“I believed her. I’d felt the same loneliness. I bet we all had, each in her corner of the world, separated by so many walls.”
-Nadia Hashimi, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Afghanistan, a country racked by decades of war and a dearth of resources, is home to approximately 39 million people, out of which roughly 48% are women. Years after facing the ravages of war, the country is still in turmoil. The Taliban controls about 60% of the area and its authoritative and repressive ways are not unknown to all. As in all war-torn societies, women suffer disproportionately more. But under such stringent conditions, it becomes extremely difficult to find out what goes on in the lives of people behind the doors – specifically women. In such times we turn to literature, to understand the world that we may be so oblivious to – and this is precisely how my introduction to the Afghan domestic world took place.
Many Afghan authors and poets have written in great detail about their lives and that of others; about their beautiful motherland and their memories; about their nostalgic childhood and eventful youth. It is this, more than anything, that gives us a bittersweet glimpse into the real Afghanistan. But unfortunately, one thing has been made crystal clear, in fiction or in-real-life, the lives of women still hang on the threads of patriarchy, carefully or sometimes recklessly, controlled by everyone except them.
Some of my absolute favourite books have been written by Afghan authors. Almost all of them revolve around the lives of ‘ordinary’ people. How these ordinary people end up surviving some of the most extraordinary catastrophes. Catastrophes that we could never even think of. There is some beauty in holding the book and living it when you read it. Beauty in reading about such painful miseries. Beauty in understanding the complexities. But this beauty is followed by a dark void. A void that asks you that how can one suffer so much and still have love in their mind, dreams in their eyes and hope in their heart?
‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini is one such book which would leave even the coldest of hearts warm. Mariam was warned from the very beginning to never forget that she was and always will be a harami first and everything else later. Mariam was punished for a crime she did not even commit. The woman born out of a wedlock is somehow still more responsible for that sin than her father himself. Jalil conveniently abandoned Nana and Mariam and had nothing to lose, but the two women were reminded of that one ‘sin’ every time they stepped out of their kolba. In a mutually initiated sin, why should god be angry with one side and shower forgiveness on the other? Why should one side bear the brunt of that one mistake and the other remain untouched?
The answers may be many but Nana knew hers well, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.” This story may be fiction but it is not very far from reality. The Afghan society is still heavily patriarchal. Women are still living in abject conditions. Some of them have not even committed the same crime as Nana.
“She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all of the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below.
As a reminder of how women like us suffer, she’d said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.” -Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
In the book ‘The Pearl that Broke its Shell’ by Nadia Hashimi, the plight of women is described in great detail in different time frames. Years may have changed but the treatment and oppression of women had not. Rahima and her sisters were forced to drop out of their school and give up their education because a few teenage boys teased them on their way back home. The girls were somehow blamed for something that was not even in their control and asked to never step out again unchaperoned. This incident is also not far from the reality. The literacy rate of Afghan women is alarmingly low. According to UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, the male literacy rate in Afghanistan stands at 55% and the female literacy rate is at 29.8%.
But illiteracy is not the only problem for Afghan women. Domestic life, for most of them, is equivalent to a never-ending cycle of violence and abuse. The 2008 Global Rights survey found that nearly 90% of Afghan women have experienced domestic abuse. Women are subjected to all sorts of abuse – mental, verbal and physical. Government statistics from 2014 show that out of all the suicides, 80% were done by women. Women desperate to escape this helpless plight often turn to death – by hanging, by drowning, by poisoning, by starving or by setting themselves on fire. The world of literature is not oblivious to the plight of women in the country. The intricately written novels involve detailed descriptions of bone chilling abuse stories.
Khaled Hosseini, in his novel, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, explained in detail the dreadful event of Rasheed beating both his wives to pulp and almost killing Laila’s daughter. This may not have been his first beating but it definitely was his worst. And by worst, it meant almost killing them. Nadia Hashimi also highlights the issue of domestic violence in her novel. Be it the ancient Shekiba or the young Rahima, physical abuse was a part of their everyday lives. The violence needed no reason. A less cooked brinjal or a half-made bed was as powerful of a reason to abuse as was the refusal to have sex or the birth of a daughter. But these were all secondary reasons, the primary one was just the presence of a woman.
With the world changing and the governments changing, the hopes and aspirations are also growing. With the new government being committed to women’s rights as well as a vision of a near equal society, the hope of having better days is also rising. However, it is a long way ahead. Change would come but change would not come rapidly. It may take years to reach the destination but even one step forward contributes significantly to the journey. In Nadia Hashimi’s words - “This life is difficult. We lose fathers, brothers, mothers, songbirds and pieces of ourselves. Whips strike the innocent, honours go to the guilty, and there is too much loneliness. I would be a fool to pray for my children to escape all of that. Ask for too much and it might actually turn out worse. But I can pray for small things, like fertile fields, a mother’s love, a child’s smile – a life that’s less bitter than sweet.”