In parallel stories, the lives of two Afghan women—one in the current era, the other at the turn of the 20th century—reflect conditions for females in a country that has traditionally given voice only to males. Political only in the practical details governing their existence, the restrictions imposed by family and law, these stories are painfully personal, intimate and wrought with the yearning to be heard or, at the very least, counted.
In Afghanistan’s more recent history, nine-year-old Rahima lives in a rural village with her four sisters. Her father is periodically called upon to fight against incursions by the Taliban for a local warlord, Abdul Khaliq. Shamed by having no sons, Rahima’s father allows his wife to send this middle daughter out in public as a bacha posh—a girl masquerading as a boy, an accepted practice in such situations. A few years later, made irascible and unpredictable by his constant need for “medicine” (opium), Rahima’s father flies into a rage and gives his three eldest daughters in marriage: Rahima to the warlord, and her sisters to his cousins.
The precious link between Rahima and her sisters to their ancestral past is Khala Shaima, their mother’s unmarried sister, whose bent back has rendered her unsuitable for marriage. Visiting her nieces in their troubled household, Khala Shaima tells the story of their great-great grandmother, Shekiba, born at the turn of the 20th century and marked for a life of loneliness by the burn scars along half her face from a childhood accident. After all but Shekiba’s father die from a cholera epidemic, she works the farm with her father. Upon his passing, she manages alone until forced by her relatives to join the extended family compound. There her fraternal uncles share the land, their wives hectored by a mother-in-law whose tyranny makes Shekiba’s very existence a nightmare.
Both Rahima and Shekiba become pawns of a society that views them as commodities. Rahima’s value is enhanced by the few short years of schooling she enjoyed as a bacha posh; Shekiba, stronger than most women, albeit defined by her scarred face, is passed from one place to another, bitterly mindful of her name: “She was Shekiba, the gift that could be given away as easily as it was accepted.” Neither woman has a safe place in this world, shuffled about by family and the random decisions of men. But each in her private struggles yearns for a place where she might belong. Rahima, married to a brutal warlord and suffering unbearable losses, finds solace in the tales of Shekiba’s courage as told by Khala Shaima. Shekiba is chosen to be a guard for the king’s harem at the palace in Kabul, dressed as a man to deter others from attempting to defile his concubines.
Hashimi beautifully relates two stories connected by blood and hope with great detail and compassion, a view inside a closed society where females enjoy freedom at the whim of fathers and husbands, where only recently their voices have begun to be heard beyond the borders of their country. While it is possible to see Shekiba’s tale as a sort of fairy tale, her world buried in the past with its kings and harems, Rahima is a creature born of modern times when education is possible, even a voice in governance. As difficult as it is for Western women to imagine the lives of those in distant Afghanistan, as otherworldly, it is foolish to imagine that mere outrage can do anything to lighten their burden
Society can only be changed from within, as Shekiba learns on her quest for security and peace. Rahima takes bolder, more dangerous action to avoid certain punishment—even death—at the hands of her husband, her freedom purchased at great cost and risk for others. Yet in this extraordinary novel, their beauty shines brighter than the pain they endure, their hope an inspiration, one hand reaching out to another in a chain through generations. Their cries echo through the years: “Times change. Everything changes. Birds fly away, one by one.”