The stories of two women living a hundred years apart in Afghanistan are intertwined in this book and demonstrate clearly that progress is not linear, and that tradition is often so pervasive and destructive that it can seem impossible to overturn. These women suffer terrible hardships due to the society that they are born into, and their only respite is the time they, for different reasons, spend as men.
What I appreciated was the insight into the traditional Afghan culture and society, and the bits and pieces on the history of the country that Hashimi provides, as well as the emphasis she puts on the importance of education as the way to emancipation. The story itself is as compelling as it is appalling, as the callousness and cruelty women must suffer is staggering. Some of the characters could have done with a little more nuance but, in general, Hashimi made me care about them and their fates. Particularly interesting and realistic is the depiction of the relationships between women which are often pervaded by jealousy and resentment instead of solidarity.
So, what keeps the book from being great? It is the fact that Hashimi loses sight of what could have made the story exceptional. There are many books about mysogynistic societies oppressing women in horrific ways but that one of these societies allows, in certain circumstances, girls to live as boys and woman as men should have been at the heart of the story. There is so much potential here but it is largely wasted. Only rudimentary attempts are made to provide some deeper insight into what it means to be a woman or a man, or to switch between genders, and the question of gender as a social construct that is in direct correlation to the degree of freedom someone is afforded is only lightly touched upon.
Sadly, Hashimi instead settles for a more conventional tale of the struggle for emancipation in which the issue of gender identity is relegated to a mere plot device to set up some developments further down the road. I also disliked that she all too often brings up the impact of naseeb, or destiny, on people’s lives, a concept which is predictably used to justify the status quo, and to hold people back from making choices that could change their fortunes. I could have done with less mention of this, because it felt rather trite.
Basically, this is, due to the subject matter, a disturbing read, but it is definitely a good book, and an educational and gripping one at that. However, I can’t help but think that the author somehow managed to miss a huge opportunity.