Onkur Sen

"The way to be is to do." Confucius

Reflections on A Thousand Splendid Suns

Jun 25, 2011

One could not count the moons that simmer on her roofs, Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.

After reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel eye-opening novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, I stopped to consider the state of Afghanistan with respect to its treatment of women as well as the role of the Taliban. The unbalanced outlook on women is made clear in the exposition with Mariam’s status as a “harami” under Jalil. Not only is polygamy accepted, but it is also the norm. Perhaps, however, a fundamentalist would argue that since such a practice of a man having up to three wives is in the Qur’an, it is socially acceptable.

Hosseini notes the transient political powers in Kabul, from the stringent Soviets and the subsequent puppet regime to the militant mujahideen succeeded by the Taliban, which is ultimately supplanted by an interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, which is still in place today. I was particularly struck by the Taliban’s restrictions (p. 248-249), which are quite oppressive to society. For example, any sort of artistic expression or creativity is forbidden: singing, dancing, writing books, watching films, painting pictures, etc. Furthermore, a strict dress code for men and women is imposed, including turbans, full-length beards, and buttoned shirts. This expanded on the already stringent societal pressures forcing women to wear burqa in public as a form of modesty, so as not to expose themselves to men besides their husbands. In addition, the Taliban are clearly Islamist because they demoize any other religion: “If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by Muslims. If you do, you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught trying to convert a Muslim to your faith, you will be executed.” This suggests that practicing other religions in settings other than the utmost privacy is shameful.

In addition, it seemed strange that the Taliban targeted literature and the dissemination of knowledge. These make sense politically in order to maintain an intellectual stronghold by preventing any opposition from claiming legitimacy by denouncing the Taliban as a radical group that skews the “true” views of Islam. However, they also target Islamic literature and destroyed many poems by famous Muslim writers, such as Rumi and Hafez. Although this initially appeared contradictory to me, I realized after some research that the majority of these writers were Sufi and consequently conveyed a high degree of mysticism. For years, radical Muslims have sought to supplant the overwhelming Sufi majority to no avail. Thus, radical groups are known to detest Sufis, and, although tragic, this also makes “ideological” sense.

In particular, however, the Taliban decree essentially reduces the status of women from human beings to servants. As a testimony of the prohibitive bent of this decree, ten consecutive sentences either outlaw something as “forbidden” or begin with the phrase “You will not.” Additionally, women were prevented from going to school or working; thus, the sole occupation for a woman in a Taliban-ruled world is to be a housewife and to remain submissive to her husband. This is strongly indicative of the Islamist perspective that harks back to Quranic verses such as Sura 4:34 and is a representation of the Medinan period’s view on Islam. This is opposed to the view from Meccan period, when Muhammad was married to Khadija (at that time his only wife), who is seen as the paragon of a Muslim woman. Her status commanded the respect of all, men and women alike; in fact, it was Khadija who asked Muhammad to marry her. Thus we see that the original perspective on women has been distorted and morphed into this austere paradigm which is exemplified by this Taliban decree.

The mistreatment of women in Muslim-majority nations with radical groups in power, such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, is not a tale that has been hidden from the public. However, a narrative of this form really allowed me to experience it on a personal level and form my own commentaries based on the situation that the work presents.

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