by Yasmina El Hilali
“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”
When I was a fourteen-year-old wide-eyed kid, I hadn’t yet heard of the empowering and bold Jane Eyre. Living everyday life between the confines of my home, high school and the library, I was searching for a sense of identity. It would take a while before I’d find it.
On the shelves of the local library, I stumbled upon Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. And long before I would know miss Eyre, I got to know Mariam and Laila.
A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two women who couldn’t have been more different, yet have their lives collide with a force. Set in Kabul, we are introduced to the introverted, illiterate and illegitimate Mariam and the eloquent, fierce and well-educated Laila.
Fierce as I was myself, I found myself captivated by Leila’s eloquence, ambition and curiosity. Moreover, she is described as beautiful, lovely, enchanting: what more did a young girl aim for? Mariam, on the other hand, was described as plain, a victim of societal stigma, uneducated with no other prospects than an arranged marriage. No, my fourteen-year-old self firmly thought: I definitely wasn’t a Mariam.
Different as these two women are, war and fate cause them to be married to the same man and they become what neither of them ever wanted to become: sister wives. Whereas the two women first approach each other with hostility, they soon learn they have a common enemy: their husband Rasheed.
Rasheed is violent, arrogant and a misogynist, who feels men should be in control and women have little (if nothing) to decide. Mariam, Laila, and Laila’s daughter Aziza are bound to the confines of their house and are subjected to Rasheed’s violence. Outside, the world is no different; Afghanistan is subjected to the terror of the Taliban and women everywhere are told what to do and how to dress.
Mariam and Laila suffer behind closed doors where they only have each other to rely on and, while they plan a great escape, their prospects are weak. Mariam and Laila form an unlikely bond. As an illegitimate child (harami), Mariam has become used to living on the periphery of society and not getting the things that other people thrive on: such as love, friendship, care or even respect. Laila, however, teaches Mariam to ignite her inner strength, confidence and demand the right to exist. More than anything, Laila –and little Aziza– teach Mariam what is to love and be loved: something she never thought she would receive.
And when Mariam finally decides to stand up for herself and pays the ultimate price for her act of bravery, my fourteen-year-old self stared at the blurred pages. Young as I was, I had always thought that the true strength of a woman was visible, audible and most certainly not silent. I had forgotten, or was never taught, about those women who silently fight behind closed doors every day. True female empowerment, however, is not about who can scream the loudest, but it is about recognizing our different battles and deciding how we will fight them, every single day of our lives.
So, long before I learned about Jane Eyre, I learned from Mariam what sacrifice, selflessness and unconditional love mean. Long before I learned about miss Eyre, I learned from Laila, who taught me strength, resilience, the importance of education and the capacity to deal with loss, while always fighting for a better tomorrow.
More importantly, these two women taught me what it means to build each other up, even when you are from completely different walks of life. They taught me that however different, there is always something we can learn from each other.
Women are one body, and while we may face many attacks from the outside world: we must always nurture that one body.