1. Hosseini has said that he wrote A Thousand Splendid Suns to focus on the experiences of women in Afghanistan. Describe how the changing political situation affects women’s position in Afghan society over the course of the novel. When do women have the most rights? The least?
As portrayed in the novel, women appear to be relatively free under King Zahir Shah and Daoud Khan. Jalil’s three wives dress stylishly, do not wear head coverings, and pluck their eyebrows. Arranged marriage is common, but the mullah at Mariam’s wedding makes it clear that she must give her explicit consent to the marriage. The fact that Jalil’s daughters plan to go to university suggests that a university education for women is not uncommon among the middle and upper classes. Mariam and Rasheed’s observations of Kabul reveal that many women in the city forgo head coverings and dress in a modern style; they are shown working in offices and walking around the city alone.
Under the communist government in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, women enjoy the most freedoms. Laila’s father tells her, “it’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan.” Equality for women is emphasized in the communist propaganda, and women are given equal access to education. The communists abolish forced marriage and raise the minimum marriage age for girls to sixteen. The wearing of hijab and burqa is discouraged, as men and women are considered equals. Still, the idea of women’s rights still meets with strong opposition in the tribal areas of rural Afghanistan.
After the Mujahideen take over and establish an Islamic state in 1992, there are increased laws limiting the freedom of women, supposedly in accordance with a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women are required by law to cover, are forbidden to travel unaccompanied by a male relative, and punished by stoning to death if they commit adultery. When Laila and Mariam attempt to run away from Rasheed, the police catch them and return them home to their abusive husband. It is unlawful for a woman to run away from her husband—even if he is a brutal abuser like Rasheed.
Following the Taliban takeover in 1996, women’s rights are the most severely restricted. Women are now required to stay inside the home at all times, and cannot leave unless accompanied by a male relative. If caught alone on the streets, women are beaten. Laila and Mariam are not beaten by police when caught trying to run away under the Mujahideen; however, Laila is beaten numerous times when trying to visit her daughter in the orphanage. Under the Taliban, women are forbidden from attending school or working. As a result, nearly 90 percent of Afghan women today are illiterate.
2. Compare and contrast Laila and Mariam. How do the two women go from being enemies to close friends, and what do they learn from each other?
Mariam and Laila are quite different in some respects. Mariam is rather homely, while Laila is a stunning beauty. Mariam was an illegitimate child, forced into marriage by her father; Laila’s father adored her and encouraged his daughter to reach her full potential. Mariam was denied an education, while Laila was a top student raised with the expectation that she would go on to university. Mariam has only known the abuse of her older husband, while Laila had the chance to experience true love with Tariq.
Notwithstanding their differences and the circumstances that bring them together as a family, the two women are destined to become close friends. Enemies after Laila marries Rasheed, they become joined in suffering his abuse. As Rasheed turns on his younger wife, Mariam sympathizes. Mariam will be strengthened, and not diminished, by Laila’s entry into her home. Laila, too, will gain from her relationship with the older woman.
Broken down by years of abuse in her marriage, Mariam has learned not to stand up for herself. Laila, on the other hand, speaks up and defends her co-wife when Rasheed strikes her. This awakens Mariam, teaching her that she can fight back. Towards the end of the novel, Mariam will defend Laila by killing Rasheed. From Laila and particularly from Aziza, Mariam learns of the power of love. Aziza loves her despite everything—despite her harami shame (being born out of wedlock) or her aging face. And Mariam’s love for Laila and Aziza make her capable of heroic acts.
Laila finds Mariam to be the dependable mother figure she lacked growing up. Mariam teaches Laila to cook, clean fish, and sew. She tries to teach Laila patience; Laila’s outbursts against Rasheed will only bring on more beatings. In her final act for Laila, Mariam teaches Laila about love and sacrifice.
3. Discuss the following quote from Nana: “Like a compass needle that always points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam” (Chapter 1, p. 7). Is Nana correct that men always find a way to blame women? Give examples from the story.
Although Nana’s quote may at first seem an exaggeration, Mariam finds her mother was right that men tend to blame women. First, Mariam’s father blames her for putting him in an awkward position by refusing to marry Rasheed. In fact, he is to blame for forcing his daughter into marriage. Later, during her abusive marriage, Mariam is blamed countless times by Rasheed. He blames her for the miscarriages and for undercooking the rice.
After Rasheed marries his second wife, Laila, he blames Laila for giving birth to a girl. When she withholds sex from him, he blames Mariam for turning her against him. He blames Aziza for her smelly diapers, and eventually blames Laila for growing older and less attractive. He sends Aziza to the orphanage, blaming her for being a drain on the family’s food supply.
The government under the Mujahideen and Taliban institutionalize this blaming behavior. For instance, women are blamed for marital problems. If a woman runs away from an abusive husband, she is punished, and not the husband. When Mariam is tried for the crime of killing Rasheed, she is blamed and then executed for murder, even though the judges appear to believe her that she committed the crime in order to save Laila’s life.
4. Explain why Mariam is willing to face punishment for the killing of Rasheed. Was her execution at the hands of the Taliban a meaningless tragedy? Why, or why not? Why does she pray to Allah at her execution, even though the execution was done under Islamic law?
Readers may find it hard to understand why Mariam would stay and face the justice of the Taliban for the killing of Rasheed. In fact, she does so in order to save Laila. She knows that if she flees along with Laila, the Taliban will never stop searching for them both, but if she admits to the crime and accepts punishment, Laila will be able to go freely and live a happy life with Tariq.
Mariam faces her punishment knowingly. She does not protest, although she knows she is not really to blame. Her death is not a meaningless tragedy because she accepts it, seeing it as necessary to save her friend. She dies a hero—a person of consequence.
It may seem a bit of a contradiction that Mariam prays to Allah at her execution, since the execution is done under Islamic law. However, the God Mariam knows—the merciful and comforting God she learned about from Mullah Faizullah—is not the same as the one the Taliban know. The Taliban do not speak for God, and Mariam knows this.
5. Discuss the character of Rasheed, contrasting him with other men in the novel, such as Hakim, Jalil, and Tariq.
Rasheed is an example of the worst of a patriarchal society. A misogynistic bully, he requires his wives to wear burqa and forbids them from leaving the home unaccompanied by him. They are not allowed to make eye contact with, or speak to, other men. He claims that these measures are necessary to protect his and his wives’ honor, but when Mariam finds his stash of pornographic magazines, the reader realizes that Rasheed has no real concept of honoring women. It is hypocritical for him to insist that his wives cover, but then to look at other men’s wives uncovered.
Jalil provides the first foil (a foil is a contrast) for Rasheed. Good-looking and charming, he teaches his daughter about Persian poetry and literature. He apparently loves his daughter, but is ashamed by her and allows his wives to convince him to marry her off. Rasheed is neither good-looking nor charming. He does not offer many gifts to Mariam, but the ones he does offer seem like real gifts, and not bribes. Rasheed is not as weak as Jalil and does not allow his wives to have an influence over his decisions.
Hakim provides a second foil for Rasheed. An educated and liberal-minded man, Hakim desires an education for his only daughter. Far from attempting to dominate his wife, Fariba, Hakim actually tends to be dominated by his wife instead. Rasheed, on the other hand, does not respect women or support women’s education. He dominates his wife and grows enraged when she contradicts him.
Finally, Rasheed’s relationship with Laila contrasts with the relationship between Tariq and Laila. Tariq is unselfish; he cares about Laila’s comfort the first time they make love. He defends Laila from attack, while Rasheed attacks her. Tariq and Laila are a love match, while Rasheed’s relationships with his wives are like business transactions; the women must fulfill their duties to him (bearing a child and taking care of the household) or risk being beaten.
A Thousand Splendid Suns: Essay Q&A