A Thousand Splendid Suns is the deeply moving story of 2 women in Afghanistan during the 30 year period from the mid 70s to 2003. Politically, Afghanistan went from a secular, Communist regime in the 70s, to the period of utter chaos and war against the Soviets in the 80s, to a period of warlord conflict followed by Taliban victory in the 90s, to the invasion by the US, followed by more or less stability, briefly, in the 2000s. The condition of women followed the course of political history. The father of one of the women, a man who had been dismissed from his teaching post by the communists because he was too liberal, told his daughter, correctly, that the communist regime was a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan. Events were soon to prove him right. In the best of times women in Afghanistan are treated as unwanted chattel; in the worst times, they are treated as prisoners whose sole function is to produce sons.
In this story, Mariam is a young girl living with her mother in a one room house outside of Herat. Her father lives in town; the mother was the father’s servant, so Mariam is a harani, a bastard, and rejected by the father’s wives (plural). Eventually the mother dies, in tragic circumstances, and Mariam is essentially sold to Rasheed, a crude, uneducated, 50 year old man in Kabul. Her life goes downhill pretty fast from there.
Laila is a young girl with a neurotic mother and a kindly somewhat intellectual father (the ex school teacher). The mother is neurotic through grief for her 2 sons killed in the war against the Soviets. Without giving too much away, Laila too becomes the wife of Rasheed. Her life goes downhill pretty fast from there.
This is a very sad story. It has as happy an ending as one could hope for, I guess, but I couldn’t help feeling both sorrow and anger at the treatment of women of Afghanistan. The tragedy of Afghanistan seems to be mostly self-imposed by the combined effects of Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic rivalry, an apparently long history of warlord fiefdoms, and a general denigration of women for reasons that are unclear to me. It seems to be the case that societies that do not treat women well and give them opportunities to succeed, are not as successful as those that do. The microcredit organization, kiva.org, has found that loaning money to women to start or expand businesses returns the most social benefit. Societies where women are kept uneducated not only waste half their human capital, they seem to encourage non-productive behavior by men, as well.
It has been a while since I’ve read a novel as compelling and engaging as this. I’m looking forward now to reading The Kite Runner by the same author.