Category Archives: Race

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.

Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Heritage is a concept passed down through family in their traditions, stories, and interactions. However, in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” the view on heritage becomes thorny, reflecting the current issues of African Americans and their struggle to differentiate between their history as slaves and their family history. She presents the conflicting idea of heritage as valuing simple familial connections or extravagant physical displays. Alice Walker uses the voice of the mother, her different focalization of the daughters, and the allegorical purpose of the daughters to convey the complicated struggle of African Americans and their definition of heritage to show the different perspectives on heritage and suggest that neither deserve to be condemned.

The story is narrated by Dee and Maggie’s mother, who is revealed as a poorly educated, “large, big-boned woman” (Walker 315). This physical description is important because it is later stated that Dee is the opposite, having “nicer hair and a fuller figure” (316) than her sister, Maggie, and having attended school. Right away the audience is made aware of the distinct difference that Mama sees in herself and Dee. This important distinction sets the tone for the comparison that appears throughout the text. The narrator’s eldest daughter has become everything that Mama believes she could never be: educated, fashionable, and confident, which explains why Dee also learns a different view of heritage than Mama. The disconnect between mother and daughter parallels the disconnect between many African Americans that view each other as strangers based on their differences in education. Mama looks at Maggie as someone similar to herself, grouping them into one social identity group and Dee into another. Walker is using the mother’s voice to distinctly show an “us versus them” phenomenon in the family. Having their mother as the narrator allows Alice Walker to show the basic, skin deep disparities between the sisters, their educations, and their lots in life. This translates into Alice Walker’s idea that having different lots in life can affect how African Americans view their heritage and develop some hostility towards the other perspectives. At times, hostility is evident in the voice of the mother, relating to the inability to understand other values. “Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask [Dee]” (316). Mama seems accusatory and angry towards the distant Dee, an example of how she is incapable of understanding her daughter’s feelings because they are different. Telling the story through the voice of the mother exposes the prejudice among African Americans and their peers that view heritage as something other than their own ideals. Mama views heritage as a familial connection, whereas Dee views heritage as a grandiose display and return to her culture before slavery. The voice of the mother sets the stage for Walker to begin comparing the differences between Maggie and Dee, and in a greater sense the difference between heritage defined by familial values and materialistic values.

Having Mama as the narrator not only gives insight into her mind and opinions of the girls, it also gives the audience the ability to see what she is seeing. Alice Walker employs Mama as the focalizer. Through her eyes we are given specific details regarding the two daughters. For instance, the narrator is constantly putting our focus on Maggie’s feelings. “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed…eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe” (315). Mama understands Maggie’s feelings because they both embrace family and emotional connections. They both celebrate traditional views of heritage and oral history. On the other hand, Dee is often described either regarding her actions or her appearance. “[Dee] never takes a shot without making sure the house is included…Then she puts the Polaroid in the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead” (318). In this scene, Mama narrates Dee’s actions, but has no insight into Dee’s thoughts as she is taking photos of the house. This behavior contradicts Mama’s previous idea that Dee would hate the new house. Thus, our narrator evidently has no idea how her eldest daughter thinks and feels; however, she shares a bond with Maggie that allows her to understand her emotions and insecurities. Walker uses focalization to develop how the characters are presented both to the audience and Mama. The focalization also helps Walker showcase the two ideas of heritage. Dee’s view on heritage is based on demonstrating it through her dress and putting family artifacts with history on display, like African Americans that search for a sense of history in their culture and displaying traditional ideas. Opposingly, Maggie has been characterized as having a greater emotional connection and being far more like her mother, presenting the idea that heritage comes from families despite slavery. Specific focus on Maggie’s emotions and Dee’s actions drives Walker’s point that heritage can be defined by an emotional connection to the family or it can be defined by actions and displays of objects related to the family and traditions.

Throughout the short story, Alice Walker develops the sisters as allegorical characters. Maggie represents the classic view of heritage as traditions and stories passed down the family line. When Hakim-a-barber asks a question regarding the history of the dasher, Dee does not have the answer. Instead Maggie chimes in, “’Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash…His name was Henry, but they called him Stash’” (319). Maggie holds a connection to these pieces and the history of the family and values items for their purpose and history. Thus, she is meant to present the view of heritage as something defined by emotional relationships and an emphasis on connections to others. This seems to be the definition of heritage that Mama agrees with, not because she explicitly says so, but because she defends Maggie when she realizes that Dee doesn’t necessarily care for the history behind the quilt. Dee instead values items and actions to show her heritage. Whereas Maggie desires the quilts for personal use, Dee states that she would hang the quilts for show. This lines up with her characterization. She has mostly been described through actions and appearances, making her the allegorical representative of heritage defined by valuing a display of one’s cultural background. The first instance of Dee demonstrating a greater emphasis on her cultural background rather than her familial connections occurs when she corrects her mother on her new name, “’Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo… [Dee]’s dead’” (318). Dee has embraced a view of heritage as displaying her culture both in her home and in her clothing. Alice Walker has now presented two very different and seemingly contradictory views on heritage because Dee’s decision to change her name to something culturally accurate is rejecting the view of heritage being defined by family relationships. However, while Mama seems to agree with Maggie in the end, we must consider the distance that Alice Walker has from the narrator and the allegorical characters. Alice Walker is an African American woman and likely has considered these differing perspectives of heritage. We cannot definitively state that Walker prefers one view of heritage over the other, but we can acknowledge that they both exist and that both daughters have understandable reasons for their differing value.

Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” calls on the audience to consider their own definition of heritage. She points out the prejudice between African Americans regarding their views on heritage and that the line between distancing oneself from their oppressive slave masters and their own family is a thin one that Dee dances on, symbolic of the numerous other African Americans facing this issue. Maggie and Mama represent the traditional idea of heritage and family traditions. Alice Walker writes not to condemn one view over the other, but to promote the acknowledgement of both as acceptable forms of self-expression.