In the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, Afghan society is portrayed at different points in history and governments, and in all of them, women are viewed as a secondary class of citizens. There is evident inequality for women, ranging from their access to education and healthcare to their rights as citizens and wives or children. Hosseini emphasizes multiple key moments of injustice and inequality faced by the protagonists, Mariam and Laila. The intent of the paper is to explore the recent Afghani history and social conditions while making connections to the events of the novel to explore more deeply the thematic of women’s inequality in Afghanistan, particularly its evolution and causes.
Hoseini dedicates the novel to the women of Afghanistan, embodied in the images of Mariam and Laila. The tragic fate of women born out of wedlock, her search for herself and the possibility of personal happiness, their heroism and self-sacrifice make up the deep global meaning of the text. The key cultural component of Mariam’s image is harami, or bastard (Hosseini 4). A girl who combines two qualities that are discriminated against in Afghanistan – being an illegitimate child and a woman.
In the story about the fate of Mariam, the key lexeme harami acquires emotional and evaluative meanings, including pronounced epithets and comparisons. It is stated, “by the way Nana said the word, that it was an ugly, loathsome thing to be a harami, like an insect, like the scurrying cockroaches” (Hosseini 4). Associations with shame, and in Afghanistan, illegitimate children are considered a disgrace to the family, are also present in the text. “She imagined they all knew that she’d been born a harami, a source of shame to her father and his family. They all knew that she’d betrayed her mother and disgraced herself” (Hosseini 60). Such a state of affairs seems to be rooted in the essentials of the country’s regime that has been oppressing women to a great extent.
The Taliban was the ruling force when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 but ironically came back into power the very day the US was departing its force from the country. Barr mentions some of the Taliban’s restrictive policies, such as the lack of education for girls and the need for a male family member to accompany women leaving their homes (mahram). This wave-alike shift in the degree of oppression within the society has considerably affected people’s understanding of females’ rights in the country. Accompanied by a solid religious foundation, the described factor has never allowed women to feel the absence of inadequate restrictions.
At this point, it would be reasonable to note another cultural characteristic of the image of Mariam – the patience and readiness of a woman to endure oppression – is expressed by two equivalent lexemes. In English, it is “endure”, and in Persian – “tahamul.” Such a female share is instilled in Mariam from childhood by her mother. She states, “This is my reward for everything I’ve endured”, “Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul” (Hosseini 17). Then, there are some other features of Mariam’s image, among which is the kolba, where the girl lives with her mother. It is a flask type of hut that is being built in Afghanistan (Hosseini 3). There is a belief that the kolba is one of the most primitive types of dwellings that are built from improvised materials. Kolba in the novel is a symbol of the woman’s living space, limited by the house. It is known that Sharia law interprets the place of a woman in this way. After marriage, Mariam remains “living in a flask” although she now has her own house, the house of her husband, she almost never goes out.
The turning point in her life comes with the appearance of Aziza, the daughter of Laila, who became the second wife in the family. Mariam realizes that little Aziza is as illegitimate as herself, along with Laila, who becomes the dearest people in her life, ready to love her and take care of her. Mariam’s insight leads to a confrontation with her fate, which in this fragment is expressed by the antithesis tolerate(endure)/intolerable. This reflects the author’s evaluative position on the status of women in their country, deprived of love and respect.
Indeed, the Afghan society has been war-torn for decades, and as in many conflict-ravaged societies, women bear the unjustified load. Lauren provides some chilling statistics that more than 80% of Afghan girls will face forced marriage, 87% remain illiterate, and 80% of suicides are by females. Afghanistan is a society that is so inbred in its patriarchy and misogyny that, despite all the evidence, it is willing to see women suffer, die, and face generational levels of abuse with no end in sight.
Laila’s influence on Mariam’s life is not only that Mariam found the meaning of life in friendship and love but also that Leila is not going to put up with Sharia traditions. Laila personifies in the novel a woman of Western culture secondary to Hosseini – an independent, educated, and persuasive decision-maker. The fact that Mariam follows Layla demonstrates the author’s position in relation to the gender issue in Afghanistan. He considers the position of women there unacceptable.
Mariam performs a heroic deed that is among the most significant events in the novel. After killing her husband to protect Laila and Aziza, she places herself in the hands of the Taliban “justice” and, in doing so, gives her new family hope for a new life. Before her death, in the inner speech of Mariam, all associations of the image of an Afghan woman are expressed, and all that she is unfairly deprived of. The main aspects of this deprivation are highlighted syntactically in nominative sentences – a mother, a person worthy of respect.
The issue of injustice in society’s order has been investigated by numerous modern scholars. Particularly, Mahendru describes gruesome instances of gender-based violence and sexual violence, typically in forced marriages. Women found themselves in situations undergoing severe abuse, violations of privacy (including sexual, such as forced virginity tests), and deprived of fundamental human rights, freedoms, and dignity. Under these conditions, sooner or later, a woman will be forced to act desperately, which is shown in Mariam’s plotline. However, anyone who stood up to the extremism, particularly during the Taliban rule, could face years of imprisonment or even the death penalty, as demonstrated in the book.
Here, it is rational to claim that the image of Mariam is associated with the title of the novel. “A thousand splendid suns” is a poetic quote from a poem dedicated to Kabul by Saib Tabrizi, a Persian poet of the 16th century (Ghafoor and Farooq 32). In this line, he expresses his admiration for the beauty of the city. For Hosseini, a thousand splendid suns are the women of Afghanistan, like Mariam. After overcoming her fear, Laila returns to Kabul to become a teacher at an orphanage. It is noteworthy that in Laila’s thoughts, the children in the class relate to Mariam, who never went to school. Education was a pipe dream of Mariam, which is also a characteristic of her image since there are half as many schools for girls in Afghanistan as for boys.
It should be emphasized that education seems to be a pressing issue within the given scope, which is evidenced from the contemporary state of affairs. A related study shows that gender theme is still a decisive factor when it comes to the education of the young generation in Afghanistan. According to Blum et al., over 90% of parents from the sample wanted at least a secondary education completed before marriage (370). The authors also stress severely limited educational opportunities and increased risks of violence and freedom restrictions for girls.
In the final pages of the novel, the metaphorical micro-image of the effulgence of Mariam as a thousand suns stresses the main idea of the novel. Mariam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns (Hosseini 375). Such a perspective can be associated with the ray of hope that the author foresees in the future of women in Afghanistan.
To conclude, it is evident that the issue of women’s inequality in Afghanistan and as described in A Thousand Suns, is deeply intertwined with the socio-cultural traditions and highly orthodox religious Islamic beliefs which dominate Afghan society. The century-old traditions formulate the patriarchal society, which, in combination, views women in the context of ownership in the light of legal systems such as Sharia law.
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