Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Penguin Group (May 22, 2007)
Setting: The story is set in Afghanistan from the early 1960s to early 2000s.
Main Characters: Mariam, Laila, Tariq and Rasheed
Summary: The story revolves around two women, Mariam and Laila, who hail from entirely different backgrounds, but whose lives intertwine when Laila, the younger woman, marries Rasheed as his second wife. Mariam is an illegitimate child of a successful businessman, Jalil, who grows up with her mother in the suburbs, and is married off to Rasheed at the age of 15, after her mother commits suicide as a result of her running away from home. She carries this guilt with her throughout her life and her marriage. After she suffers from her first miscarriage, Rasheed turns violent and abuses her. Despite several attempts, Mariam is unable to conceive and at this point, Laila is introduced into the picture. Laila is Mariam and Rasheed’s neighbour who grows up in a decent household and whose father is a firm believer in education for his daughter. Her character is also introduced alongside Tariq’s character, her childhood friend and love. Along the way, Laila’s brothers are killed in the war and her mother goes into recluse, causing her parents’ marriage to hit the rocks. At this point, Laila learns that Tariq’s family decides to leave Kabul for Pakistan to escape the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet. To preserve their memory for each other, Tariq and Laila make love for the first time, a forbidden act for an unmarried couple in Afghanistan.
Fortunately but unfortunately, when Laila’s parents finally decide to leave for Pakistan, a rocket hits their house and her parents are killed. As an orphan, Mariam and Rasheed decide to take her in and nurse her back to health. Against Mariam’s will, Laila’s decides to marry Rasheed after hearing that Tariq is dead (though it is later revealed that Rasheed made this up to influence Laila to give up any thoughts of ever seeing Tariq again). In addition, realising that she is pregnant with Tariq’s child, Laila decides that she needs a roof over her head. She eventually gives birth to a daughter and later has a son with Rasheed too.
One day, Tariq appears at her doorstep and Laila learns of Rasheed’s initial ploy. Threatened by Tariq’s re-ignited presence in Laila’s life, Rasheed abuses Laila and Mariam kills Rasheed. Mariam turns herself in and receives a death sentence. Laila then leaves with Tariq for Pakistan with her children to start a new life. In 2001, Laila and Tariq learn that Afghanistan is under attack by the US and Laila is compelled to return to Kabul to move back to help rebuild the city. Laila becomes a school teacher at an orphanage where Aziza once lived. The story ends with Laila conceiving Tariq’s second child and decides to name the baby Mariam if she gives birth to a girl.
Review: The author has adopted third-person narration for this socio-political text and various themes related to women and education are present in the story. A recurring theme of shame related to women with children that are born out of wedlock is apparent in this story, with the first being Mariam’s birth and the second being Aziza’s birth. The word that is used to describe such a child is “harami” and Mariam’s mother often calls her that. Although her biological father, Jalil, visits her once a week, the conditions in which she lives in fails largely in comparison to the house that Jalil owns with his legitimate family. Mariam’s mother often criticises Jalil for failing to do the “honorable thing”, “to stand up to his family, to his wives and in-laws, and accept responsibility for what he had done”. Instead, her mother was accused for seducing Jalil and forcing herself on him. “This is what it means to be a woman in this world” and “like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman” is what she often tells Mariam. This tells us that even when an extramarital affair takes place in Afghanistan, the woman involved gets shamed rather than the man. A similar incident happens with Laila, who takes a risk and carries Tariq’s child into her marriage with Rasheed because being seen as an unwed mother would be most undesirable.
Education for women is also largely divided because the fortunate ones have the opportunity to receive education, while the unfortunate ones do not. This contrast is represented by Mariam’s and Laila’s characters. Mariam shows interest in wanting more than just her regular home tuition by Mullah Faizullah. However, her mother tells her that the only lesson she needs to learn is “endurance” – “it’s our lot in life… woman like us, we endure. It’s all we have… they’ll laugh at you in school… they’ll call you harami”. As an illegitimate child, her mother advises her against going to school for fear that she will be mocked. On the other hand, Laila’s father – an educator, believes that women should receive education and emphasises that her education is as important as that of boys and comments that women should attend universities.
The themes of marriage and true love are also prevalent in the text, where Mariam’s marriage to Rasheed is not one that is decided based on true love, but simply arranged so that Jalil’s family need not put up with a “harami” in their household. The large age gap between both of them is also alarming because at fifteen, a girl in a developed country would still be in school studying; however, in her case, Mariam is married off to a forty-five year old man to bear his children, cook and clean the house. Laila also marries Rasheed as his second wife at a young age and follows Mariam’s footsteps. True love only prevails at the end, where Tariq and Laila eventually end up raising a family together. This informs us that marriages are often arranged and a woman cannot do as she pleases in a largely patriarchal society like Afghanistan. Women are largely seen as subservient to men and this is especially true when Mariam’s and Laila’s plan to escape is busted. They are reported to the authorities and Rasheed imprisons them in the household and abuses them for their “wrongdoing”. Even when Mariam turns herself in for killing Rasheed and explains that she did it to protect Laila, she is sentenced to death for committing a “capital offence”.
In essence, A Thousand Splendid Suns has shown the prevalence of gender inequality in Afghanistan. Women who are involved in extramarital affairs are despised but men are allowed to continue to live their lives as per normal. Women are regarded as homemakers who do not need much education and are not allowed to disobey their husbands. Men are “allowed” to abuse their wives behind closed doors and “allowed” to marry more than one woman. All these are examples of how women are treated with lesser respect than men in their society, a value that most developed nations do not have, or have lesser of.
Evolution is present in the last few chapters of the book, where Tariq and Laila lead a happy marriage and Laila becomes an educator, improving the lives of orphans in Kabul. Though not at its finest, it shows how things have improved over the years and there are symbols of hope like Laila’s pregnancy and her making a difference in the lives of the children in the orphanage by providing a roof over their heads and imparting education to them. Her happy ending also sheds light on how women are now able to make a difference in people’s lives, and not just be a homemaker. Indeed a great story told, with great insight on the socio-political climate of Afghanistan’s history. (Rating: 5 out of 5 stars)