ABSTRACT: Man and woman are separate entities, but they are the living examples of God’s creation. As times changed and societies developed the perception of each of these entities began to change. A set of values, roles, behavior, and living styles were prescribed. But, who set these guidelines or how did these disparities come into existence? Civilization after civilization witnessed the suppression of women and the dominance of men.
“There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school . . . Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure . .” (Hosseini ,2007,p.17)
This very apt and famous quote of Khalid Hosseini sets the tone of the paper which intends to analyze a comparative study of the male and female protagonist, in the light of the element of ‘dominance’, in Khaled Hosseini’s – ‘ A Thousand Splendid Suns’. It is a grave attempt to bring home the age old practice of exploitation and discrimination of women in the patriarchal system of society, in the country of Afganistan. The suffering and the oppressed women show sparks of resistance at some places in the novel, only to be overwhelmed by the male dominated social systems of the country.
The novel encompasses the portrayal of wounded country – Afghanistan; the moving stories of families, of a heart wrenching story of relationships and emotions. This paper analyzes the surge of the male ego, hatred, sexual desires, jealousy and lust, that is evident in the character of Rasheed. The female protagonist on the other hand, is an embodiment of suffering, humiliation, betrayal, sacrifice and love. The heroine of the novel – Mariam- who is termed as a ‘harami’, that is a bastard and Laila the princess of her parents Hakim and Fariba portray these emotions through the novel.
INTRODUCTION Khaled Hosseini the author - a novelist and a physician took to writing by chance. Belonging to a diplomat family, he was exposed to good life and education both in Afghanistan and in United States. During the Saur Revolution the family was in Paris, France. In 1980, shortly after the Soviet war in Afghanistan. His father sought political asylum in the US and settled in California. Hosseini completed his education and practiced medicine for over ten years. He had a great inclination towards Persian poetry. As a child he read through a number of translated books and versions, ranging from ‘Alice in Wonderland” to Mickey Spillane’s Mike hammers series. His rich experience in a peaceful Afghanistan, was a motivational source to pen down his thoughts in his first novel, “The Kite Runner”, released in 2003, which became the number one bestseller. The plot of the story deals with the main character, Amir, who struggles to establish a close relationship with his father and his dealing with the haunting memories of childhood.
The second novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” published in 2007, addressed similar issues like his first novel. The main deviation was his focus on the female perspective. The female characters are drawn from the author’s imagination of the women he met in Afghanistan. Finally his third novel “And the Mountains Echoed” released in May 2013.
‘Hosseini is skilled at telling a certain kind of story, in which events that may seem unbearable - violence, misery and abuse - are made readable. He doesn't gloss over the horrors his characters live through, but something about his direct, explanatory style and the sense that you are moving towards a redemptive ending makes the whole narrative, for all its tragedies, slip down rather easily’. [Walter Natasha . 2007, May 19. https://www.theguardian.com ]
In one of his interviews, he commented on the story lines of his fist two publications. Khaled Hosseini recollects the stories more on imaginative lines drawn from his experiences. He humbly confides that he wanted to do what all novels did, to transport the readers into the world of the characters and their lives.
‘Ultimately, I think, both novels are love stories. Characters seek and are saved by love and human connection. In The Kite Runner, it was mainly the love between men. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, love manifests itself in even more various shapes, be it romantic love between a man and a woman, parental love, or love for family, home, country, God. I think in both novels, it is ultimately love that draws characters out of their isolation that gives them the strength to transcend their own limitations, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to perform devastating acts of self-sacrifice’.[Hosseini Khaled (2014, June 13). Personal interview with Riverhead Trade http://khaledhosseini.com/books/a-thousand-splendid-suns/q-a/]
The element of ‘suppression is dominant as the story progresses. ‘Despotism’ is the rule of the land, nothing changes the mindset of the people. The author portrays the dominance of strict Islamic family laws. How these laws dictate more authoritarian and stringent laws on the women in comparison to men –
“. laws that ordered women to cover forbade their travel without a male relative, punished adultery with stoning. (The Qur’an, Sura 36 : 232 )
The emphasis on wearing the hijab, has its roots in religion.
“And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers that you might succeed.” (The Qur’an, Sura 24:31)
The stringent practice of this teaching and the moral policing scars the teachings of the Quran. The character of Rasheed, employs this law on his wives. It was his way of protecting his wives from the snares of the passer-by. Although, the wives are not accustomed to wearing it, yet they do it in adherence to orders of their husband. But, the Burqa becomes a weakness; women feel that they are drowned in their self esteem and freedom. The constant suppression and humiliation adds to their woes and the hijab becomes a source of suppression for them.
“Some women say it protects them from judgment and violence, others say it entices abuse.” [http://www.afghanistan-today.org/en/articles/society/2136/]
“And yet, today Afghan women’s choices are few, and their voices notably absent….Afghan women are only burqas… An Afghan woman explained that the world thinks of them as oppressed and weak. This is not accurate, she said, “but the world wants to see us this way.” ( LOTU: 288)
The above statements throw light on the fact that the Afghan women seek equality. They do not want to be considered as weak, with or without the hijab. A similar voice marks the female characters of Mariam and Laila. They lived in bad times, when rules were too stringent and the constant war never gave them an opportunity to enjoy a free life.
“The Voice of Sharia” in the novel charted out a list of do’s and don’ts. The women were forbidden from almost everything. They were ordered to stay inside their homes, no wandering, going out without a ‘mahram’. If they would be caught on the street, they would be beaten and sent home. The female members needed to cover their faces always. The list was endless –
“Cosmetics are forbidden.
You will not wear charming clothes.
You will not speak unless spoken to .
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose your finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All school girls will be closed immediately.
Women are forbidden from working.
If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.” (37:248)
The story does not just describe the mortification that the women endured, at the hands of its rebel leaders. The torment had to be borne endlessly even through the actions of their own family members. The Patriarchal system only led women to be mere ‘things or commodities’ without emotions or sentiments. There were subjected to endless torture and humiliation; This seemed to be a medium of venting out their own stress, anger and de-merits. The times when rebel leaders attacked the place, the violence seemed to be more evident on women.
“The street became littered with bodies, glass and crumpled chunks of metal. There was looting, murder and increasingly rape, which was use to intimidate civilians and reward militiamen. Mariam heard of women who were killing themselves out of fear of being raped, and of men who, in the name of honor would kill their wives or daughters if they’d been raped by the militia.” (34 – 226)
The ‘Suppressed and the Suppressor” is evident in the various characters of the novel. Jalil and Nana. The rich theatre owner, who had two legitimate wives, and cared nothing about the emotions that Nana went through, his legitimate wives and their children seemed to have a more important position than Nana and her daughter, who were illegitimate. Such was his cowardice that Jalil gave away his illegitimate daughter in marriage to an elderly man called Rasheed, just to please his legitimate wives. The pain is evident in Mariam’s words as she is forced to marry Rasheed.
“I thought about you all the time. I used to pray that you’d live to be a hundred years old. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that your were ashamed of me.” “….. Don’t come. I won’t see you. Don’t you come. I don’t want to hear from you. Ever.” (7:50)
Life at Rasheed’s house was not an easy one for Mariam. The element of suppression is manifested in the character of Rasheed, Mariam and Laila. Although critics are of the opinion, that Rasheed was not a bad man. He acted out of compulsion or in dire situations.
The Holy Quran very aptly states,
“Dwell with your wives in kindness, for even if you hate them, you might be hating someone in whom God has placed so much good.” (Noble Quran 4:19)
But, Rasheed does not comply with these teachings. His behavior with his wife, the brutality with which he punishes her and treats her is pathetic. The torments that she bears, and the humility with which she carries her life forth, is commendable.
The adjustments that Mariam made physically, mentally and emotionally were not just enough, when the first tragedy struck – the loss of her first unborn child.
“In four years since the day at the bathhouse, there had been six more cycles of hopes raised then dashed , each loss, each collapse each trip to the doctor more crushing for Mariam than the last”. 15:89
Mariam had to bear the scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. Mariam lived in the fear of Rasheed’s changing temperaments and many a times small arguments would end up with being punched, slapped or kicked. He emitted all his pent up anger in monstrous ways. The day he spit out the rice that Mariam had cooked for him, stating it to be uncooked. He punished her ruthlessly by pushing a handful of pebbles in her mouth, asking her to chew, by clasping her jaws. This episode left “Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood and the fragments of two broken molars.” A tormenting experience that leaves Mariam shaken, for no fault of hers.
The lust of Rasheed is evident in his act of bringing Laila into his house in an injured state. She had been left injured and orphaned when her entire family was wiped out in a blast. It was just a few days back that she had a beautiful life with Tariq, enjoying “the strange and indescribable pleasure, interlaced with the pain.” He had offered to marry her too. And, now, that the two would soon be meeting in Pakistan, everything seemed to be perfect and beautiful to her. Little did she know what fate had in store for her? In fraction of seconds, her entire world came crumbling down, and now she lay broken and injured in the house of Rasheed, the so called ‘saviour’, who had saved her from that blast. He dominates the relationship. Without taking consent, Rasheed announces his decision of marrying Laila, salvage her honour and protect her from being raped out in the street or being killed by a bullet or a rocket. He, a man in his sixties, marrying Laila, a young girl of fourteen. Laila too submits to his wish, since she had to hide her growing belly with a life inside. “A part of Tariq still alive inside her”, as she had been informed that Tariq too had died, Laila had no option but to accept this marriage. Knowing or unknowingly Laila became Mariam’s enemy, for taking away her rightful role as a wife and sharing her husband. Rasheed addressed Laila as “A brand-new, first class, shiny Benz” and Mariam a “harami”. He felt no sympathy for the woman who had given him a good life sans a child. Now that Laila was giving him a child, Rasheed was more than happy, but the birth of a baby girl puts him off and he hates Laila for having given birth to a girl. He calls the baby’s crying like “ramming a screwdriver into my ear”.
Rashid’s horrendous acts carry on when he belts Mariam, blaming her for teaching Laila to avoid him. Laila, who did not want another baby, had no choice but to give up to Rasheeed’s demand in order to save Mariam from being beaten up.
The times when he questioned her character with Tariq.
“Well. Did he ever give you a kiss? Maybe put his hand where it did not belong?”(34:220)
The suppression and constant character assaults from Rasheed pushes Laila to take a bold decision of running away from his home. Now that Mariam and Laila shared a special bond, she urges Mariam to join in too. The three leave the house, in order to take a bus from the Lahore Gate bus station in East Kabul, the idea was to escape to Pakistan. The boldness in this decision is drawn out of the tremendous suffering that the women had encountered at the hands of Rasheed. But fate had something worse in store for the women, when they are found travelling without a male member. They are taken away to the police station at Torabaz Khan Intersection, where the women are interrogated and sadly sent back to their home where Rasheed waits for the return of the three. The torture that Laila and Mariam endure in the form of beating with belts, kicks, the head being banged against the wall and the hair being ripped from the scalp is unending. It does not end with this physical punishment; the three are locked up for two days without food and water. Laila’s plea to spare little Aziza from this torture goes unheard by Rasheed.
“They would die here, of that Laila was sure now, but what she really dreaded was that she would outlast Aziza, who was young and brittle.” (63:243)
The pain borne out of this deadly torture almost goes unnoticed by Laila, because she was seeing her little one dying of hunger, thirst and heat. Rasheed who goes oblivious of this suffering feels elated for having punished them for their boldness in trying to escape from his home. The feeling of being cheated and being outsmarted surely is evident in his act of cruelty against his own wives.
Zalmai who is born to Laila and Rasheed is the only source of happiness for Rasheed, his prejudice is evident in his relationship to Zalmai and Aziza. Everything good that came into the house was for the son. Rasheed’s decision to send Aziza to an orphanage during the Taliban rule is a good example of his inequity. He purges his wrong doing, and demonstrates it as an act of saving Aziza from starvation.
Anger, vengeance, pride and ruthlessness is evident in the final and most cruel act of Rasheed, when he gets to know that Tariq had visited Laila in his absence. He knew that his lie had been unfolded and Laila would question him on that. He belts Laila in the most unapologetic manner.
“He caught her, threw her up against the wall, and struck her with belt again and again, the buckle slamming against her chest, her shoulder, her raised arms, her fingers, drawing blood wherever it struck.” (45:308-309)
Mariam who is overcome with terror, tries to salvage Laila, only to become the next victim of physical assault. As a flashback, Mariam recollects her supplication, loyalty and sincerity to the man who was beating her.
“Mariam saw in those eyes what a fools she had been”(45:309)
The two women bearing the unrelenting abuse and torture; one trying to save the other and being the victim in return. The scene was that of total horror, the two women being beaten up. When Rasheed had got on top of Laila to strangle her to death, for having dared to strike him, Mariam knew she had to act soon. The suppression and torment was unbearable, she took the shovel from the backyard and struck Rasheed real hard. She wanted him to look into her eyes when she struck him; it implied that she had had enough. It meant that she could not let him suppress them any more. The act was meant as the final vengeance of the suppressed.
“He’s going to kill her, she thought. He really means to. And Mariam could not, would not , allow that to happen. He’d taken so much from her in twenty – seven years of marriage. She would not watch him take Laila too.”(45:310)
“ She turned it so the sharp edge was vertical, and, as she did it, it occurred to her that this was the first time that she was deciding the course of her own life. And, with that, Mariam brought down the shovel. This time, she gave it everything she had.” (45:311)
Torment and the endless suppression, at the hands of Rasheed, leads the two women to this act of killing. Mariam knew she had committed a crime by killing Rasheed. She felt guilty for having taken away a father from his children. But, she had remorse of having killed ‘the man’ Rasheed. She boldly takes the decision of not running away from her crime. She chooses to stay back and urges Laila and her kids to run away and join Tariq in a new place. It was the last time that they saw each other. Mariam was sentenced to death.
“Mariam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her.” (47:329)
The author closes on a positive note. The end of cruelty, the end of male dominance is highlighted through the discourse. The evil Rasheed had met his fate at the hands of the suppressed. The male dominance receives a great set back in the closing part.
Male dominance and female subordination in Afghanistan can be traced back to Pre-Islamic civilization. For Afghan women the Western imperial account of their oppression is based on misrepresentation and political manipulation. (AW 5:131) The roots to oppression traces to the past. Sadly the men cling on to the mentality of dominance. But there is change and change that casts women out of these miserable shadows of cruelty and suppression. There is fight for survival and the two protagonists Mariam and Laila too symbolize the spirit of freedom.
Khaled Hosseini portrays liberation for the female protagonists of his novel. Mariam and Laila, who are freed from suppression of the tyrant Rasheed. But, Mariam is unwilling to run away from her crime and in turn helps Laila to run away and embrace a new life with Tariq. The author envisages the women as the true heroes.
1. Hosseini, Khaled. 2008. A Thousand Splendid Suns. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
2. Hosseini, Khaled. 2014. “Biography”. h ttp://khaledhosseini.com/biography/. Retrieved on 9 th June, 2014.
3. Walter Natasha . 2007, May 19. https://www.theguardian.com
4. Povey, Elaheh Rostami. 2007. “Afghani Women: Identity and & Invasion”. Zed books, New York.
5. Riverhead Trade. Personal interview http://khaledhosseini.com/books/a-thousand-splendid-suns/q-a/
6. Heath Jennifer, Zahedi Ashraf. 2011. “Land of the Unconquerable- The lives of Contemporary Afghan Women”. University of California Press.