The Breadwinner

by

Deborah Ellis

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The Breadwinner: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, Mrs. Weera, Mother, and Nooria tell Parvana their plan: they’ll turn Parvana into a boy. Posing as their male cousin from Jalalabad, Parvana will be able to work and shop in the market. Nooria nastily says that no one will ask about Parvana, but Parvana knows it’s true—none of her friends have seen her since the Taliban closed the schools, and her relatives are scattered. Mother’s voice catches as she says that Parvana will wear Hossain’s clothes. Parvana says this won’t work since she has long hair, but Nooria pulls out the sewing kit and snaps the scissors open and closed. Parvana shrieks that they can’t cut her hair. She says they can cut Nooria’s hair, since Nooria is the oldest and it’s Nooria’s responsibility to look after her, but Nooria looks at her adult body and points out that no one will believe she’s a boy.
The suggestion that Parvana allow the adults to turn her into a boy is offensive to Parvana because in her mind, it means giving up everything she knows and loves about herself. Even if her hair isn’t as beautiful as Nooria’s, it’s still something that makes Parvana who she is. Further, the frantic suggestion that Nooria turn into a boy instead reveals that Parvana believes this is too much to ask. And indeed, it’s a lot of responsibility to place on an 11-year-old. But given the circumstances, there’s little else the family can do to make ends meet.
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Parvana snaps that she’ll be curvy soon, but Mother heads off the fight by saying they’ll deal with that later. For now, the fact remains that Parvana is the only one who can play the part. Mrs. Weera says that this has to be Parvana’s decision. They can force her to cut her hair, but Parvana has to be willing and able to play the part in the market. Realizing that Mrs. Weera is right, Parvana agrees. Knowing it’s her choice makes it easier. Nooria announces that she’ll cut Parvana’s hair, but Mother takes the scissors and Hossain’s clothes and leads Parvana into the washroom. Parvana watches in the mirror as Mother cuts her hair off at her neck. Mother holds the chunk up and suggests they keep it tied with a ribbon, but Parvana refuses. Her hair doesn’t seem important anymore.
Mrs. Weera’s ability to present this to Parvana as a choice helps Parvana see that she does have a choice—and if she chooses not to play along, the fact remains that her family will starve. Knowing this, the choice becomes clear. And with that choice, the lopped-off hair comes to represent a younger, more immature version of Parvana. Cutting off her hair helps Parvana see that she can mold herself to become the kind of person she wants to be—and her willingness to agree to the plan suggests she wants to be someone who cares for her family and makes the necessary sacrifices to do so.
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Mother continues to cut. Parvana starts to feel like a different person as her forehead gets bigger and her ears stick out. Her hair curls, and the short cut makes her eyes look bigger. Parvana decides she has a nice face. When Mother announces that she’s done, she leaves Parvana alone to change. Parvana rubs her hands over her head and decides she likes it. She pulls on Hossain’s pale green shalwar kameez. Though the trousers are too long, if she rolls them up they fit okay. The shirt has pockets, which is a nice change from girls’ clothes. When Mother asks if Parvana is finished, Parvana steps out. Maryam looks confused until she realizes it’s Parvana. Mother says “Hossain” and looks ready to cry, so Nooria insults Parvana as a distraction.
Simply experiencing what it’s like to wear boys’ clothes gives Parvana a sense of what’s possible now that people don’t see her as a girl. With pockets, she can carry money, candy, or whatever small items she finds—something she couldn’t do before. This gives her more control over how she conducts her life. It’s also telling that it’s only once her hair is gone that Parvana decides she has a nice face. This suggests that her hair and the immaturity it represented is what was holding her back before.
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Mother hands Parvana a white cap with beautiful embroidery, gives Parvana money and a scarf, and then sends her out. Parvana reaches for her chador, but Nooria reminds her she won’t need it. Suddenly terrified that someone will recognize her, Parvana pleads with Mother to not force her to go out. Nooria nastily accuses Parvana of being scared, but Parvana spits that it’s easy to call her scared when Nooria is safe inside. Parvana slams the door on her way out. At first, she’s nervous, but no one pays her any attention. She realizes that while she tried to act invisible as a girl in the market, now, she’s actually invisible—she’s just another boy in the market.
It’s worth considering that while Parvana says that Nooria is safe inside, the Taliban arrived to arrest Father with no knock, warrant, or reason—and they could likely stop in to harass the women for no reason too. Being home may seem safer than being out, but it’s not exactly safe. This speaks again to Parvana’s immaturity. Her discovery that she’s invisible as a boy, however, helps Parvana see that by changing her identity, she can find a sense of freedom and agency that’s entirely new.
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Parvana boldly purchases tea and rice from a grocer who’s grumpy, but not because Parvana is a girl. She then buys onions. When she returns home, Parvana proudly and excitedly announces that she was successful, but Maryam is the only one who seems excited. Mother is back on the toshak and Ali sits next to her, trying to get her attention. Nooria hands Parvana the bucket; she has laundry to catch up on. She explains that Mother is sad after seeing Hossain’s clothes and because Mrs. Weera went home. When Parvana finishes, Nooria suggests that Parvana stay in her boys’ clothes in case someone comes by. She says that Mother will have to get used to it. Parvana notices how old and tired Nooria looks and offers to help with supper, but Nooria nastily refuses. Mother tries to be cheerful at supper but has a hard time looking at Parvana.
Even as Nooria seems to treat Parvana as more of an equal at times during this passage, she’s still unable to let go of their childish feud. This speaks to how slow and difficult change within families can be—both Parvana and Nooria need to dedicate themselves to changing and focus on the bigger picture of the family’s survival if they want to develop a better relationship. This passage also charts how Nooria is beginning to prioritize the family’s wellbeing over Mother’s comfort. This is why she suggests that Parvana stay in the boys’ clothes, even though doing so is emotionally painful for Mother.
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