The novel is set in a near-future Pakistan where a repressive patriarchy requires women to take multiple husbands and become full-time baby makers after wars and disease render women devastatingly scarce. A reviewer in the Los Angeles Times called it a “thrilling novel” with “exquisite” social commentary. Before She Sleeps was also among the books recently highlighted in an article in The Atlantic about “The Remarkable Rise of the Feminist Dystopia.”
Before She Sleeps focuses on a group of women who’ve found a modicum of freedom by hiding underground with the assistance of powerful men, for whom they provide clandestine but non-sexual companionship.
The book explores the boundaries of their freedom through an eastern and Islamic lens. “Western readers… are expecting some fantastic Hunger Games-type scenario where the women come out as warriors and just smash the patriarchy. Feminism in my part of the world, in the Middle East and South Asia, is a lot more subtle. We’re dealing with tremendous amounts of misogyny and … gender-based violence. So I think what women over the centuries have learned is not to directly confront that misogyny … but to subvert it, to go around it,” Shah says.
The risks facing outspoken women in Pakistan today are real. Shah’s friend, Sabeen Mahmud, was murdered in 2015. Mahmud had founded a popular café-gallery and meeting space in Karachi that seeks to foster conversations about human rights, diversity, and other topics that are controversial in Pakistan. After the murder, Shah wrote with greater urgency, channeling all her “terrible feelings” over Mahmud’s assassination into the novel.
While some might call Mahmud and Shah activists, Shah resists the label. “We feel like we’re just out there doing our work and saying what needs to be said and telling the truth about what we see in our lives around us and if that’s activism, then OK,” she says.