‘A Thousand Splendid Suns‘ by Khaled Hosseini is set against the turbulent recent history of Afghanistan, which spans from the Soviet invasion in 1979 through the overthrow of the Taliban dictatorship in 2001. The book gives a graphic account of the lives of Afghan women who bore the brunt of these political changes, which included war, relocation, oppression, and cruelty. During the period depicted in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ Afghan culture was incredibly patriarchal, traditional, and conservative, with rigid gender roles and expectations for both men and women. Women’s life was severely governed and constrained by social norms and practices, and they were expected to be subordinate to men, particularly their fathers, spouses, and male relatives.
Millions of Afghans were forced to leave their homes and live in refugee camps or temporary shelters as a result of the Soviet invasion and ensuing hostilities, especially women and children. Women in these situations were especially susceptible to exploitation, abuse, and trafficking, including sexual violence. Midway through the 1990s, the Taliban rose to power, adding to the persecution of women by enforcing rigid clothing regulations and restricting their access to jobs, education, and civic engagement. Due to the Taliban’s strict application of Sharia law, women who were suspected of adultery or other “moral offenses” were publicly executed as well as forced into marriages with Taliban militants.
The Invasion of Afghanistan by The Soviet Union
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 marked a turning point in the history of the nation and had far-reaching effects on both Afghanistan and the surrounding area. The Soviet Union launched the invasion because it wanted to help the Afghan Communist Party, which had taken over the government in a coup in 1978, and keep its hold on the area. The Soviet Union intervened to save the Afghan government from being ousted by Islamic fundamentalists out of concern that it might be.
The Soviet Union sent soldiers, tanks, and aircraft to Afghanistan, starting a ten-year struggle that was bloody and drawn out. Afghan mujahideen fighters, who were backed by the United States, Pakistan, and other nations opposed to Soviet expansionism, fiercely resisted the Soviet invasion. Widespread human rights violations during the Soviet military operations included rape, torture, extrajudicial killings, and indiscriminate bombing and shelling of residential areas. Tens of thousands of civilians were allegedly killed, and millions more were displaced by Soviet forces, resulting in a humanitarian disaster that still exists today.
As the Afghan government received support from Iran, a country with a majority Shia Muslim population, while the mujahideen, who are primarily Sunni Muslims, received support from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority nations, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan also exacerbated ethnic and sectarian tensions within the country. The battle drew in regional and international powers, with the Soviet Union obtaining aid from its communist friends while the mujahideen received financing and arms from the United States and its allies. After a failed military campaign, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989. After the withdrawal, a protracted civil war broke out, in which the mujahideen and other groups struggled for control of the nation. In the middle of the 1990s, the Taliban began to gain strength, and they eventually gained control of Afghanistan in 1996, ushering in a new era of unrest and instability.
As in other nations where Islam is practiced, families commonly arrange marriages in Afghanistan, and the fathers of the households have the most influence over who marries whom. Muslim families, like Laila’s parents in the book, allow for love matches rather than planned marriages, much as they do in some regions of Afghanistan. The bride must, however, wed the man who has negotiated with her father for her hand in marriage in traditional Muslim homes. Forced marriage can lead to horrific confrontations between the husband and the wife, and if a man marries more than one woman—as certain interpretations of Islam permit—jealousy may develop.
Mariam is mortified to become a second wife in the book, but she has no choice. Only because there is no man to ask for Laila’s hand is she asked if she wants to marry Rasheed. She consents to the marriage since she believes there is no other option. Rasheed further mentions that if Laila stays in the home as a woman of marriageable age (girls marry as early as 11 in extremist factions) and does not wed Rasheed, people would gossip, and the family will be embarrassed. Laila would be left to fend for herself on the streets of a Mujahideen-run city, which would bring about humiliation, bloodshed, and perhaps even death.
Violence against women is rampant under Taliban rule and is frequently overlooked on the presumption that it is okay. Although women are permitted to file for divorce in Islam, they are frequently not permitted to finalize the separation. A woman must appear before a Sharia court of specialists if a male refuses to grant a divorce, and they may, as the officer in the story does, send the woman back to her husband.
The Afghan Civil War
The Afghan civil war, which started in 1989 after the Soviet Union withdrew and lasted until the Taliban seized power in the nation in 1996, was a complicated and varied battle involving numerous factions vying for power in the nation. Millions of people were displaced throughout the civil war, which was characterized by extensive violence and violations of human rights. The Taliban, who are predominately Pashtun, are arrayed against other ethnic groups, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. The many forces involved in the fight are frequently divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The Mujahideen, who had fought against the Soviet Union and gained support from the United States and its allies, emerged as factions competing for control once the Soviet-backed government fell to pieces. Many factions of the mujahideen existed, and many of their leaders prioritized their interests over that of the Afghan people. The mujahideen factions originally succeeded in overthrowing the Soviet-backed government, but they soon started to turn against one another, with sectarian and ethnic differences emerging. Child soldiers were frequently used during the battle, and there were several instances of extreme violence, including killings of civilians.
Midway through the 1990s, the Taliban began to gain strength, with its leaders pledging to bring back stability and peace to the nation. Some Afghans initially embraced the Taliban because they were sick of the bloodshed and unpredictability of the civil war. However, public opinion swiftly shifted against the Taliban as a result of the violent application of its interpretation of Islamic law, which included publicly beheading those who were charged with adultery or other “moral offenses.” After finally seizing power in Kabul in 1996, the Taliban imposed a repressive government that severely restricted the rights of women and religious minorities. The brutality of the Taliban’s administration was exemplified by their frequent use of public executions, amputations, and stonings.
What role does ethnicity play in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns?’
In Afghanistan, a person’s fate is mostly determined by the ethnic class or tribe they are born into. Pashtuns and Tajiks are the two main ethnic groups of ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns.’ Tajiks speak a Persian-sounding variety of the Farsi language, while Pashtuns speak Pashto. (Since 1964, Dari, a lingua franca or common language created from diverse Persian dialects, has been the official language of Afghanistan.)
What was the nature of Taliban rule in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns?’
Most activities in Afghanistan were severely restricted by the Taliban, particularly those involving women, outside media, and entertainment. The all-girls schools were shut down after sending girls home from class. Women were forced to leave their occupations and were no longer permitted to work or pursue careers.
What caused the civil war in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns?’
Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan plunged into a civil war, which lasted until the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. The conflict involved various factions, including the mujahideen, who had turned against each other and engaged in brutal warfare, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and the destruction of cities like Kabul.
Why did the Soviets invade Afghanistan in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns?’
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 primarily due to geopolitical and ideological reasons. The Soviet leadership aimed to maintain a communist regime in Afghanistan, supporting the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against opposition forces. They sought to protect their sphere of influence in the region, secure a strategic position in Southwest Asia, and prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.