It’s September 1997, and there is a crowd outside Malalai hospital, a women’s hospital, when the guard barks that it no longer serves women. The guard tells them the only place to go is Rabia Balkhi, but a young woman in the crowd says there’s no clean water, oxygen, or medicine there. The Talib fires his Kalashnikov into the air.
The Taliban’s separation of men and women, and its privileging of men, has extended even into hospital care. The narrator paints a vivid scene of the chaos that results, regulated only by the Talib’s brute physical force.
The waiting room at Rabia Balkhi is dirty and packed with women and children. Mariam claws her way to the front of the registration window, thinking of the sacrifices a mother makes—like the ones Nana had made, enduring the shame of bearing a harami. She wishes she’d been a better daughter to Nana.
Mariam’s stream of thoughts connects her relationship with Nana to Laila and Mariam’s friendship to Laila’s motherly sense—all permutations of love and friendship for which so much can be sacrificed.
Mariam finds herself at the window and tells the nurse that her daughter’s water broke, but the nurse says that the two doctors on staff are both operating on others at the moment. Much later, the nurse finally calls them in. The burqa-clad doctor is small and harried-looking. After examining Laila, she says the baby is in the breech position and they’ll have to perform a caesarian. Embarrassed, the doctor whispers to Mariam that she has no anesthetic. Mariam could try to cross the city to find medicine herself, but in that time they’d risk losing the baby. Laila tells the doctor to operate.
Mariam finds herself playing a much more crucial role than Laila’s husband: though Mariam is not truly her mother, as she claimed, there is a similar strength of love and loyalty between them. Laila, always strong and committed, is no different in the face of enormous physical pain—pain permitted, again, by the Taliban’s dismissal of women and their particular needs, of which childbirth is a major part.
The doctor takes off her burqa to operate, saying that they’re supposed to operate in burqa, but a nurse keeps watch at the door. Mariam positions herself behind Laila’s head and holds her hands as she shivers, grits her teeth, and finally screams.
Even within strict Shari’a law, women find a way to subvert these norms. This scene with Mariam, Laila, and the doctor is a powerful example of women’s ability to endure and survive.