Life as a Middle Eastern Woman in Literature

Last year, I read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, and this year, I read A Thousand Splendid Suns and Persepolis. These literary works have given me a window into the lives of women who lived in middle eastern countries around the late 20th century.

In the first book I mentioned, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon recounts the true story of one brave young woman from Khair Khana, Afghanistan. Kamila is bright and ambitious, but her dreams are squashed after the Taliban arrives in Afghanistan in 1996. Soon enough, women are treated like second-class citizens; they cannot work, attend school, speak to a man or look him in the eye, appear in public without a male chaperone, etc. After a while, desperate for money to take care of her family, she and her sisters start a dress-making business from home. Each time she goes out to advertise their merchandise to male shop owners, she runs enormous risk of being beaten in the street–or worse. She goes on to employ dozens of women who were otherwise trapped at home, broke and bored out of their minds (anything fun was deemed “decadent” and “sinful” and thus forbidden).

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a fictional story, but Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini says he was inspired by a visit to Aghanistan during which he heard countless stories of tragedies, discrimination and violence faced by women there. The novel spans a longer time period than The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, as it starts in 1959 and ends in the early 2000’s. It starts out focusing on the adolescence and life of Miriam, born in Herat, Afghanistan, and eventually spans to the adolescence and life of Laila, at which point they are both in Kabul–then, enter the Taliban. Their stories end up intertwining, and both women are incredibly resilient and admirable; the book is heart-wrenching and unforgettable. But just as in Kamila’s story, here again the Taliban’s harsh rules crush women’s independence and hope along with the small pleasures of life–like watching a show on T.V. or playing a musical instrument.

Persepolis by the sharp, opinionated Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novel she wrote reflecting on her adolescence in Iran and studying abroad as a teenager in Vienna. The story starts in 1980 during the Iran-Iraq War in her home country. The Taliban wasn’t around in this book (the Soviet-Afghan War was underway at this time, which set the stage for the Taliban’s rise in the 1990’s–many Afghans fled to Iran during said war), though women still faced oppression because of the Islamic Revolution. As was the case in the other stories, too, people weren’t allowed to throw a party or openly date (you were married or single, no in between), and women couldn’t wear makeup, go out without a hijab, laugh in public (seriously), show their wrists, etc. Thankfully, Marji had the means and freedom to leave and get a quality education.

Reading literature from/about Middle Eastern women has been a fantastic albeit sad learning experience. Women are incredibly strong in a way that goes far beyond physicality. I’m thankful and blessed to live in a place that prizes liberty and free expression, and thanks to the last couple centuries of Western feminism, I can do or be just about anything I want (while wearing fire-engine red lipstick–if I choose).

Have you read any fiction or non-fiction books on the Taliban or this general setting? Have any facts or stories to share? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

4 comments

  1. I saw the French-English animated adaptation of Persepolis and thought it was fabulous. Then when I realized it was a graphic novel, I snatched up the whole thing. If I was teaching social studies in high school again, this is the book I’d recommend. There’s so much about growing up and becoming your own person in addition to world-shaking events in there that students would be amazed to read. Better than most YA books out there, I’m sure (hee hee).

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  2. This is awesome!! I too have read books about women in the Middle East very similar to this, and it’s extremely eye-opening and makes us realize how much we tend to take our freedoms for granted here in the States. It definitely made me more grateful for what we can enjoy as women. I’m glad you shared your review of these!

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  3. I love all of Khaled Hosseini’s books. The Cry of the Dove of the Fadia Faqir is a good read too. So is The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. I’ll have to check out Persepolis and The Dressmaker.

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