‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’: A Feminist Perspective

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The novel ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini, set against the backdrop of Afghanistan, portrays the dreadful problems a woman has to face from childhood until death.

Over the years, Afghanistan has been through several political instabilities. All these turmoils mainly affected the women in this country. Women throughout their lives were discriminated against based on their gender. The story is narrated through the perspectives of two female protagonists, Mariam and Laila. The author brings the readers’ attention to the concepts of feminism and gender equality through their life experiences.

Khaled Hosseini

We know how difficult Afghan women’s lives during the war were; they had no rights or freedom, faced severe mental and emotional torture, and lacked individuality. In the novel, Hosseini harshly expressed that they were caged up in their houses and were not allowed to move out without having a male chaperone with them during the war.

History is repeating itself. After the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan in 2021, a new Taliban government was established. The new government imposed several social restrictions on women that had been there in the 1990s. So let us look at how complicated women’s life was in the late 1990s when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan through the lives of Mariam and Laila.

Two decades after being kept out of the country by the US-led military coalition Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021.
Image courtesy-Reuters

Examining the Storyline of ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’

The Life of Mariam

The novel portrays the life of Mariam, Laila and their family. Mariam’s mother, Nana, became pregnant with Jalil’s child (i.e., Mariam). However, he could not marry Nana. So, Nana often reminded Mariam that she was an illegitimate child or ‘harami‘. 

Jalil used to visit Mariam. However, one day he broke the promise of taking her to a film. This incident changed Mariam’s life entirely. She left her home to see her father but was turned away from his home. After returning, she discovered that Nana had hung herself. Jalil forced Mariam to marry a stranger named Rasheed. Rasheed’s fundamentalistic Islamic beliefs caged her into the four walls of their home. He prayed for a boy when she became pregnant, but the miscarriage changed Rasheed into a more obnoxious and abusive husband.

Laila and Her Early Life

Laila was born during the unstable political environment in Afghanistan when the communist party captured power and, in the end, overthrew the government. Laila was close with her friend, Tariq, and she greatly cared for him. Moreover, both of them had a very intimate relationship.

In 1992, the anti-communist Islamic guerrillas overthrew the Communist government in Afghanistan, turning the city into a battleground. Laila lost her family in a rocket attack, but Rasheed saved her. Unfortunately, Laila was pregnant with Tariq’s child, and she was forced to accept Rasheed’s marriage proposal. However, Rasheed started to abuse Laila, too, because she gave birth to a girl.

Intersecting Their Horrible Life

Mariam saw Rasheed abusing Laila. This turned Mariam’s hostile attitude towards Laila into fondness. Laila’s daughter also shared a very special relationship with Mariam. Rasheed’s cruelty towards these innocent women continued with the support of the new Sharia law enforced by the Taliban regime. The women tried to leave, but under Taliban rule, it was illegal for women to run away from their husbands. Laila also gave birth to a son, but Rasheed continued his antagonistic behaviour towards his wives and daughter.

To everyone’s surprise, Tariq came to see Laila one day, and Mariam was shocked to know that Rasheed had cooked up a story to convince Laila to marry him. Rasheed came to know about the visit and tried to kill Laila. Mariam beat him with a shovel and killed him. She sent Laila and the children away with Tariq. Later, Mariam was sentenced to death by the Taliban. Laila lived with Tariq and their children in Pakistan.

In October 2001, the US-led military invasion toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Mariam and Tariq went to Kabul and then to Mariam’s hometown. From there, Laila got a letter written by Mariam’s father asking for forgiveness and some money which he kept for Mariam. They used it to renovate an orphanage and believed Mariam would be happy to see it.

Patriarchial Culture and the Life of Women

Reading the storyline itself shows how terrible it is to live in a patriarchal society. The author visibly addressed how the patriarchal society considered women as belongings and properties of their husbands. The women in Afghanistan lived miserable lives because of the patriarchal structure and the war and crisis. Furthermore, they faced sexual exploitation the physical torture from their husbands. They were the victims of patriarchy under the Taliban’s rule and were restricted from society’s social and cultural life.

Afghan women protesting against the Taliban in front of the presidential Palace in Kabul, demanding the preservation of their rights, September 2021
Image courtesy-Reuters

In the novel, Mariam and Laila represent Afghan women who are marginalised and treated as objects owned by men. They were restricted from the social and cultural life of a society. In Afghan society, if a man cannot control his wife, he is considered a coward. If a woman tries to resist, she will be attacked by the whole society.

Afghan Women During the Taliban Regime

During the reign of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, women were treated inhumanely. The Taliban enforced the Sharia law restricting women from enjoying their fundamental human rights.

Afghan women were marginalised and discriminated against based on their gender, which deteriorated the socio-economic state of women in Afghanistan. They were forced to wear burqa and were forbidden from attending school. The Taliban also restricted women’s access to primary health care. They tried to implement harsh traditional Islamic ideology that forced women to stay in their houses.

After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, most Afghan women vanished back into their homes, being denied their freedom and fundamental rights. Image courtesy-Reuters

A New Hope

The new government that came after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 gave women all rights and brought them to the forefront of society to improve the socio-economic condition of their life. The government also provided all basic amenities and healthcare facilities. More children were enrolled in primary schools (10% in 2003 to 33% in 2017). Also, by 2020, 21% of Afghan civil servants will be women.

A group of female school students in Afghanistan in 2002

However, the above developments were only seen in the urban areas. The lives of people in the rural areas were not changed much compared to the Taliban regime. In those areas, men remained highly conservative and did not allow women to leave their homes.

Current Life of Afghan Women

The new Taliban regime, which took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, has brought back the gender-discriminatory practices of the old Taliban government. The new government closed girls’ secondary schools restricting their right to education. They also created barriers to women and girls from pursuing higher education and banned them from most paid employment. The new government abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. They also restricted women’s mobility checking them from leaving the country alone. They also tried to silence female journalists and banned women’s sports. Furthermore, they continue to hamper women’s fundamental rights through the male-oriented administration in Afghanistan.

Afghan girls playing cricket on a school ground in Herat, Afghanistan, in 2014
Image courtesy-The Guardian

Conclusion

In ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, Khaled Hosseini emphasises how war, political instability and patriarchy have tragically swept the female protagonists’ lives. He holds a very sympathetic place for women and examines the discrimination and abuse they face throughout their lives. Moreover, it is pathetic to know that when people scream to attain gender equality all around the globe, this country locks up their women in the name of religious laws.

You may also like:

“The Real Threat”: Women’s Rights In Afghanistan During The Regime Of The Taliban

About the Author

Rekha J

Born and raised in a highly conservative family, Rekha always wanted to shatter all chains surrounding her from achieving her dreams. She is pursuing her Masters in International Relations and Politics from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. Her fundamental research interest is in feminism. She also volunteers for the Sex Education Kerala (SEK) foundation.

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