Each society, at any given time, develops a contract between the genders. This contract sets up particular rules about what people of different genders should do, how they should think, and even what they should become. For a long time, women did not share the same rights and privileges as men; in fact, they were often expected to obediently adhere to social expectations without challenging any stereotypes. After all, the rest of society had created “the ideal woman” – a clear picture of the soft, quiet, stay-at-home embodiment of femininity that women are expected to emulate. In “Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies,” Salman Rushdie creates a female character (Miss Rehana) who perplexes society by frustrating the gender-based expectations placed on her as a woman in the Middle East. Likewise, in “The Drover’s Wife” by Murray Bail, a woman named Hazel behaves in a way that is considered abnormal by her traditionalist husband. Both Miss Rehana and Hazel choose to act eccentrically for the sake of their own personal fulfillment, and their unexpected choices affect not only themselves but the entire pre-defined social establishment of their time.
In the beginning of “Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies,” Miss Rehana arrives alone and is described by Muhammad Ali as a “strange, big-eyed, independent girl” (Rushdie). Already, she seems much more autonomous than the shivering “Tuesday women” who are frightened, leaning on their male relatives. Despite Miss Rehana’s obvious confidence, Muhammad Ali jumps to the assumption that she is just like the rest of the women who are trying to get to Britain and be under the protective wings of a rich husband. Indeed, Muhammad compares Miss Rehana to a sparrow whose “innocence made him shiver with fear for her” (Rushdie). Not only is Muhammad blind to Miss Rehana’s self-assurance, he completely misjudges her as an individual and is quick to neatly fit her into a pre-conceived mold of a naïve woman in need of male guidance. When Miss Rehana reveals that she purposefully failed the examination that would assure her passage to Britain, Muhammad’s neat view of the Pakistani social order for women is visibly ruined. Clearly, Miss Rehana chooses to do what makes her happy, instead of what her parents traditionally arranged for her security. After all, her last smile, which Muhammad watches from his compound, is “the happiest thing he had ever seen in his long, hot, hard, unloving life” (Rushdie). Perhaps the restrictive gender rules that bound the women Muhammad has always been around never gave those women reason to smile so cheerfully. With her happiness, Miss Rehana crushes the notion that her society can be likewise delighted in the “ideal” world they have created by establishing expectations of their women. Thus, not only does Miss Rehana thwart the common belief that she should be satisfied with her pre-established role, she redefines what it means to be a truly happy Pakistani woman.
Similarly, in Bail’s version of “The Drover’s Wife,” the narrator’s wife chooses to act unconventionally in order to achieve self-realization. Like Muhammad, Hazel’s husband is confounded by his wife’s actions, and he cannot understand why she would leave a comfortable life with him – a dentist – to live in the wilderness with a lower-class drover. Surprisingly, the dentist is almost blind to the fact that his wife is not entirely happy in her stereotypical life with him. Although he mentions that she sometimes acts “like a schoolgirl” and has “a silly streak,” he prefers to describe his wife as “shy, even with [him]: quiet, generally non-committal” (Bail). Of course, this does not mean that Hazel does not have another side, a side which she is forced to suppress because of her husband’s obvious disapproval. Truly, when the dentist notices Hazel’s alternative behavior – especially that which involves masculine attributes – he says it makes her “less attractive” (Bail). When Hazel gladly chops wood, lugs ice to the freezer, and even kills a snake, her husband cannot cope with the idea that a woman can actually enjoy what is typically considered a man’s way of living life. Not surprisingly, when he looks at the painting, which he claims is a portrait of Hazel, he tries to persuade himself that she is not happy. He claims that he can “see she is having second thoughts. Distance = doubts. They’ve had an argument” (Bail). Nonetheless, Hazel is far more likely to be happy in the vast wilderness that lets her embrace her individuality, than in a modern mansion with the man who is trying to fit her into the mold of his “ideal” feminine figure. Indeed, Hazel leaves, forsaking the gender role constraints of society and like Miss Rehana, redefining what it means for a woman to be happy.
Apparently, independent women like Hazel and Miss Rehana find their personal gratification by challenging the social norms of their time and breaking the fragile contract that defines their positions in the world. After all, the requirements placed on the “ideal woman” are sometimes so demanding of personal sacrifice, women simply cannot afford to be selfish or chase their personal ambitions. Others might try to mend this discomforting tear by ignoring it, like Muhammad Ali, or by rationalizing it away – like the narrator of “The Drover’s Wife.” Maybe the contract will never be completely mended; perhaps, it will always be continuously broken, as new stereotypes take over the old, and are cyclically shattered again and again. As long as individuals are finding their true selves, the “ideal woman” may remain a faded myth in society.