By telling the story of A Thousand Splendid Suns through the perspective of two Afghan women, Hosseini can emphasize certain aspects of Afghan life and history that differ from the established historical narrative. The novel, in fact, draws on the limitations imposed on women in Afghan life in order to explore how women have lived, endured, and subverted these constraints.
Gender relations differ throughout the novel depending on the occupying forces and the laws that accompany them. Under communist rule, for instance, girls are permitted to attend school and work outside the home. Babi celebrates this status and encourages Laila to take advantage of it. At the same time, however, girls are discouraged from spending too much time with members of the opposite sex before they’re married. Gender relations can also depend on specific traditional or regional norms—Mariam, for instance, is required by her husband to wear a burqa long before this becomes law. Men, like Laila’s brothers, are the ones who go off to fight, while the women stay home and often must deal with the repercussions of war.
The relatively progressive gender norms under communism change drastically with the arrival of the Mujahideen and, eventually, the Taliban. For Laila, the restrictions have the effect of taking Kabul, the city that she always thought of as hers, away from her, limiting her freedom of speech and movement. Even so, the characters find ways to subvert these norms: Laila sneaks across town to the orphanage, and with Mariam she plans an escape (though ultimately a thwarted one) from Rasheed. The Taliban may have legally sanctioned Rasheed’s violent beatings, but Hosseini is clearly on the side of greater freedoms for women, and the reader is meant to cheer on Laila and Mariam as they struggle against these inequalities.
Gender Relations ThemeTracker
Gender Relations Quotes in A Thousand Splendid Suns
“It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have. Do you understand?”
“But I’m a different breed of man, Mariam. Where I come from, one wrong look, one improper word, and blood is spilled. Where I come from, a woman’s face is her husband’s business only. I want you to remember that. Do you understand?”
It wasn’t easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid.
“I know you’re still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now,” he said. “Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.”
“By the time we’re twenty,” Hasina used to say, “Giti and I, we’ll have pushed out four, five kids each. But you, Laila, you’ll make us two dummies proud. You’re going to be somebody. I know one day I’ll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the front page.”