An extensive and divisive issue that has plagued humanity since its genesis are the rights and rolls of women in society. This conflict permeates culture, politics, and societal norms; however, this conflict is most present in religion. Religious texts often give specific instructions regarding how women are to function in society; some may be liberal, however most are extremely conservative. A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel by Khaled Hosseini, seeks to address the issues of the treatment of women within the Islamic faith. Islam has by far the most conservative view of the roll of women in society, and A Thousand Splendid Suns seeks to personify these issues of women finding their own identity within the confines of the Islamic faith and an Islamic society that identifies women by the men in their lives, not the women themselves.
InA Thousand Splendid Suns, as well as in historic Afghanistan, the rolls that women play in society are based upon whatever political power is in charge and, to that extent, how Islamic that power is. We saw this political power change several times throughout the course of novel, as the Afghan region was incredibly unstable. During the pre-Soviet Era in Afghanistan, women enjoyed relaxed restrictions and relatively liberal social customs that were still based in Islam, however they were not strictly enforced. Women could travel without a male companion, and only head coverings were considered necessary.It should be noted, however, that women still did not work outside of the home, and seldom were educated.
The two female main characters of A Thousand Splendid Suns, Mariam and Laila, still experience hardships during this Era, particularly Mariam. Mariam often found herself fighting for recognition, as her status as a woman made her totally unremarkable to her father Jalil and even her mother Nana; Nana had often said that the strongest trait for a woman to have is “endurance,” because all a woman will be able to do in her life is endure. Even worse for Mariam, she was a bastard child born out of wedlock to Nana (Jalil was Nana’s employer); as Nana was a house maid of low social status, the two were exiled to a remote rural house where they could be “hidden.” Here Mariam struggled to find her identity because she was extremely distanced from her father, and he would have been her source of identity. Laila experienced the same struggle for recognition as Mariam because her mother Fariba totally ignored her and instead focused on her two sons, her traditional source of sustenance in her future. These two women could not establish their own personal identity in the face of a society that wanted to define these women by the men around them, not the women themselves.Despite these substantial setbacks, Mariam and Lailastill enjoyed more rights than what fundamentalist Islam would grant them, as evidenced in their abilities to freely move about and enjoy relationships with others.
These Islamic customs were all but removed during the Soviet Era, as the Soviets were Marxists, and Marxism explicitly rejects any sort of religion and advocates for gender equality. Women were now able to get jobs outside of the home, and could pursue educational opportunities as well. In fact, Laila’s father Hakim encourages her to pursue an education before marrying. This would have have been difficult to accomplish during the Pre-Soviet Era, and now women were finally gaining some sort of respect within society. This respect was further evidenced by Laila’s “untraditional” relationship with Tariq, which developed without the restraints of traditional society; the two fell in love, and ended up having sex outside of wedlock (which caused Laila to become pregnant).This helped to dramatically improve the resilience and the confidence of the two female main characters in A Thousand Splendid Suns; they may not have been empowered, but they did have a start towards resisting against the expectations of society and finding a sense of identity by exploring new frontiers of relationships and societal roles.
Unfortunately, the Soviets being driven out of Afghanistan triggered a massive downgrade of women’s rights, as power had been given to the extreme fundamentalist Islamic group known as the Taliban. The Taliban immediately began strictly enforcing Shar’ia law, which dictates that women cannot go anywhere without a male escort, women must wear burquas outside, and educations/jobs outside of the home are no longer permissible. For Laila, the beginning of this era was marked by the death of her family during a Soviet/Taliban skirmish, where her house was shelled. The only way for Laila to survive in this new society was to get married to Rasheed, both her neighbor and the husband of Mariam. This is both because Laila needs a sustainable income (women aren’t allowed jobs) and a male protector for her while she gives birth to Tariq’s child (whom she has been pregnant with for some time). Clearly a society’s portrayal of women is weak and useless if they are considered as such without a husband. Once again, we see a society that defines women by the men in their lives, and there is little ability for these women to gain the recognition other than giving birth to male children.
These conservative ideals align with the Islamic faith’s teaching, which dictates that women are essentially only useful for breeding and maintaining the household for the men; women are considered objects which are to be owned and collected. On the contrary, men are considered the ultimate gift from Allah by their parents, and many women, like Laila’s mother Fariba, live to have sons, not daughters. One should also consider Rasheed and Mariam’s relationship; the two get along until she can’t produce a child (notably a male) for him, which he considers to be an insult. All this amounts to a society that treats incredibly strong women like dirt and men who are dirt bags like kings. This society is the contemporary Afghani society that exists today, and it is still controlled by fundamental Islamic leadership. While the government may sometimes have control enforcing their laws, independent groups and societal norms help to ensure that no women violate the laws of Islam.
The Afghani region has seen a significant amount of instability during the historical period within A Thousand Splendid Suns, which has led to the instability of women’s rights, as well as conflicts of interest between women and society. In the end it seems that the connection between how Islamic a government is can determine how strict laws and regulations are for women within a given region. The strictness of these laws also helps to establish the importance of women in society and whether they will be defined by their own contributions, or by the contributions of their sons and husbands.