A Thousand Splendid Suns: The burqa as a symbol of both the social plight of women and a hidden sense of freedom [(Essay dated 9 June, 2008) In this essay, E.B analyzes the negative and positive symbolism of the burqa worn by females in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ and compares the treatment of women to that of women in Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale”]
“Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling. The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth” (65).
Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” focuses on the plight of women in Afghan society. It is in this society that the burqa is used as a symbol of both the repressive nature of male dominance and the suffocating effects of submission.
Much like in the novel “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, women are seen only for their reproductive purposes. They are only considered a means by which to pass on the family name and business, not as loving caring individuals. In the “Handmaid’s Tale” they are forced to wear dresses of certain colors and have to wear special hats so that they can not see their peripheral vision. This lack of vision is a symbol not only for the experiences in life from which these women are cut off, but also for the blindness of society, which puts up its own blinders and pretends that treating women in this manner is acceptable. Offred, from the “Handmaid’s Tale”, is also suffocated by society. She is not allowed to speak unless spoken to and is not supposed to make eye contact unless commanded to do so. While Offred feels the suffocating ways of society theoretically, Mariam feels them literally as the cloth presses against her mouth, silencing her and making it difficult for her to breathe. These outfits are meant to show society the women’s roles in the family and make them submissive to the dominant male race. This scenario is the same for the burqas in “A Thousand Splendid Suns. The burqas are used to make the women submissive to their husbands. Mariam quickly learns from her husband that he too will enforce this unfair prejudice, “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?” (63). Women are to be completely covered by their burqas at all times, unless at home with their husbands. Separated and secluded from society, women are silenced by this thin layer of cloth that surrounds their bodies and are forced into submission.
Unfortunately, Mariam, like many of the females in the middle to low classes in Afghanistan, is forced by her husband to wear a burqa. This for of segregation and degradation is not so for the upper class; Mariam’s Husband, Rasheed, says:
“The women come uncovered, they talk to me directly, look at me in the eye without shame. They wear makeup and skirts that show their knees. Sometimes they even put their feet in front of me, the women do, for measurements, and their husbands stand there and watch. They allow it. […] They think they’re being modern men, intellectuals, on account of their education, I suppose.” (63)
Men in the middle to low classes, being of lesser education, may feel as though they are not able to handle women being more outgoing and approachable than themselves. Because of this insecurity, they force women to wear burqas so that they can consider themselves be dominant and are made to feel as if they control the power over something, even if it is only to clad their own wife. They need to feel in control of their home environment since they are not in control of the outside one. This excess of aggressive behavior and need for self reassurance leads many of these men to demand that their wives wear burqas in public.
In Mariam’s case, although the burqa did indeed make her submissive to her husband as it was intended; it also gave her a sense of comfort. The narrator states“And the burqa, she learned to her surprise, was also comforting. It was like a one way window. Inside it, she was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers. She no longer worried that people knew, with a single glance, all the shameful secrets of her past” (66). The burqa saves Mariam from the harshness of reality. It is a veil on her past, a protecting fortress, so she does not feel like people can tell who she is and how she came to be; a harami, or child born out of wedlock, her father a rich and prominent figure in society, and her mother a lowly maid in his household. Under her veil she is able to see life like she has never seen it before. She is free of people’s unkind stares, and she no longer feels like she is the center of everyone’s gaze. Under the burqa, Mariam finds comfort and security in its folds, as well as freedom. She feels the freedom to think as she wishes and finds comfort in the fact that no one will be the wiser about it.
Rasheed’s second wife, Laila, has similar feelings about the burqas:
“For Laila, being out in the streets had become an exercise in avoiding injury. Her eyes were still adjusting to the limited, gridlike visibility of the burqa, her feet still stumbling over the hem. She walked in perpetual fear of tripping and falling, of breaking an ankle stepping into a pothole. Still, she found some comfort in the anonymity that the burqa provided. She wouldn’t be recognized this way if she ran into an old acquaintance of hers. She wouldn’t have to watch the surprise in their eyes, or the pity or glee, at how far she had fallen, at how her lofty aspirations had been dashed.” (208)
The burqa provided shelter as it humiliated and made the women wearing it submissive. For them it was both a hindrance and a blessing. While the burqas show that the women wearing them have given up their individuality because of a man, they are sheltered in its mass amounts of cloth, surrounded and comforted by the fact that they are dressed beyond recognition so that what little self esteem they have left is not stomped on by society, but rather cradled and protected.
The burqas also protect the women themselves. Many of the women had to give up their children and place them in orphanages when the droughts came because they had no way of feeding them. Laila has to give up her little girl, and since her husband refuses to go with her to visit the child, she sneaks out. Women are not allowed out on the streets without a man to accompany them; if they are caught they were beaten and sent home. The burqas offered protection from the beatings, as the narrator states, “Soon Laila took to wearing extra layers, even in the heat, two, three sweaters beneath the burqa, for padding against the beatings”(286). While the burqas singled them out to the Taliban in the streets, they offered shelter also, providing a way to soften the blows dealt to them by society.
Tripping is another symbol that goes along with the burqa. Both women tripped over the hem while they were getting accustomed to the feel of wearing a burqa. This is significant because in both instances, this event occurs after or around the same time that they are trying to convince themselves that wearing a burqa is not such a bad thing. Tripping on the hem brings them back to reality. It is almost like a tease of freedom. As they are walking their feet have freedom to move, yet as soon as their foot catches the hem, it takes that freedom away and they falter a moment before regaining their balance. This trip, stumble, recover, and carry-on is symbolic of women’s repression by society and of the tease of freedom brought about by the concealing veil of the burqa,“[It is used]as a reminder of how women like us suffer […] How quietly we endure all that falls upon us” (82).
When the Taliban took over, all women are forced to wear burqas in public, even the doctors. Female doctors, though they have the luxury of being allowed to continue working, are forced to wear burqas even during surgery. Mariam explains this give and take scenario saying, “Here was a woman who had understood that she was lucky to even be working, [yet] there was always something, something else, that they could take away” (260). This simple rule, as well as the fact that all of the doctors’ burqas are grungy and old, shows how little women are valued in this society. They are treated like dirt, and the only solace that they can find for their drop in status is to shrink into the burqas that they wear and embrace what little freedom and comfort it gives them. Some of the women doctors are strong enough to stand up to this unfair ruling. In secret, they would remove the burqa during surgery as it was difficult and constricting to work in. The removal of the burqa, and with the help of a person standing guard to make sure no one would catch them, shows that the removal of this piece of cloth gives women just as much control and dominance over their own lives as it gave the men who forced the women wear them.
This one piece of cloth is able to dominate and control so many women that (as the title of the book suggests),“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,/ Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” (347) One cannot possibly count the number of men who placed themselves as dominant, or the thousand bright women that were hidden behind the cloak of their burqas. Yet with the removal of the Taliban, the splendidness of freedom was shown to all people, as the mandatory burqa wearing was taken away and the restoration of the balance between men and women began. There was to be no more hiding behind burqas as the social plight of women was on its way to being righted. By the end of the novel, society is being rebuilt and women are gaining more power. The suffocation of society has been removed and renovation has begun, starting at home and slowly echoing throughout the whole of society. Similar to the way in which everything was eventually righted in the end of “Handmaid’s Tale”; the ending of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” conveys a sense of growing momentum of women’s rights and leaves the reader with a hope for equality and acceptance between men and women.