The book centers around two girls, Mariam and Laila, in Afghanistan during 20th – 21st Century. It was a time of regime transitions from democracy to authoritarian with the rise of the Taliban then reverted back to democracy with the fall of the Taliban. The novel is the divided into four parts. The first part is about Mariam’s harsh childhood, wherein it was presented that she was an illegitimate child of Jalil. Jalil was a wealthy man and was married to three women who were not fond of Mariam, due to her being Jalil’s illegitimate daughter from his former maid. Mariam’s mother bitterness over Jalil is due to Jalil spending more time with his wives and legitimate children than with her and Mariam. She eventually hangs herself after Mariam went to Jalil’s house for her birthday (wherein in he refuses to see Mariam thus leaving her sleeping in the street) because she was depressed over Mariam leaving her. After Nana’s death Jalil decided to marry of Mariam to Rasheed, who was a shoemaker. The marriage became unpleasant due to Rasheed physically abusing Mariam after she failed to bore him a child.
The second part is focused on Laila with her developing romantic feelings towards her friend Tariq and the war that challenges their relationship. Due to the war they were separated where Tariq’s family decided to leave Kabul. This causes Tariq and Laila to consummate their love for one another, which led to an unexpected pregnancy. Days later Laila’s family decided to Kabul too but unfortunately a rocket hits their house, which kills her parents and leaves her injured, she was then taken by Rasheed and Mariam. The third part tells the formation of Mariam and Laila’s friendship. At first Mariam despises Laila for stealing his husband away from her. After Laila’s injuries have healed she discovered she was pregnant and because of hearings Traiq’s death this causes her to accept Rasheed’s marriage proposal. Meanwhile, Rasheed’s motive for proposing to her is to have a son with her but unfortunately she bore a daughter, which causes Rasheed to become suspicious and thus also abusing Laila. This act of abuse from their husband drew Mariam and Laila close that they even tried to run away but they were caught at the bus station, which causes Rasheed to beat them and deprive them from water.
A couple of years later, Laila finally bore Rasheed a son and a series of unfortunate events unravels. First is the rise of the Taliban, which caused constrains against the freedom and the brutal treatment of women. Second is the burning of Rasheed’s shop, which causes him to apply to different jobs that were not for him, and lastly the drought and the decline of the economy in Kabul. These situations left them poor that they did not even have enough food to feed themselves and this causes Rasheed to send Aziza to an orphanage. The last part is the reunion of Laila and Tariq. Laila realizes that Rasheed lied about Tariq’s death. When Rasheed heard from his son Zalmai about Tariq’s visit he became livid and started beating up Laila fortunately Mariam came to the rescue by killing Rasheed. After the event Laila, Tariq and the two children left for Pakistan where in they worked, while Mariam confessed to the killing and was publicly executed. In the end, Tariq, Laila together with their children went back to Afghanistan. Laila used the money Jalil left for Mariam to fix up the orphanage and she started to teach. She was also pregnant with her third child and if it will be a girl she would name the baby Mariam.
The first transition towards a democratic regime that was presented in the book was during the summer of 1973 when King Zahir Shah was overthrown in the bloodless coup. From a monarchy type of regime it transformed into to a democratic republic regime under President Daoud Khan, who was the cousin and brother-in-law of King Zahir (Hosseini p. 23). President Daoud Khan’s regime presented a minimalist democracy since there is a fair access to media with newspaper like the Ittifaq-I Islam. During the his administration there is also the right to form political party such as the National Revolutionary Party and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). It is not considered a consolidated democracy since Daoud Khan was not the people’s choice to become the leader of the state but rather he just replaced the ruling authoritarian regime.
In addition, the murder Mir Akbar Khyber, who was a prominent communist figure, resulted in the downfall of President Daoud Khan since he was blamed on the murder (Hosseini p. 98). This resulted to the Saur Revolution, which was led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), where in the insurgent group stormed the palace and killed Daoud Khan and his family. And with that event communism arose, Abdul Qader declared that “A revolutionary council of the armed forces has been established, and our wantan will be known as the democratic republic of Afghanistan. The era of aristocracy, nepotism, and inequality is over, fellow hamwatans. We have ended decades of tyranny. Power is now in the hands of the masses and the freedom-loving people…the new regime will maintain the utmost respect for principles, both Islamic and democratic” (Hosseini pp. 101-102).
But According to Huntington (1991), “Islamic concepts of politics differ from and contradict the premises of democratic politics” (p.28). Since democracy is a system of governance with specific practices, strategies and rules and that the members of that system treat each other as political equals, govern collectively, and have at their disposal rights, resources and institutions that guarantee their capacity for self-government (Dahl, 2000). While Islam as argued by Anderson (2004), “Islam is a religion fixed on text and quasi-legal ordinances, the emphasis on divine sovereignty, and the supposed lack of distinction between the religious and the political realm, all worked against democratic development.” But currently Afghanistan is a democratic state with it being a unitary presidential Islamic republic, and the presence of election and political parties. Thus repudiates the arguments of both Huntington and Anderson.
Moreover, Afghanistan’s democratization during the 20th -21st century presented a lot of challenges, such as (1) overcoming well-established political and cultural norms wherein their prominent religion Islam, which clashes with democratic principles, (2) Addressing a government infrastructure ill-equipped to accommodate elements of democracy. (3) Human rights and gender issues with policies that restricts women and the low living state of the people (poverty), and (4) Warlordism across the region, which was armed by the American’s during Bush’s administration
Furthermore, the major factors that contribute to the democratization of Afghanistan are, first the deepening legitimacy problems of authoritarian regimes in a world wherein democratic values are being accepted. This factor can be seen through the fall of the Taliban’s power and in the latter part of the book wherein Mariam and her family went back to Kabul and She stated teaching, which shows restoration of the rights of women. Second is the changes in the policies of external actors such as the United States’ policies and action in promoting democracy, especially in driving out the Taliban and finding Bin Laden (Hosseini, p. 185)
In addition, Marxism elements are present in the novel. Social division or class can be seen with the characters such as Mariam and Jalil. Jalil is considered rich with him owning branded cars and the movie house. While Mariam lives outside the town in a hut and despite being an illegitimate daughter of Jalil she lived a simple live with her mother. Also, We see how different classes interact when Mariam and Rasheed went to Kochech-Morgha, Chicken Street, a place where foreign diplomats live, rich businessmen, members of the royal family. Rasheed even commented that it is no a place for people like him and Mariam. In this place we can see the difference between the people in Chicken Street as compared to the neighborhood of Rasheed and Mariam, especially the women. “The women from this part of Kabul were different breed from the women in the poorer neighborhood” (Hosseini p. 75). The women in Chicken Street are more liberal, since Mariam describes the women having make up on their faces and not wearing a burqa while the women in the poorer neighborhood were covered fully.
But the main theme of this novel is feminism. The relationship and the roles between the men and the women are pretty defined in this novel. With the dominance of the men and the women being the subordinate. An example of this is the relationship between Rasheed and Mariam, wherein Rasheed goes to work and provides for the family while Mariam cleans the house, does and cooking and takes care of Rasheed and Laila’s children. It is a very traditional household, since nowadays both the man and the woman goes to work and provides for the family as compared in the past wherein it is the man who goes to work and the woman takes care of the house and the children.
Furthermore, the work reveals political operations of patriarchy through the way Rasheed acts towards his two wives, Mariam and Laila, and also his daughter Aziza. He treats them like they are properties, and he physically and emotionally abuses them. He even called Mariam stupid for not knowing what communism is and fed her rocks when he did not like her cooking. Patriarchy is also shown through the time of the Taliban where there are restrictions rules for women. Rules such as they should stay inside their homes at all time, and if they do go out they should accompanied a male relative, they are not allowed to wear jewelry, cosmetics, and charming clothes, they are not allowed to attend school, and so on and so forth. And because of this a sisterhood between Mariam and Laila is created wherein they rebel in a way that they do not follow the rules in some cases. An instance is when they decided to run away but were caught when they were betrayed in the bus terminal or when Laila tried visit to visit Aziza alone, which were against the rule because a woman should have a male chaperone when walking in public. Another instance of rebellion is when Mariam killed Rasheed in order to protect Laila.
To assert, the novel was relevant in understanding the human dynamics, since it shows a man versus man scenario, which is what is real and happening in current times. We see a lot of fighting and battles nowadays in the media. It also shows Plato’s theory about human nature that it is in need of instruction. It also helped me understand the sociological context and political dimensions of the Middle East, especially Afghanistan, since it diminished the biased I had for the said region. Growing up I always saw Afghanistan as a chaotic state that is full of violence in news outlet, and that it is their fault for the terror they have spread around the world. I also remembered when I was little and seeing news about the 9/11 attack on the twin tower and I would pity those victims but not think about the situation in Afghanistan wherein they also deal with horror of wars and abuse. It was also refreshing to see another side of the spectrum with western media altering and feeding false information towards their viewers about the Middle East. According to Marc Lynch, “After 9/11 a lot of Americans were not responding to the Arabic media, but to what they were being told about the Arabic media. The gap between how Arabs and Americans understand the world is enormous ... We need a real dialogue. Americans need to listen to Arabic media and vice-versa. We need Americans on Arab media,"
In addition, this book showed me that women in Afghanistan like Laila are educated and free like those women in Chicken Street but there were also times wherein they were abused and restricted. The restriction of women’s right is an implication towards democracy or democratization because in a substantive democracy basic human rights are given and protected by the government. I also saw the importance of education like in Laila’s case she knew what was right and what was wrong and she stood up for her beliefs and for what is right. Also, the author showed the importance of having hope during a situation like this and to always remember that we can surpass any problems just like Laila and Kabul wherein at the end they were starting to rebuild for the future.
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