The Breadwinner takes place when the Taliban controls Afghanistan, meaning that the country operates under Sharia law (religious laws that govern all aspects of one’s life). Especially as Parvana and her mostly female family members see and experience it, this is disastrous: the Taliban, to supposedly protect women, mandates that they cannot leave the house except with a male family member as an escort and cannot attend school or work. This poses a number of issues for Parvana’s family—her father, like many Afghans both male and female, lost part of his lower leg in the bombings of Kabul, and so he struggles to provide for his family. The situation becomes even more dire when the Taliban arrests him, leaving the family without a male breadwinner. Though the novel is firm in its stance that the Taliban enforcement of Sharia law harms women and does little to protect them, it also suggests that in circumstances like these, it’s essential for women to find new ways to leverage or subvert the restrictive gender roles imposed upon them.
The Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government about a year before Parvana’s story begins brought many changes for Afghan women, none of them good. Before the takeover, both Parvana and her older sister, Nooria, happily attended school while both their parents worked. The Taliban, however, closed schools for girls, and now Nooria and Mother busy themselves at home cleaning while Parvana supports Father in his work reading and writing letters for people in the market—something that, technically speaking, isn’t allowed. The Taliban also mandates that when women leave the house, they must wear burqas that cover them from head to toe and be accompanied by a male relative, thereby depriving women of any power or agency. Parvana notes that while these changes don’t affect how Mother and Father interact with each other (given their progressive politics), for many couples, women’s lives turn upside-down as their fathers or husbands lean into the new restrictions placed on women. If a man’s wife or daughter has lost a leg like Father, some even go so far as to sell those prosthetic legs. These changes paint a picture of female life in Afghanistan that’s heavily policed, dangerous, and at the mercy of the Taliban or one’s male family members.
However, when the Taliban arrest Father, Parvana discovers that she doesn’t have to play by the Taliban’s rules and take them at face value. Rather, she only needs to give the appearance that she’s following the rules—and for her, this means cutting her hair and dressing as a boy so she can make money. Because Parvana is so young and still has the androgynous body of a child, she discovers that she can manipulate her appearance and now others perceive her, all through her clothing choices. If she wears her chador (head scarf) around her hair, people on street perceive her as female; if she dresses in boys’ clothes, people perceive her as a young boy. With this discovery comes immense freedom—the freedom to feed and support her family, the freedom to move through crowds without fear of persecution, and the freedom to rediscover the city she loves.
For adult women in Parvana’s life, however, finding freedom must take a different form, as they cannot pass for male just by cutting their hair and changing their clothes. At times, women in Parvana’s life discover that the burqa can be both a blessing and a curse: it may make it hard to walk and obscure their identity, but if one is trying to hide, a burqa allows women to hide in plain sight. Nooria leverages her femininity in a different way by agreeing to marry a cousin. The cousin lives in a northern city that the Taliban doesn’t yet occupy, so the marriage won’t trap Nooria as it traps other young women. Rather, in the letter proposing the marriage, the relative writing promises that Nooria can finish school and earn her degree if she agrees to the marriage. While the Taliban does eventually intervene and take the northern city, Nooria’s plan nevertheless speaks to the ways in which women are forced to assert their agency in subtle, creative ways. And with this, The Breadwinner ultimately makes the case that in the face of oppression and strict rules, women certainly have less power—but it’s still possible to work within the system or subvert it to better their lives and gain a sense of agency and control.
Gender Relations ThemeTracker
Gender Relations Quotes in The Breadwinner
There were a lot of false legs for sale in the market now. Since the Taliban decreed that women must stay inside, many husbands took their wives’ false legs away. “You’re not going anywhere, so why do you need a leg?” they asked.
Parvana knew she had to fetch the water because there was nobody else in the family who could do it. Sometimes this made her resentful. Sometimes it made her proud. One thing she knew—it didn’t matter how she felt. Good mood or bad, the water had to be fetched, and she had to fetch it.
“How can we be brave?” Nooria asked. “We can’t even go outside. How can we lead men into battle? I’ve seen enough war. I don’t want to see any more.”
“There are many types of battles,” Father said quietly.
“You are a writer. You must do your work.”
“If we had left Afghanistan when we had the chance, I could be doing my work!”
“We are Afghans. This is our home. If all the educated people leave, who will rebuild the country?”
“You’re not cutting my hair!” Parvana’s hands flew up to her head.
“How else will you look like a boy?” Mother asked.
“Cut Nooria’s hair! She’s the oldest! It’s her responsibility to look after me, not my responsibility to look after her!”
“No one would believe me to be a boy,” Nooria said calmly, looking down at her body.
“It has to be your decision,” Mrs. Weera said. “We can force you to cut off your hair, but you’re still the one who has to go outside and act the part. We know this is a big thing we’re asking, but I think you can do it. How about it?”
Parvana realized Mrs. Weera was right. They could hold her down and cut off her hair, but for anything more, they needed her cooperation. In the end, it really was her decision.
Somehow, knowing that made it easier to agree.
When she had gone into the market with her father, she had kept silent and covered up her face as much as possible. She had tried her best to be invisible. Now, with her face open to the sunshine, she was invisible in another way. She was just one more boy on the street. She was nothing worth paying attention to.
“I need a break,” she told her mother. “I don’t want to see anything ugly for a little while.”
Mother and Mrs. Weera had heard about the events at the stadium from other women’s group mothers. Some had husbands or brothers who had been there. “This goes on every Friday,” Mother said. “What century are we living in?”
“Do you think we’ll still have to be boys in the spring? That’s a long time from now.”
“I want to still be a boy then,” Shauzia insisted. “If I turn back into a girl, I’ll be stuck at home. I couldn’t stand that.”
“Where will you go?”
“France. I’ll get on a boat and go to France.”
The little gifts from the window kept landing on Parvana’s blanket every couple of weeks. Sometimes it was a piece of embroidery. Sometimes it was a piece of candy or a single bead.
It was as if the Window Woman was saying, “I’m still here,” in the only way she could.
“Do you really want to do this?”
Nooria nodded. “Look at my life here, Parvana. I hate living under the Taliban. I’m tired of looking after the little ones. My school classes happen so seldom, they’re of almost no value. There’s no future for me here. At least in Mazar I can go to school, walk the streets without having to wear a burqa, and get a job when I’ve completed school. Maybe in Mazar I can have some kind of life. Yes, I want to do this.”
“Shauzia has family here. Do you mean to say she would just leave her family? Desert the team just because the game is rough?”
Parvana said no more. In a way, Mrs. Weera was right. That was what Shauzia was doing. But Shauzia was also right. Didn’t she have a right to seek out a better life? Parvana couldn’t decide who was more right.