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“Over and against [the law]”: Migration, Secularism and Women of Color Feminisms in "The Satanic Verses" and "The Year of the Runaways"

Lubabah Chowdhury

Abstract


After his demonic transformation and his subsequent eviction from his marital home, Salman Rushdie’s protagonist Saladin Chamcha wonders: “For what was he—he couldn’t avoid the notion—being punished?...Had he not pursued his own idea of the good, sought to become that which he most admired, dedicated himself with a will bordering on obsession to the conquest of Englishness?...Was it his fault that Pamela and he were childless? Were genetics his responsibility?” (Rushdie 256-257, emphasis in the original). Saladin’s musings at this moment, and indeed, throughout Rushdie’s 1988 novel, touch upon not only his precarious position as a Third World migrant1 but also on the vital role the women in his life play in determining both his and his future children’s cultural and national affiliations. Saladin’s final question in this soliloquy evokes a further strand of inquiry: in a national historical moment ripe with anxiety about immigration and nationality, how are Third World migrant subjects, women characters and the rule of law positioned with regard to one another? In her tracing of British immigration law from 1948 to 1981,2 Ranu Samantrai3 speaks to Saladin’s concerns about his wife’s role in solidifying his and his progenies’ hold on English citizenship when she writes: “The 1981 British Nationality Act…simultaneously extended descent to include the maternal, as well as the paternal, line. This shift in the terms of membership from affiliation to inheritance redefined the nation from a far-flung community of diverse peoples to a narrowly territorialized family of kin” (61). Ironically, the 1981 Act was meant to rectify what many politicians and second-wave feminists viewed as the sexist nature of British immigration law; before Thatcher’s government was elected in 1979, British citizenship could only be conferred through paternal lines. And yet, the Act consolidated the decades-long compromised process of “trading rights accruing to members by virtue of their race for those accruing by virtue of sex” (Samantrai 90). While white British women were now able to pass on their British citizenship to their children, regardless of whether or not they lived in Britain, the Act left racialized Third World migrant subjects in the precarious position of relying on the good will of either their British spouses or on the state, regardless of their duration of residence or, as Saladin notes bitterly, their “good” behavior or lack thereof. If Saladin is no longer “affiliated” with Britain, his claims to Britishness mean very little without his white British born-and-bred wife Pamela Lovelace’s affirmation of his adopted national identity.


Keywords


law and literature; feminism; migration; secularism

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