The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book review:
A Thousand Splendid Suns
– The women of Afghanistan without a voice

Feb 18, 2008

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner about men in Afghanistan, wrote a book about Afghan women. In his 2007 book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini pays tribute to the plight of Afghan women, who have suffered through much more than 20 years of war. Afghanistan suffered in the war with the former Soviet Union, the war between various factions and then the Taliban war against everything supposedly “modern.”

The first woman about whom Hosseini writes is Mariam, child of a wealthy businessman in Herat and a servant he raped. She and her mother are sent to live in a hut in the countryside. Every Thursday her father spends a few hours visiting her. Her mother angrily warns her daughter of what will happen: “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”

When Mariam is 15, she runs away to her father, hoping to force him to right the wrong done to her and her mother. Instead her father sells her to Rasheed, an older man and a shoemaker. She learns what she must in order to prevent Rasheed from beating her too often. But she is unable to complete a pregnancy, losing fetus after fetus.

On Mariam and Rasheed’s street are neighbors from the various ethnic groups all found living in modern Kabul. The father in one family is a teacher. The sons proudly march off to war against the Soviet Union. The youngest child, a girl Laila, struggles to understand her mother’s mental collapse when the sons don’t return.

Finally, as the Taliban take over in Kabul in1996, Laila’s life meshes with Mariam’s. Mariam and Laila will pay dearly for the disaster that is the new religious-led Afghanistan. The poorer one, Mariam, will pay with her life for standing up to the brutal Rasheed. Laila will suffer real horrors but she is the more privileged Afghani who eventually escapes from Afghanistan with part of her family.

Westerners seldom know the reality of women’s lives in such a society. Not only are men completely free to beat and bully as they please; in addition, self-righteous religious fanatics can murder women, or men, using religious excuses. Of course, Western women also face enormous violence and personal disaster from men willing to beat, rape and terrorize them. And in every society women are constantly demeaned by men who consider one half of humanity useful only for cooking, sex and child-rearing. But, the more privileged is a woman’s background and situation, the more possibilities she has, like Laila, to escape.

For the majority of women in the poorer countries of the world, like Afghanistan, there is seldom a way out. In their world men make sure that few women gain an education, get a job which would pay for a roof over her head or for food for the children. Women and children are considered the property of the men, who pay no price at all for their brutality. In fact, other men admire them for their “traditional” behavior, for keeping women “in their place.”

But in leaving readers with this brilliant picture of what women suffer in many countries throughout the world, Hosseini tells a deliberate lie. He ends his story in 2001, without any mention of what the next six years would bring the people of Afghanistan. The U.S. attack and occupation have made an already horrible situation worse, if such a thing can be imagined.

Reading A Thousand Splendid Suns helps us better understand the lives of women in Afghanistan and in every country dominated by traditional patriarchal customs and religion – patriarchy that U.S. imperialism has been perfectly ready to use to reinforce its control over countries or even regions.