It seems almost trivial to comment on A Thousand Splendid Suns as a novel with this story in the headlines. (Not incidentally, I am infuriated at the tepid journalistic standards underwriting the description of the new law as one that “critics say would severely undermine women’s rights”–it does undermine women’s rights–I’m pretty sure that the main difference between the law’s “critics” and its proponents is simply whether they are fine with that or not–is this dodgy phrasing in the interests of some flawed idea of objectivity in reporting?)
A Thousand Splendid Suns is not an outstanding novel qua novel; there’s nothing stylistically breathtaking or formally innovative about it. The inevitable comparison for me is to The Swallows of Kabul, which is more artful, if less far-reaching in its scope. But Swallows also partakes somewhat of the genre of the fable or parable, which changes our readerly relationship to it: it used its historical and political contexts more delicately. Hosseini’s novel, in contrast, seems extraordinarily grounded, from its detailed descriptions of the landscapes and cityscapes of Afghanistan to its careful chronicling of the shifting of power among nations, factions, and individuals. Though at times I felt the mechanisms of the novel turning too clearly (as I also felt when reading The Kite Runner), it is nonetheless is an absolutely harrowing read. I finished it feeling equal parts enraged and heartbroken. There is perhaps something manipulative in the relentless movement of the novel from bad to worse and worse again, but the suffering of the individual characters is convincingly shown to be part of broader contexts. Unlike, for example, Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue, which is also harrowing in its account of spousal abuse but limited in its historical analysis and contextualization, A Thousand Splendid Suns shows the social and cultural–and, ultimately, political–structures that support the devaluation, degradation, and violence endured by Mariam and Laila. The novel performs superbly one of the things fiction has done so well and vitally since at least the nineteenth century, with novels like Oliver Twist or Mary Barton: it puts a human face on systematic failures and abuses, ensuring that abstractions such as “severely undermining women’s human rights” get, as it were, fleshed out. Here’s the slightly laboured expository summary Hosseini gives, for instance, of the changes after the takeover of Kabul by the Mujahideen:
The freedoms and opportunities that women had enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now–Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila. Since the Mujahideen takeover in April 1992, Afghanistan’s name had been changed to the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court under Rabbani was filled now with hardliner mullahs who did away with the communist-era decrees that empowered women and instead passed rulings based on Shari’a, strict Islamic laws that ordered women to cover, forbade their travel without a male relative, punished adultery with stoning.
Dry, perhaps, despite the punitive implications of what he’s describing, and I realize too that there are risks (both artistic and factual) in presenting as well as receiving a novel in too documentary a spirit. But those implications are rapidly given meaning by, for instance, the scenes following the abortive attempt of Mariam and Laila to leave the country (and their abusive husband) (apologies for the spoiler):
“What does it matter to you to let a mere two women go? What’s the harm in releasing us? We are not criminals.”
“I can’t.” [says the officer who sends them back]
“I beg you, please.”
“It’s a matter of qanoon, hamshira, a matter of law. . . . It is my responsibility, you see, to maintain order.”
In spite of her distraught state, Laila almost laughed. She was stunned that he’d used that word in the face of all that the Mujahideen factions had done–the murders, the lootings, the rapes, the tortures, the executions, the bombings. . . .
“If you send us back,” she said instead, “there is no saying what he will do to us.”
She could see the effort it took him to keep his eyes from shifting. “What a man does in his own home is his business.”
“What about the law then, Officer Rahman?” Tears of rage stung her eyes. “Will you be there to maintain order?”
“As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters, hamshira.”
“Of course you don’t. When it benefits the man. And isn’t this a ‘private family matter,’ as you say? Isn’t it?”
The women are cruelly beaten and confined on their return “home,” and when their husband releases them, starving and broken, they and he know the truth of his words: “You try this again and I will find you. I swear on the Prophet’s name that I will find you. And, when I do, there isn’t a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me accountable for what I will do.”
When the Taliban move in just a page later, the control they assert over women’s conduct and liberties is “only” an extreme form of what we have already seen, transferring completely to the public sphere what has been considered acceptable already in the household–namely, the horrors inflicted on women by men who cannot, or will not, be held accountable:
You will stay inside your home at all times. . . If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstances, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten. . . .
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten. . . .
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
The novel ends not long after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. That the return of power and influence to the warlords, among other things, makes this intervention a mixed blessing to the people of the country is certainly one of Hosseini’s points, but so is the relief it brings to Afghanistan’s women from the insupportable injustices and cruelties perpetrated against them for far too long. What a shame, we might think, that the form of domestic terrorism many of them endured on a daily basis was not in itself reason to invade. (For a related argument along these lines, see Pamela Bone’s essay “They Don’t Know One Little Thing” in this volume.)
I note that the new Afghan law referred to above is described as a”family” law; among its provisions is one that forbids Shia women to leave home without their husbands’ permission. This is a concession to just that kind of genuinely “domestic” terrorism. Of course, one of the cornerstones of the last two centuries of feminist activism in the west has been the insistence that the family space is a political space, that essential to women’s full and equal participation in the human community is dismantling both implicit and explicit assumptions about power and control within the domestic sphere. In her powerful essay “Wife Torture in England” (found here, for instance), Victorian feminist Frances Power Cobbe notes that one of the chief obstacles to protecting women from domestic violence was the conviction of the British husband (supported, of course, by many branches of both law and society in the nineteenth century) that his wife was his property (“and may I not do what I like with my own?” she paraphrases the defense against the horrific crimes against women she reports). That was in 1868. Though nobody could say spousal abuse is a solved problem in the west, or that specific as well as systemic injustices don’t remain, at least (and this is no small accomplishment) we no longer treat women’s fundamental human rights as negotiable. In law, in principle, and to a large extent in practice, we have won that battle. I hope our national leaders (male, most of them) have the balls to fight it on behalf of all of the women in Afghanistan. The CBC report says the new law “only” affects 15% of the population. Hosseini’s novel reminds us (as if we could forget) that every woman in that 15% has a name, a story, and the right to leave her house or say no to her husband–no matter what passes for a “family” law or private matter.