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Running on the edge
Khaled Hosseini’s "The Kite Runner" reveals plight of women in Islamic countries and gives ammunition to Western hawks



September 30, 2006

Despite its dramatic portrayal of life in Afghanistan mainly before the communist takeover and less emphatically during and after the Russian occupation, Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner,” which has won vast literary acclaim in the west, and specially here in the United States, is for the most part a depiction of Afghan life and culture through the lens of an American. More specifically speaking, the writer describes life and political events of Afghanistan in a way that can appeal to the American perception of how life must have been, or is, in Afghanistan.

Some writers are just lucky to coincide with certain events and political trends. Very few people remember Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his Gulag Archipelago. But Solzhenitsyn won international fame and prestige and even a Noble Peace Prize in the 1970’s simply because he got a free ride – well not quite very free - on the wave of the Cold War that landed him on the shore of great world renown and acknowledgement.

Another example of such literary success was the bestseller by Betty Mahmoodi “Not Without My Daughter,” which recounted the situation of an American woman caught up in the noose of the patriarchal structure of a devout Muslim family in Tehran of the early 1980’ right after the Hostage Crisis.

“The Kite Runner” is another such case.

Amir, an Afghan-American novelist living in Northern California, who escaped Afghanistan with his father after the Afghan takeover by the USSR in 1980, receives a phone call from a friend of his father’s in Pakistan, which triggers a series of events and recollections that culminate when he returns to Taliban-controled Kabul and meets his old-time adversary, Assef, who is now a Taliban official.

And then through a chain of what I would like to call “plot holes,” he finally succeeds in bringing an Afghan boy, the son of his old servant, who, he has just found out, was his own half brother, over to the United States.

Though I can go on discussing why I think that this novel is a mediocre literary work, which owes its success to the political events of the early 2000’s, and the overall mental disposition in the United State, which would like to believe that the invasion of Afghanistan has led to the emancipation of the people of this country and specifically women, I think that I will, for the purpose of this paper, attempt to curb this desire, and adhere to the gender issues that are discussed in this book. Let me suffice by saying here that very little has changed in Afghanistan after the US led invasion of this country and the Taliban’s debacle for as far as the women’s rights are concerned. Despite some showcased females in symbolic positions, the helpless, and pity inspiring burqa-clad women are still considered to be the property of the male individuals in their lives including their fathers, brothers, and husbands.

Amir, the central character in “The Kite Runner” grew up as the only son in a single-parent family. Amir’s mother died at childbirth. Interestingly, in Muslim countries, much like the tradition prior to the twentieth century in Europe and America, single parent-families mostly comprised fathers and their children. The single mom is a new phenomenon even in the western culture. Sometimes single fathers of the past remarried. And that is the origin of the “evil stepmother” lore. In Muslim societies, the myth of the evil stepmother lives on and for good reasons. When families break up due to divorce, which, for several reasons, is much less practiced in these societies compared to the West, children remain in the custody of the father. It is generally thought that children are too important to be entrusted with women.

But Amir did not have to deal with the nightmare of an evil stepmother. Amir grew up with his father, a successful Afghan businessman known for his bravery and manly conduct, having to prove to him that he was worthy of having been born to such a noble father. Never quite successful in this effort, one winter day, when he came quite close to proving his worth as a male child after he had earned the much-longed-for title of the winner of a kite tournament, he had to watch their servant boy, who was also his best companion, get homosexually raped by a rogue racist. He stood there not quite brave enough, as is expected of a man, to defend his friend. That event constituted the worst crises of his identity. How was he ever going to come to terms with his identity as a man?

His best friend had been raped right before his eyes. Assef, the villain that perpetrated the rape later went on to join the Taliban, an irrelevant fact to the gender relations but a quite relevant matter for Hosseini’s plot. As far as it relates to matters of gender, the rape of Amir’s friend is significant not only because it threw Amir into the identity crises of having difficulty thinking of himself as quite a “man,” it also bears importance because, on the day that it happened, Hassan – Amir’s friend – had just been able to run and make his own the nicest, and most beautiful kite that had been flown in the tournament, an envy of all, a thing that all young men wanted to have. When Assef and his rogue accomplices cornered Hassan in a dark alley, Assef could have gotten the kite and gone his way. That would have been in itself quite a blow to both Amir and his friend, Hassan. But instead, he chose to rape Hassan and let him hold on to the kite. Homosexual rape is quite a common thing in Muslim countries. Much like among male population of prisons in the United, the purpose of such rapes is not primarily sexual pleasure. The initial intent of the person that commits a homosexual rape is bringing his victim to the level of a woman, since a woman holds the lowest status in most Muslim societies. This is the most shameful thing that can happen to a man.

Khaled Hosseini does not really discuss class struggles in Afghanistan. His attention to class is mainly derived from an ethnic inferiority viewpoint. Shia Muslims are generally fiercely discriminated against in Sunni populated sections of Afghanistan, mainly in the south and central parts of the country. One of the reasons why the communist attempt in Afghanistan was unsuccessful despite the relative class equality that it was able to achieve, is the fact that Afghans – and for that matter many Muslims, Sunni or Shia alike – believe in something that they call “Ghesmat,” destiny if you will, though it really means “one’s share.” This share is predetermined by God and written into one’s destiny. It cannot and should not be changed by humans. Any attempt to do so is blasphemy. This religious view of satisfaction with what has been given one by God reinforces and perpetuates stratification, and hinders any efforts by the state to redistribute wealth. This is why, I argue, that despite their harsh rhetoric, conservatives in the United States have always loved Islamic regimes.

This conception of class dispels any idea of class struggle. Members of lower classes humbly accept their status and inferiority, and cannot even think of violating what “Ghesmat” has assigned to them. One can find examples of this in many parts of the novel. In one instance, even when Hassan and his family can legitimately choose to live in one of the rooms in the big house that Amir and his father have left behind, they refuse to do so understanding their status and not willing to violate the roles that are associated with it.

Patriarchy is certainly the most dominant aspect of the Afghan society, and it has a noticeable presence throughout the book. Even when a man loses his instrumental status as a breadwinner, he is still the patriarch, and probably more so because now he is likely to resort to physical violence to maintain his dominance. Hosseini portrays vivid examples of such Afghan men in the United States, who, deprived of their socioeconomic status, still adhere to their role as the patriarch and demand respect and submission from the women and children of their family.

Hosseini seems to be well aware of the role that patriarchy plays in the Afghan life. At one point Amir, the central character of the novel, says that he felt uneasy for the position of power that he had been given, “and all because I had won the genetic lottery that had determined my sex.”

This novel and other such works of art that attempt to demonstrate the skewed gender roles in Islamic countries are viewed as a double-bladed sword by many intellectual scholars of theses societies: on the one hand they are a true reflection of the plight of women and the oppression that they are subjected to, and on the other hand, they give hawkish politicians in the west ammunition to justify their militant strategies towards Islamic nations. Even worse, they give some Christian religious ideologues reason to advocate a new Crusade. Comment

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Homayoun Abghari



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