Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

The novel A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini poignantly writes the story of brave and courageous Afghan women who have lived under the debilitating shadows of patriarchal oppression, endless violence and war. As the extremist Taliban regime in Kabul enforces its full obscurantist and repressive rule on Afghan society, the brave Afghan women are again facing the brunt of it. Educational institutions for girls have been shut down and women are being caged under medieval style practices. As the brutal repression of Taliban gets exacerbated, it is important to revisit Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns which is a significant narrative in so far it poignantly reveals how the patriarchy and persistent conditions of conflict have multiplied the oppression on women in Afghanistan. It is a human tragedy of great proportions, after all, and the world cannot simply take its eyes off it. However, this is also to make it clear that the aim of this study is not to homogenize Afghanistan or its women by any means. It is a fallacy which has become a recurrence when it comes to any academic or non-academic discussion about Afghanistan. Afghan women are not a homogenous category in any way. There are various intersections like the class, ethnicity, regional belonging, or historical situation which the Afghan men and women tread like their counterparts in any other part of the world. The focus is on how the unique historical circumstances, in the form of conflicts and wars that Afghanistan has now been coping with for almost a half of century, have brought agonizing experiences for its women.

A Thousand Splendid Suns jpgThe women in the novel genuinely appear as suffering beings. The prolonged conditions of the conflict, war, and foreign aggression in Afghanistan have taken a heavy toll on human life and brought enormous suffering and devastation for the country. In any conflict children and women, in any case, are always the worst sufferers because of their vulnerable positions in the society. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues, “Women have never been secure within (or without) the nation state-they are always disproportionately affected by war, forced migration, famine, and other forms of social, political, and economic turmoil”. In a society like Afghanistan where, in some instances, patriarchal customs can be as hard and as rigid as its landscape, one is only left to wonder about the conditions of women when these customs are further entrenched by a prolonged conflict. It appears from the narrative of Hosseini’s novel that women in Afghanistan have been victims both of patriarchy and the brutal situation of war that has now ravaged Afghanistan for the duration of almost a half of century. In the novel, this is reflected in the words of a woman named Babi who despondently observes, “Women have always had it hard in this country.”

The patriarchal society enforces ‘the ideal womanhood’ concept on women which has to be attained in any condition or circumstance. As reflected in the novel, in the Afghan society, it is the women who have to cultivate these ideals laid down by the patriarchy. The patriarchal society sees to it that women become the perfect accomplishments of these ideals. This concept becomes a major instrument of oppression on women. In the name of honour and ideal womanhood, it appears that the sexual predation and the brutalization of women are widespread in the Afghan society. In the novel, Mariam cannot withstand her defiance. She has to bow down before the rigid customs of her society as she is reluctantly dragged into marrying with Rasheed. At the nikka (Islamic occasion of wedding) ceremony, the Mullah, without acknowledging Mariam’s consent, remarks, “All that remains now is the signing of the contract.”

Rasheed is apprehensive about the undercurrent sexual predation in the society which ironically prescribes moral codes for its women. Notwithstanding the seemingly ‘sophisticated’ culture of Kabul, of which he often brags about, he tells Mariam in strict terms to wear burqa and avoid strangers, even their family friends and guests. Mariam is not used to wearing burqa and finds it very suffocating. But she has to yield in before Rasheed’s authority. who tells her, “You ‘ll get used to it.” Later on, he gives similar dictates to his second wife Laila. In giving strict dictates to his wives, Rasheed falsely pretends of protecting their “honour” and “integrity” while indulging in limitless cruelty of abusing and beating them regularly. After Mariam rightfully protests against his second marriage, Rasheed openly boasts of the practice of polygamy prevalent in the society. It is only the women who commit wrong; men simply cannot be wrong in this society. She learns it from her own experience as well as from her mother’s life. After Jalil’s non-marital relationship with Nana which results in the birth of Mariam, Jalil blames Nana and disowns her because his honour in the society would be harmed. There is also the case of Naghma whom Mariam meets in the Taliban prison. She was lured into eloping by a Mullah’s son, but after the Taliban arrest them and put them to trial, the man testifies against Naghma blaming her for seduction. Leaving aside all the norms of justice, the Taliban take his account to be true and set him free while sending Naghma to prison for five years. All this serves to reinforce the dubious and hollow nature of codes of honour formulated by the male society in Afghanistan for its women.

In the dominant patriarchies, women also seem to be internalizing the essentialist patriarchal customs which traps them further in the web of marginalisation. Reflecting on this, Kavita Punjabi argues, “The social demands of the women, the social construction of what a feminine identity should be, make women vulnerable to internalizing guilt, whereas the former, the feminist identity that addresses the needs of women, makes it possible for them to deal with both the superimposed and the internalized guilt.” In the novel, women appear to share their part in the male hegemony. They internalise and essentialise views of the differences in human beings as embedded in the patriarchy dominated culture. Nana’s various utterances seem to underlie this essentialist view. She tells Mariam, “It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have. Do you understand?”

In the beginning of the novel, Mariam expresses great urge for going to school. She informs his friend and mentor, the elderly Mullah Faizullah, who gives his consent. But her mother Nana sees no purpose of education. She rebukes Mariam for even thinking about education: “What is there to learn?… What’s the sense schooling a girl like you?…And you’ll learn nothing of value in those schools. There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school. Look at me… only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure.” This seems reflective of the set space and roles assigned to women in the patriarchal order.

After the fall of Communists in Afghanistan, the Jihadi warlords, and later, the Taliban, articulated identities which were highly masculinized in which women suffered immense oppression. Taliban, in particular, patronized patriarchal practice as a marker of national culture. They imposed harsh norms of female propriety. As a result, acts of violence were committed against women who were seen as not complying with this norm of female modesty. Since the Taliban carried out these activities at the official level, an environment was fomented in which violence on women spread across the whole society. During the cannot be wrong in this society. She learns it from her own experience as well as from her mother’s life. Prolonged phases of violence and lawlessness in Afghanistan, when it was grappling with the violent struggle backed by foreign powers against the Soviets, followed by a civil war among the different Jihadi and Ethnic warlords, and lastly, the surge of Taliban, there was a sharp increase in the acts of violence in which women were subjected to rapes, kidnappings, and other acts of physical assault. Elaborating on the pathetic situations of Afghan women during this violent period in Afghanistan’s history, in his postscript to the novel, Khaled Hosseini himself recalls, “Women were abducted and sold as slaves, forced into marriage to militia commanders, forced into prostitution, and raped, a crime particularly heinous and unforgivable that was used to intimidate families who were opposed to one faction or another.”
Various scholars have argued about conflict zones offering a facilitating environment for gender violence of all sorts. During the intense battles in Kabul which forces the closure of all businesses in the city, Rasheed is rendered jobless forcing him to stay passive at home. His frustration grows more and more, and it bears in his ever increasing physical assaults on Mariam and Laila. The two women are just scared by his extended presence at home.

The violent Taliban regime misinterpreted religious dictums to further strengthen the oppressive practices on women. Consequently, women in Afghanistan suffered a lot during the Taliban rule. As described in the novel, the Taliban frequently carry out executions, flogging and stoning of women who are accused of defying their strict orders. As we see in the novel, one such victim is Mariam herself. Laila is also beaten many a time for venturing out without a male companion. During Mariam’s trial, a young Taliban judge tells her: “I wonder God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think we can. .. This is why we require only one male witness but two female ones.”
In almost sarcastic terms, the Taliban claim that they are doing all this for the sake of God. They are simply unfazed about the inhuman treatment they mete out to the women of Afghanistan. However, Taliban are not the only ones to be blamed for their oppression on women. In some instances, it was a pre-existing feature of the Afghan society well before the takeover of Taliban. In the postscript to the novel, Hosseini writes, “Life was a struggle for some women in Afghanistan well before the Taliban. But it became all but unbearable with the outbreak of factional war, anarchy and extremism. In many ways, that’s when disaster really struck.”

In conflict zones, it has been often found that violence on the bodies of women serves as a tool of political repression. Such acts of physical coercion are motivated by an idea of keeping a woman in complete confinement and submission. For instance, it is symbolised in the way Rasheed callously treats Mariam and Laila at home while the Taliban do the same to them outside it. Rasheed welcomes Taliban and is in all praise for their strict codes because his own patriarchal authority gets reinforced through their rigid dictums. To authenticate his own patriarchal hegemony, he defends Taliban’s strict codes and laws for women, and sees nothing wrong in them. What one sees here is what Bunster-Burrotto terms a “cruel double disorientation” in which the conflict and the patriarchy complement each other to exacerbate the oppression on women.

In the light of the analysis of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, one may conclude that the prolonged conditions of conflict in Afghanistan have brought adverse impacts on its women by exacerbating the patriarchal oppression on them. As a result, they had to undergo unbounded pain and suffering which, in Hosseini’s own words, “has been matched by very few groups in recent world history.” This pain and suffering was cast in their voicelessness. Through his narrative, Hosseini aims to provide voice to Afghan women by bringing their suffering to fore.

Basharat Shameem, Amar Singh College, Srinagar, J&K

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