Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a masterful narrative which seamlessly combines the two compelling tales of Mariam and Laila with the deeply troubled history of Afghanistan over the past thirty years.These two not only endure the brutalities of their husband Rasheed, but also the appalling atrocities of Taliban. It is the role of women that Hosseini has chosen to explore in this novel and does so vividly through the stories of Mariam and Laila, two women separated by generation but united by an unbreakable bond of friendship. This essay is going to explore how far does Hosseini succeed in portraying the women suffering and their emancipation.
In a speech given at Book Expo America on 2 June, 2007 (later added as Postscript to the novel) Hosseini says,
“I wanted to write another love story set in Afghanistan but this time a mother/daughter tale and about the inner lives of two struggling Afghan women. I suppose there were some easier roads I could have gone down, but I chose this one because, both as a writer and as an Afghan, I could’nt think of a more riveting or important or compelling story than the struggle of women in my country.”
While we are talking about the oppression of women in Afghanistan it is necessary to delve into the history of this oppression. Before the origin of Taliban, Kabul was a hub of female autonomy but the rural Afghanistan, especially south and east along the border with Pakistan, was relatively a patriarchal tribal area where men decided the fates of women. There women always lived in confinement. They wore burqa and rarely went to school beyond the age of twelve. Women there had no choice in marriage, instead they were told when and whom they will marry. Life was a struggle for women in Afghanistan well before Taliban. But it became all the more unbearable with the outbreak of war. Not only were their fundamental human rights violated but they also suffered from gender based abuse. They were abducted and sold as slaves, forced into marriage to militia commanders, forced into prostitution and raped. This is the historical backdrop against which A Thousand Splendid Suns has been written.
Hosseini’s first attack on the patriarchal institutions comes through the figure of Mariam’s epileptic mother Nana. She used to work as a housekeeper in Jaleel’s house and is cast off by Jaleel after she gets pregnant with his illegitimate child. Jaleel already has three wives and nine children and he is quite well off in his business.Hosseini brings forth the double standards of a patriarchal society that blames everything on women when Nana remembers that Jaleel had accused her of forcing herself on him and she adds, “You see? This is what it means to be a woman in this world.” When Nana thinks that Mariam has left her to live with Jaleel, her love for Mariam and her fear of one more rejection induce her to commit suicide.
Nana is the one who gives lessons of subservience and endurance to Mariam. It seems that she acts like the patriarchal manuals of nineteenth cetury Britain that contained guidelines for young girls on how they should be submissive and dependent on the male authority. At one point she says, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.” Nana’s character is important in that it is she who influences Mariam’s psyche. Her lessons stay with Mariam throughout her life. Her biggest lesson that women should learn only one skill, that is tahamul or endurance keeps Mariam bound in an abused marriage.
Mariam sees her independence and emancipation in her father, Jaleel. For her Jaleel is the link to outer world and also an ideal father. While she is constantly abused as harami by Nana, she believes Jaleel loves her unconditionally. In this father-daughter relationship, there is some hope of escape from the extreme severity of patriarchal institutions. But soon she gets disillusioned with this image of her father when he lets her sleep outside his house in Herat. After Nana’s death Jaleel takes her in only to be married off to a man much older than her. She is sent away as she is the walking, breathing embodiment of his shame.
After marriage Mariam shifts to Kabul, the most liberal place in Afghanistan. But her life does not liberate her. Rasheed comes out to be a staunch patriarch. ‘Here women only tolerate oppression, cook and are children producing machines.’(Sushmita Banerjee) Hosseine vividly brings home what life is like for women in a society in which they are valued only for reproduction. Once she has suffered a series of miscarriages, Mariam’s marriage becomes a prison. She suffers from six abortions in four years of her marriage and Rasheed’s despotism makes her life insufferable. She realizes that Rasheed’s love and affection turn to indifference and then to animosity. In one of the most disturbing scene, Rasheed forcefully makes Mariam eat stones. This reflects the kind of atrocities a woman faces when she fails to produce a child, and in this case, Rasheed wanted a male child.
Hosseini’s depicts the hypocritical use of the institution of religion for subjugating women through Rasheed. He is a flip-flopper who misinterprets religious teachings to his own use. While he forces Mariam into having sex with him by saying there is no shame in it as this is what all people do, even the Prophet and his wives, but when it comes to observing fast during the month of Ramadhan, he barely fasts for some days. In the figure of Rasheed, Hosseini tries to represent an upholder of patriarchal values who belives being “modern” is a sin and defines a woman with respect to a man. What we infer is that the patriarchal system itself enslaves and degrades women, for it institutionalizes and valorizes subject-object dichotomy. Woman, according to Simone de Beauvoir, “is defined and differentiated with respect to man…she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he the Absolute – she is the other.”
Mariam, due to her mother’s teachings of resilience misinterprets Rasheed’s possessiveness for his protectiveness. She thinks that he feels a kind of purity in their relationship and, therefore, is guarding her honour by not letting her mix up in the society. It is problematic in the sense that Mariam refuses to see the reality behind her husband’s protectiveness. She even makes up an explaination for Rasheed’s possession of porn magazines in her head. She believes that as a man he has his own needs ‘and what entitled her anyway, a villager, a harami, to pass judgement?’ Mariam’s shame at being illegitimate makes her unable to stand for herself.
We can say that all Afghan women suffer unanimously at the hands of patriarchy but it is also true that due to the help of progressive monarchs such as King Amanullah, and his wife Queen Soraya, Kabul has its history of financially independent modern women. In the novel, Laila, free spirited daughter of the teacher Hakim initially lives a vivacious life. Hakim, Laila’s father is Rasheed’s opposite. He is a husband who respects his wife and a gentle intellectual who has suffered much. Hakim’s warning to his daughter, “ A society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated” is the antithesis of Rasheed’s laconic comment to Mariam, “ A woman’s face is her husband’s business only.” Unlike other parents in his neighbourhood Hakim wishes to educate Laila instead of giving her in marriage just after puberty. It is reflected in one of the revealing passages of the novel when he talks to Laila about the education of women in Afghanistan:
“Women have always had it hard in this country, Laila, but they’re probably more free now, under the communists, and have more rights than they’ve ever had before…But it’s true,it’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan. And you can take advantage of that, Laila.”
Hosseini brings out yet another facet of war torn Afghanistan in the figure of Laila’s mother, Fariba. Two of her sons have gone to join the war and she is always sorrowful. The war has affected the normal people’s lives in this way. She has suffered a lot due to her sons’ absence. This is conveyed by her words when she says to Laila, “In here. What’s in here. You just don’t know.”
The veiling of women is one of the most controversial themes among patriarchal ideologies of all time. Robert J.C. Young has written “For many westerners, the veil is a symbol of patriarchal Islamic societies in which women are assumed to be oppressed, subordinated and made invisible. On the other hand, in Islamic societies, and among many Muslim women in non-Islamic societies, the veil (hijab) has come to symbolize a cultural and religious identity, and women have increasingly chosen to cover themselves as a matter of choice.” In this novel, the burqa, a form of veil is given the central position. Rasheed who acts like a domestic Taliban orders both his wives to wear burqa. Initially Mariam experiences some difficulty while wearing it ‘ stepping on the hem and stumbling.’ On the other hand, Mariam also finds the burqa comforting as ‘it was like a one-way window. Inside it, she was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers.’ When Laila, the educated girl wears burqa, the situation is similar. One of the harshest gender apartheid in Afghanistan was carried out by the Taliban men who interpreted life only in the darkness of the ancient Sharia laws and self constructed absurd laws, like women were not allowed to laugh, cosmetics were banned and all sorts of entertainment was banned.
Laila has a rebellious streak from her childhood. That is why she maintains her childhood friendship with Tariq even in her teens when she knows their relationship is being scrutinized by the people of her village. The two friends have fallen in love and Laila does not refrain herself from secretly kissing and making love with him. It is an act of daring in such a conservative society where women were ordered to wear burqa. The ultimate act of transgression is performed when Tariq is about to leave Afghanistan. Laila loses her virginity but she feels no shame in it.
The novel strikingly reveals what can be the fate of spirited and rebellious women like Laila in Afghanistan. She is left an orphan at the age of fourteen due to violence brought about by the Soviets and the Mujahideen. As a result, she meets the same fate as Mariam. The women’s only hope of affection or solidarity is with one another, and they survive not just physically but also emotionally by putting their faith in each other and in their love for Laila’s children. By virtue of common suffering, bond between Mariam and Laila gets stronger. They enjoy the moments spent with each other when Rasheed leaves for work. They feel relieved when they have the house to themselves, otherwise it gets claustrophobic in his presence. Laila provides the sanctuary that Mariam was missing through the love she and her children share with her. They give her a family, a sense of belonging, and a purpose. It is this bond that eventually leads Laila to slap Rasheed when he is beating Mariam. Laila who has been raised with a strong sense of self by her father, does not submit to her circumstances as Mariam does. When she does, it is because she has something to gain by doing so as we see when she takes Rasheed as a husband, but has plans to leave for Pakistan. She keeps on stealing some money from Rasheed and collects it to eventually leave with her daughter.
Gayatri Spivak mentions that the subaltern cannot speak or can the subaltern speak? In any country when the oppressors become extremists, the subalterns do rise and speak. Mariam performs the final act of protest by murdering Rasheed to save Laila. She finally realizes that all these years she had been a devout wife. She had never decieved him or been malicious towards him. She realizes, “Had she not given this man her youth? Had she ever justly deserved this meanness?” For Mariam this act is an act of liberation from Raheed’s forbearing presence in her life. She does not regret killing him and surrenders herself. Hosseini, thus depicts Mariam’s growth from a meek submissive wife to a rebellious mother who acts in order to save her children. She fully accepts the consequence of each step that leads to her execution, even as Laila begs her to change her mind. In response to Laila’s pleading, Mariam is assured and concise, “Think like a mother Laila jo. Think like a mother. I am.”
Mariam sacrifices her life for Laila and her children. At the end she emerges as a strong woman who has no regrets about what she has done and is ready to face the consequences. It seems that Hosseini’s women, much like the country of Afghanistan itself, are under the influence of outside forces. They have a very little chance of influencing their own lives and futures. Yet neither of them are either helpless or passive. They make choices and accept any kind of consequences, be it hopeful of tragic. Mariam’s sacrifice is instilled into Laila’s purpose and the reconstruction of Kabul.
Hosseini, thus portrays the female emancipation in Mariam’s courageous act and in Laila’s decision to return back to her people in Kabul and work for the rebuilding of her society. Laila finally comes to realize ‘every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet she sees that people find a way to survive, to go on.’ Laila’s realization that Mariam chose this fate not only for her but chose it for Laila’s well-being gives Laila a sense of purpose. This allows her to grow beyond the tragedies she has experienced and to choose to devote her life to others and to something as seemingly impossible as reconstruction of Kabul and Afghanistan.
Thompson, Harvey : ‘ A Thousand Splendid Suns: The plight of Afghan women only partially depicted’- penguin publication
Stuhr, Rebecca : ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns: Sanctuary and Resistance’- University of Pennsylvania, Penn libraries.
Choudhury, Antara : From Margins to the Centre: A Study Of the Subaltern in Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns – Assam University