Review of A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel by Khaled Hosseini
Dedicated to “the women of Afghanistan”, this book tells the tale of two women, Mariam and Laila, as they grow up in the thirty or so years of bloody wars and coups that have defined Afghanistan’s recent history.
In sparse prose, the novel paints a picture of these women as victims of misogyny and war, being buffeted here and there by the working out of political forces which they care little for and cannot influence. Most striking, and to Hosseini’s great credit, is the way in which he portrays patriarchy, as the very real restrictions imposed upon women through a regime of extreme violence, isolation and fear.
As Afghanistan passes from one regime to another, from the monarchy to Daoud’s republic to Stalinist imperialist rule, to the internecine wars of the Mujahadeen and the emergence of the Taliban, the patriarchal system becomes more or less oppressive, showing that women’s liberation is fragile and the tide of misogyny can roll forwards as well as backwards.
Throughout the book all the main characters are portrayed as apolitical victims. This is true for even the most abusive male character, Rasheed, who regularly vents his misfortunes and frustrations on his women.
The women meet the various tragedies in their life with an incredible stoicism. Laila reflects that before her marriage she “would never have believed that a human body could withstand this much beating”.
The situation under the Taliban is portrayed as an impossible one for fomenting any kind of political resistance to the Taliban or any kind of political movement for women’s emancipation.
Laila and Mariam do resist the tyranny of their husband and the patriarchal controls and fight back at great personal cost. Their courageous, but individual acts, give weight to the old feminist adage “the personal is political”. But this restriction to the individual sphere lends the impression that all the regimes in Afghanistan were all pretty much the same – brutal tyrants with varying degrees of gender-hatred – and that the average Afghan did not care who was in control as long as there weren’t bombs falling from the sky.
The only character that expresses any kind of political opinion is a woman who is suffering from some kind of nervous breakdown and who is backing the Mujahedeen.
These politically apathetic characters suggest that somehow the author, and the long-suffering, ordinary Afghans in the novel, occupy a virtuous position removed from the petty world of politics.
In fact, for Hosseini’s mind, this virtuous position is the political space somewhere between the Republicans and the Democrats, the world of free market capitalism that was carpet bombed into Afghanistan about seven years ago. Hosseini’s father was an Afghan diplomat who served both under the King Zahir Shah and Daoud Khan and Hosseini himself is now a Goodwill Envoy for the UN High Commission for Refugees.
He forms a pact with his characters that they will accept his more benign, liberal form of imposed government from above because they are too apathetic to want it otherwise (and if they did want it otherwise they are probably mad).
So this apolitical book actually carries an extremely political message, albeit one that Hosseini probably would not recognise himself; the book that has political power precisely because he pretends not to have a political agenda.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is an incredibly enjoyable and thought provoking read on women’s liberation, political Islam and life in Afghanistan. But if you want to know the real politics of Afghanistan then you would be better reading Workers’ Liberty 2/2, The Tragedy of Afghanistan.