Category Archives: Feminism

Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns”

Rabbani, Farhanaz, and Tazin Aziz Chaudbury. “The Silent Soldiers: A Postcolonial Feminist Study of Selina Hossain’s River of My Blood and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Asiatic:IIUM Journal of English Language & Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, June 2018, pp. 25–42. Ebscohost, ebscohost.com.

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on the struggles of two different women in Afghanistan and their intertwined lives as they navigate a war-torn country and suffer the varying extreme expectations of women over several regimes. The tale of their survival and resilience in such a dangerous climate serves as an astounding story of feminism and perseverance. However, Hosseini’s description of feminism in these trying times relies on female connections and kinship rather than the feminism recognized in western culture that presents itself in marches, protests, and media presence. Farhanaz Rabbani and Tazin Aziz Chaudhury present the idea that feminism in Third World countries is far different than that of First World countries and that both Mariam and Laila find themselves participating in the latter. Their argument is valid in reference to Mariam, the older wife, but they ignore crucial aspects of Laila’s personality and beliefs that hold First World feminist ideals. Third World feminism and First World feminism appear different, but they can often overlap and do so in A Thousand Splendid Suns, using the main characters as allegorical figures for Third World feminism and First World feminism, rather than presenting one version of feminism in the novel.

Rabbani and Chaudhury preface their claims with brief histories of feminism in Afghanistan and Bangladesh. They then define the type of feminism presented in the rest of the article. “Postcolonial feminism integrates indigenous ideas with Third World feminist ideas and discusses the representation of women in ‘once colonized countries’ (Tyagi 45), which is deeply embedded in nationalism” (28). They present the idea that women in third world countries are “in a precarious condition of ‘double colonization’ (qtd. in Tyagi 45) as they simultaneously experienced the oppression of colonialism and patriarchy in the postcolonial period” (28-29). These are basic ideas of feminism that one might not initially associate with strictly impoverished, Third World countries. Women of all races have experienced oppression throughout the periods of colonization and colonialism is linked to patriarchal societies. However, the main idea of the article is that Mariam and Laila are “silent women” and their feminism is not the demand for equal rights through protests and political involvement that one might see in the current US climate. Instead, these women “[find] an agency through which she can exert her power” (41) such as murdering their abusive husband, Rasheed. Rabbani and Chaudhury claim that the protagonists’ feminism is tied to their traditions and nationalism, limiting them from being more than “’powerless,’ ‘exploited’ and ‘sexually harassed’” (29). Their feminism is in conflict with religion and traditional ideas, according to the authors. These women appear to be utterly helpless according to First World feminist thinking, but Rabbani and Chaudbury label them as “silent soldiers” of their own kind of feminism.

As the authors argue, I believe that Mariam does represent the Third World feminism that exists. Mariam was born a harami, a bastard in Afghanistan that quickly lost her only family after her first attempt at freedom. Throughout the story, her desire to fight against the abusive husband she marries dwindles and the audience sees a broken woman. Her attempts at First World feminism are few are far in between, and often these grasps at power are often demolished. In a traditional attempt to gain some sort of power, Mariam almost finds power in her first pregnancy. However, luck does not favor her and instead she miscarries this child and the following pregnancies. “In the next four years… there had been six more cycles of hopes raised then dashed… Rasheed had grown more remote and resentful” (Hosseini 99). She cannot fulfill her purpose in a patriarchal society and provide a male child to her husband, thus crushing her spirit and presenting her as a “useless” woman to the rest of society. The characterization of Mariam as this Third World feminist is accurate. She is aware of the injustice that men push on women, as her mother warns her, “’like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always’” (Hosseini 7). Mariam learns “how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid” (Hosseini 98). She knows injustice and that her lot in life will to be to suffer the problems and oppression of men, but her resilience in trying times and suffering through these injustices and taking the blame for events out of control demonstrate that she is a silent soldier of Third World feminism. Her inability to stray from tradition or strain against the expectations of women is only tested later when she interacts with Laila, an allegorical figure for the more western ideals of feminism.

Laila, significantly younger than Mariam, was raised to value knowledge and presented with the idea of living a better, free life. Her pursuit of knowledge was promoted in the communist regime, “Women have always had it hard in this country, Laila, but they’re probably more free now, under the communists, and have more rights than they’ve ever had before” (Hosseini 135). Under the communist regime, Laila is exposed to a different form of feminism than Mariam, and thus cannot be defined exactly as a “silent soldier” like her. Their environment changes their perspectives on women’s roles, as Laila’s friends state their high expectations for her future, even with her status as a girl. “But you, Laila, you’ll make [Giti and Hasani]… proud. You’re going to be somebody” (Hosseini 166). Where Mariam was directed into a life of submission and service to her husband, Laila was a wild spirit who even broke the traditions of her culture by sleeping with her first love, Tariq. Laila’s character falls in line with western feminism that promotes a more active involvement of women rather than being tied to traditions and nationalism. Her character is resilient and constantly acting out in ways that are unexpected and undesired in women for her culture. This disregard for expectations thus prevents her from being clearly labeled as a postcolonial feminist in a Third World country because she is a well-educated, gender role opposer. While her sister-wife Mariam is in the same situation, their attitudes differ in many situations. Whereas the older woman resigns to her life with an abusive husband, Laila chooses to marry Rasheed for a strategic gain to protect her own future and her bastard child.

The interaction between the characters serves to demonstrate that perhaps Rabbani and Chaudhury did not consider how Third World feminism and First World feminism are intertwined and affect each other. These are not opposing ideals characterized by their perspectives of each other, as their article might insist that First World feminists consider Third World women as weaker creatures incapable of change. Instead, Mariam and Laila’s personalities and beliefs bleed into each other. The influence of the spontaneous, calculating younger woman moves Mariam to rise against her oppressive husband and commit murder, not only breaking the law but also metaphorically beginning a rise against the patriarchy. Even before the development of their relationship, Mariam was spurred to a new outspoken stance due to the threat that Laila imposed on her household. “Mariam had never before spoken in this manner, had never stated her will so forcefully” (Hosseini 226). This is western feminist behavior, rather than the behavior of a “silent soldier” that fights the patriarchy with their existence and perseverance. Vice versa, Laila falls into the ideas of Third World feminism when she resigns to living with Rasheed and accepting the burqa to hide her identity and fall from high expectations. “Still, [Laila] found some comfort in the anonymity that the burqa provided… She wouldn’t have to watch the surprise in their eyes, or the pity or the flee, at how far she had fallen” (Hosseini 232). Rather than continuing her pursuit of knowledge or embodying the ideals of First World feminism, Laila momentarily finds power in following tradition and protecting her children and fellow sister-wife without disrupting traditions. Though the younger protagonist is the greater embodiment of First World feminism, it would be remiss to state that she did not eventually fall into the role of submissive woman to her husband’s traditional, antiquated hand, which means I do agree with Rabbani and Chaudbury, to an extent. However, I still believe that as allegorical figures, these two women demonstrate that Third World feminism can still have elements of the outspoken, radical First World feminism, and western women can often adopt the traditional, nationalistic views of feminism that Afghanistan produces.

Rabbani and Chaudbury present Laila and Mariam as “silent soldiers” and suggest that these two women fall under one kind of feminism, labeled as Third World feminism. However, evidence suggests that Laila, unsurprisingly, differs from the behavior of a Third World feminist in many ways. Still, the younger woman also adopts several of the same tactics in order to survive, just as Mariam adopts the behavior of a First World feminist after interacting with Laila. Feminists, whether Third Word or First World, adopt a number of behaviors and actions that may be similar to one another and it would be inaccurate to attempt to separate feminists into distinct categories because there will always be an overlap as women of different economic and social backgrounds interact with each other.

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Miss Temptation”

Kurt Vonnegut, an author known for his satirical work and commentary on society, published his feminist short story, “Miss Temptation,” in 1956, shortly before second wave feminism flourished in the United States. Vonnegut’s short story satirizes the sexualization of women and their treatment as objects rather than people. In “Miss Temptation,” Vonnegut presents the idea that women aren’t sexual objects for men to degrade and abuse, but rather they are equal to men. In this particular short story, Vonnegut exaggerates the characteristics of the patriarchal and religious base, breaks gender roles and expectations, and uses the power dynamic between Susanna and Corporal Fuller in order to expose the vast hypocrisy of men from idolizing the beauty of women while condemning their sexuality to expecting women to serve as submissive objects of pleasure.

Vonnegut begins his short story by disregarding strict Puritan values in a small town, which would usually shun a woman for her enchanting, sensual presence in town. Puritanism typically aimed at keeping women in line and punished women who acted out, as shown by the infamous witch hunts lead by Puritans. Throughout the history of the United States, support for suppressing women and restricting their actions could often be found in religions such as Puritanism. Small towns such as the setting of the story would often be the pictured scene for such thoughts and strict attitudes. Instead of developing a stifling environment for his female protagonist, Vonnegut writes that, “[N]ot even the oldest farmer suspected that Susanna’s diabolical beauty had made his cow run dry.” Sudden and seemingly inexplicable bad luck such as cows running dry would typically send a Puritan town into a witch hunt, as seen in Salem’s history. Women were typically blamed for inexplicable hardships, especially those that may present their sexuality as brazenly as Susanna does. However, the author raises this Puritan town to be above such accusations of women. Thus, Vonnegut creates a supportive environment for Susanna and her beauty to exist without conflict, until Corporal Fuller, embodying the toxic, historical masculinity that smothers women, returns home. Throughout the story, the author then drops clues, indicating that Fuller represented the patriarchal, religious base that the feminist theory suggests society was built on at the time. Vonnegut makes clever reference to the history of witch hunts and their unjust destruction of innocent women, “[Fuller’s] indictment had reduced Susanna to washes of what she’d been moments before.” Exaggerations of history suggest that the Salem Witch Trials involved burning women at the stake. Vonnegut similarly uses exaggeration to expose the pretentiousness and ridiculous hold onto the past with Fuller’s verbal assault on Susanna. He even describes Fuller’s outburst as, “The wraith of a Puritan ancestor, stiff-necked, dressed in black, took possession of Fuller’s tongue… the voice of a witch hanger, a voice redolent with frustration, self-righteousness…” The author’s description of the army man demonstrates that he is representative of the oppressive patriarchal and religious beliefs on women. Fuller is all the worst aspects of Puritan men, “stiff-necked,” a “witch hanger,” and self-righteous with no redeeming qualities, thus an extreme hyperbolic allegory for the oppressive base of the society that Vonnegut attempts to critique, arguing that to view women the same way that Fuller does is to view them in an antiquated and dangerous manner.

The feminist theory recognizes the traditional, “good” female role in a patriarchy as “modest, unassuming” (Tyson 89). However, Susanna is presented as a sensual woman that inspires desire in men such as Fuller. She defies the traditional gender role of being a conservative woman that does not showcase her sexuality, blending into society’s expectations. Instead Susanna is a spectacle, “[h]er hips were like a lyre, and her bosom made men dream of peace…She wore barbaric golden hoops on her shell-pink ears…” Susanna represents the idea of a free woman, not bound by the restrictions of the patriarchy and their gender roles for women. Fuller, after publicly denouncing her as a tease, meets Susanna again and her appearance and status as a free woman has shifted. “[Susanna] was now dressed for travel—dressed as properly as a missionary’s wife.” However, even as her appearance matches the traditional “good” girl expectation, Susanna begins a lively and opinionated rant that demolishes the idea of her behaving as expected by the patriarchy, and Fuller is equally as intimidated and upset by the conservative Susanna. This reflects on the society that Vonnegut is experiencing as women are gearing up for the next swell of feminism and fighting for their rights to be viewed as more than submissive creatures. The scene suggests that even when women are pressured to suppress their bodies for men, their spirits will rise and demand the same respect that men take for themselves. Susanna’s long tirade regarding her feelings reflects the climate of society as women wish to express themselves and be seen as more than just wives or mothers. In analyzing the ignored gender roles that Susanna presents, the feminist criticism reveals the changing perspective of women, both in men such as Vonnegut and in the social climate as second wave feminism begins, and women begin to demand to own their own bodies. It also shows the fickle nature that is typically expected of women is reflected in Fuller, and more broadly in the oppressive patriarchy, who dislikes Susanna’s sensual expression of self, yet is equally as uncomfortable with her “proper” attire.

The power dynamic between men and women has historically favored men as the dominant and women as the weak and submissive. Initially, “Miss Temptation” follows this idea when Fuller critiques Susanna in front of his audience; however, the power dynamic does not remain in his favor. In fact, Fuller is never actually the one in place of power in his interactions with Susanna. It is because she intimidates him that he insults Susanna, exposing that he is not actually the “all powerful army man” that the audience initially assumes. Fuller, despite his low rank, is still an army man, such a role should give him a greater social standing than a civilian woman and he is expected to act as such. Instead, this idea is deconstructed quickly as his self-righteous opinion of himself is weakened. “Susanna, the golden girl of a thousand tortured daydreams, was now discussing her soul, passionately, with Fuller the lonely. Fuller the homely. Fuller the bleak.” Fuller, once again representative of the toxic patriarchy, is exposed as easily destroyed and brought down from his self-righteous throne of power. Rather than having control over the situation, he is put at Susanna’s level, creating an equal ground where Fuller cannot assert authority over her, as a man or as a part of the military. Instead he is forced to see that Susanna has feelings and is “not Yellowstone Park” nor does she “belong to everybody!” Susanna makes the comparison of being treated like public property or an attraction meant for men to look at and metaphorically tour. Women have often been treated as if their bodies belonged to men to gawk at and criticize. Her argument does not promote being viewed as private property, but rather for women to not be viewed as property at all and instead have standing as human beings capable of their own decisions. This scene reflects the possibilities that would be hoped for in the second wave of feminism as women sought equality and control over their own bodies and decisions such as access to birth control. Men such as Fuller expect to remain in power and dominate women, but the feminist theory would suggest that by analyzing this short story, written by a man around the time of a social movement, men were actually intimidated by the power held by women and sought to suppress them into their expected roles in the power dynamic between the sexes.

Reading Vonnegut’s “Miss Temptation” alone leads to the conclusion that he believed women were more than just objects for men’s visual enjoyment. Applying the feminist criticism takes this meaning from the satirical short story and exposes that while men place themselves as dominant figures over women, they are equally as sensitive, and the patriarchy can be demolished. Their hypocrisy runs deep in their inability to accept sensual women who own their bodies while also claiming the right to stare and project their desires onto these women.