue” and might one day marry:

First because she didn’t go to my school, and second because she was Muslim, meaning that the burden of my sin wouldn’t be borne by me alone.  We’d both end up in hell, whereas with a non-Muslim girl I’d be the only one to burn. (137)

The guilt of engaging with Amal, even initially as a non-sexual pursuit, weighs heavily as a burden for Eteraz—he assumes it is better to “sin” with a Muslim woman, as they will both receive punishment for it.  However, his interest in Amal is short-lived, as they are unable to even speak with each other due to the social norms that dictate their interaction at the masjid (they are not to interact with each other for any reason and must remain separate from each other).  Amal is woefully underdeveloped as a character, but then what chance did she have, given the circumstances Eteraz found himself in?  How could he have interacted with her at all given the social restrictions placed upon their interactions with each other?

As a college student, Eteraz’s immediate concern is still to avoid “fornication”—he is fearful of a non-Muslim woman’s unabashed attraction towards him (Kara, who he credits attributes of intelligence that are non-sexual in nature) and concludes he must marry a Muslim woman in order to have a religiously sanctioned relationship.  He finds such a woman, Bilqis, online in an AOL chat room as a freshman. After meeting for a few times at a train station halfway between their respective homes, they discuss how to tell their parents that they would like to get married.  Bilqis is wary of talking to her parents about Eteraz, and instead concocts a “multistep backup plan that would satisfy her parents” (181) for him to put into play.  Bilqis is unwilling to go to her parents, fearful that she might be “disowned” for not desiring an “arranged” marriage proposal.  Bilqis, like Amal, is also underdeveloped as a character—Eteraz’s concern is with merely finding a woman “good-looking enough to be a good wife” (180).  Both Amal and Bilqis are only seen as women who he might one day marry (and have sex with).

Eteraz’s relationship with Bilqis, in which he is entrusted with an incredible amount of power by Bilqis to broach the subject first with his parents, elucidates the onus that falls upon men in Eteraz’s cultural-religious matrix to initiate and consummate their relationships.  A couple of years later, Eteraz’s understanding of women continues to involve sexual intentions as the basis of his relationships with women. He meets another Muslim woman, Anis (again, online), and proceeds to exchange emails with her that were “mostly about how little she knew about sex and sexuality” (242).  Assuming a dominant role in the power dynamic, Eteraz convinces her that “it’s the Islamic thing to do…to talk about sex”:

To my surprise, within a couple of weeks she told me that she and the guy she’d been going to marry had called things off, and now she wanted to give me the honor of being the first guy she went down on. (243)

At this point in time, Eteraz has the upper hand in the power dynamic between the two—he convinces Anis to talk about sex and engage with him sexually.  Anis, like Amal and Bilqis before, is seen only as a sexual partner, someone who will fit the mold of the “ideal woman” as a “virgin.”

In Children of Dust, Eteraz comes to realize that society values and expects him as a man to bear the burden of having a dominant role in the power dynamic of his relationships with women and uses this to his advantage in an attempt to have successful relationships (where a “successful relationship” is first defined as marriage, and later on through sexual satisfaction).

Eteraz suggests that the convoluted cultural-social matrix he finds himself in as a Pakistani-Muslim-American man is the reason for his abysmal relationships with women.  As he explains when he tries to “get to know” Amal at the masjid:

The nearness of these girls that couldn’t be touched, even approached, even befriended, upset me.  Why did I spend my life in conformity with Islam…Why, in a case of egregious torture, were the Muslims I was most curious about the ones that were kept furthest away?  Allah: I didn’t want to violate them—I simply wanted to eliminate the chasm of anonymity that existed between us.  I wanted to know them. (139)

With the exception of his mother (with whom he happens to have his longest female relationship with), the characters of Amal, Bilqis, and Anis (in addition to other minor female characters Eteraz presents in the book) are underdeveloped—women serve only a sexual purpose with whom long-term relationships are unable to occur.

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