That morning, in spring 1994, Laila is convinced Rasheed knows of their escape plan. But he leaves for work as usual. As she and Mariam leave in a taxi, Laila thinks she sees Rasheed everywhere. A few weeks earlier, she’d pawned her wedding ring. All around her she sees the bombed-out shells of homes and packed cemeteries.
Though Laila is determined enough to stick to her escape plan, she knows that the path out of Afghanistan is fraught with danger. However, the devastation around her reveals that staying in Kabul may not be any less perilous.
At the Lahore Gate bus station in East Kabul, Mujahideen militiamen patrol the station and curb with their Kalashnikovs. Since their takeover, the courts under Rabbani have become filled with conservative mullahs who undid the communist decrees empowering women. Instead, Shari’a or strict Islamic law reigns. Women are forbidden from traveling without a companion, and adultery is punished with stoning. Laila also knows that the Pakistani border is officially closed to Afghans, but people still manage to be smuggled through.
Not only must Laila fear discovery by Rasheed: the new Shari’a laws also mean that merely being a woman makes any possibility of escape far more remote and treacherous. However, the novel stresses that even though Afghan women may have legally become second-class citizens, this does not make them any less intelligent, courageous, or able to endure.
Eventually, Laila finds a kind-looking man sitting on a park bench. She tells him that she is a widow, and is traveling to Peshawar with her mother and daughter. She asks if she can travel with him and his family. He agrees, introducing himself as Wakil, and goes to buy their tickets, telling them to stay close.
Because of the strict rules imposed on women by Shari’a, Laila cannot be entirely independent, as she is used to: instead, she must trust in the goodwill of a stranger.
Wakil motions towards Laila when it’s time to board. As he climbs onto the bus, he whispers something to the militiaman, and Laila’s heart sinks. The soldier tells her and Mariam to follow them, and that they won’t get on that bus.
Putting her faith in a stranger was always a gamble, but it was also the only way Laila and Mariam could hope to flee. Now, they must pay the price for flouting the strict gender norms.
At the police station, they are forced to sit apart for three hours. Laila is interviewed alone, and a soldier says he knows she’s already told one lie. He accuses her of more, and asks for the specific address of her family in Peshawar, in addition to a number of other details. Laila is tired and anxious and stumbles over her words. The soldier leans forward and tells her that it is a crime for a woman to run away.
Having made it so close to escaping, Laila no longer has the energy to create a story that will satisfy the soldier, who is already looking for a reason to condemn her. The soldier reminds Laila of what she already knows—that life for a woman in Afghanistan is far more limited now.
Laila begs him to let them leave, saying that there’s no telling what Rasheed will do to them if they’re sent back. The soldier seems uncomfortable but says that it’s the man’s business what he does in his own home. He sends her out, where Mariam is waiting. The police drive them home, where Rasheed is waiting.
The clear-cut laws of Shari’a seem to become more ambiguous once the soldier is faced with the nuances of a particular situation, especially one in which the law is on the side of the wrongdoer. Nevertheless, he cannot overturn the system himself.
Rasheed drags Laila upstairs. She starts to insist that it was her idea, not Mariam’s, and at once Rasheed punches her and drags her by the hair into Mariam’s room, flinging Aziza onto the bed and locking them inside. She hears beating downstairs, and rocks Aziza until the sounds stop, and Rasheed drags Mariam into the toolshed.
Rasheed’s general mocking, taunting attitude towards Mariam and Laila has now disintegrated into full-throttle violence and wife-beating. Even Aziza, the innocent party in this, is not spared Rasheed’s wrath.
Rasheed nails boards across Laila’s window, so it’s impossible for her to tell the time of day. Aziza asks for milk, and the room grows increasingly hot and sweaty, until Aziza stops crying and drifts in and out of sleep. Laila dozes too, awakening to the sound of blasts and machine guns. She hears Rasheed’s footsteps and begs for a glass of water for Aziza. Finally, on the second day, the room is suddenly flooded with light. Rasheed looms over her, swearing on the Prophet that if she ever tries to run away again, no court will hold him accountable for what he’ll do to the three of them—Laila last, so she can watch.
Outside the house’s walls, war is being waged: inside, Laila is persevering through another kind of battle. Throughout it, she continues to focus her thoughts and attention on Aziza. But this is a battle in which all she can do is endure rather than fight back. Rasheed, unfortunately, is probably right about the court backing him—as the soldier said, the laws now give far more power to men than to women, especially inside the home.