Mustafa Wshyar obtained his MA in English Language and Literature at the University of Central Lancashire, the UK and he is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Koya University, University Park, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary with Stipendium Hungaricum grant of the Ministry of National Human Resources. In his doctoral research he focuses on the issues of violence, theories of conflict and trauma in the works of Khaled Hosseini. Email:
Abstract: This paper aims to explore Johan Galtung’s theory of the violence triangle through Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. I will focus on how direct violence is represented as a result of structural and cultural violence. Moreover, I will also analyze the role of the invisible violence in promoting the visible violence, which is bordering on direct violence. I will argue that direct violence documents the rest of the types since that is the only visible aggression one that can be seen and witnessed through the threshold of the quasi-visible world of the novel.
Keywords: A Thousand Splendid Suns, violence triangle, documentation, visibility, invisibility, threshold, Khaled Hosseini
1. Introduction to Violence Triangle
Analyzing violence in fictional texts is not a new perspective; this broad theme has been examined in various ways. However, there is a special approach for the analysis of the types of violence by using a non-literary theory about violence: Johan Galtung’s violence triangle, an approach that has not yet been researched as far as I know. The aim of this paper is to explore a specific literary text and to see how issues of violence can make sense if circumscribed by a non-literary device. The main aim of this article is to examine how the narrative of a novel provides examples of Galtung’s theory in literary practice―and if this theoretical frame can make readers aware of the importance of other type of violence at work.
Galtung introduces the concept of the violence triangle in which he defines three types that consequently follow each: the first type is called structural violence, followed by cultural violence and with the consecutive result of the first two types, the direct violence; a detailed description of the violence triangle is given in Galtung’s articles on “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” (1969) and “Cultural Violence” (1990). Structural violence is identified by Galtung as a conflict between two groups confronting each other on different matters including issues of race, religion, color, ethnicity etc. Cultural violence is explained in a way in which members of the society are involved in the observation of the first type: they start to see violence as ‘acceptable,’ even not, they do not resist to stop it. The last type, direct violence, comes as a result of the first two types, where individuals are involved directly against each other during aggressive acts of beating, hate-related actions, killing, raping, hostile gazing, and so on.
By analyzing the violence triangle in the Afghan-American author, Khaled Hosseini’s work entitled A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) I aim to draw attention to the role of structural and cultural violence in promoting direct violence. By resisting and abolishing structural and cultural violence, direct violence can be halted, or at least controlled to diminish its destructive results in many societies around the world.
2. Violence Triangle in Khaled Hoseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns
2.1. Structural Violence
Structural violence is the first type of Johan Galtung’s violence triangle and is the representation of the starting point of any type of violence, mainly seen and perceived between opposite ethnicities, genders, political groups, and religious doctrines. Galtung sees this type of violence usually between two groups of people rather individuals in the following way: “Thus, when one husband beats his wife there is a clear case of personal violence, but when one million husbands keep one million wives in ignorance there is structural violence” (1969, 171). This type of violence occurs quite frequently in Hosseini’s novel and provides the first step in perceiving the other two types of violence. The social mentality of the novel’s characters, especially regarding different genders, is the main aspect that makes this type of violence central in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.
The first words of the novel are a clear sign of the existence of this structural violence; these concern the labelling of a child identified as harami [illegitimate]: “Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami” (Hosseini 2007, 3). Mariam is the illegitimate child of a wealthy man, Jalil, and his servant, Nana. After the pregnancy of the servant is revealed, to avoid a further scandal, Jalil’s wife forces him to send pregnant Nana to live out of the town in a remote rural area. Later on, even Nana herself labels her own child illegitimate, especially when she gets mad at her. This stigmatization remains with Mariam till the end of her life: she is often insultingly called harami even at her husband’s house.
The culture of legitimacy nowadays occurs in particular in very religious and quite conservative societies. For example, children might be left stateless and unsupported due to the legal systems, for example in several regions of North Africa and Middle East (Fisher 2015, 2). This is something that psychologically traumatizes individuals and there is hardly anyone to protect such people from the insults of its mainstream community, as they are seen as result of sinful and thus shameful event rejected by the ruling religion and its subsequent social and moral codes encoded in the belief of most of its members. There is no doubt that even within that community there are still individuals that see the so-called ‘illegitimate’ people as legitimate human beings; they see these outcasts as having no share in the sins they were created in― if any. This stance, however, is argued differently by various religions and cultures over the world. In regard to the Afghan context, a report of World Child UK states that “Afghan life and culture very much revolve around families and clans. The laws and moral standards are based on these blood ties much more than on the state and the ‘rule of law’ like in countries such as the UK” (Poyesh et al., 2015, 22). And in such context, the governance rules are seen much less than the commonly accepted practices of the society.
In Hosseini’s novel, Mariam thinks that this discriminatory label was only a product of Nana’s imagination when she first goes to Herat. This is how the novel describes this perception:
Nana was wrong about Herat too. No one pointed. No one laughed. Mariam walked along noisy, crowded, cypress lined boulevards, amid a steady stream of pedestrians, bicycle riders, and mule drawn garis, and no one threw a rock at her. No one called her a harami. Hardly anyone even looked at her. She was, unexpectedly, marvelously, an ordinary person here. (Hosseini 2007, 28)
Mariam is still a child and she cannot properly observe her surroundings in order to consciously see what is going on around her; moreover, this is the first time when she arrives in a crowded place. Her first thoughts about others are quite misleading and it will take her a long time to recognize that what Nana said is true: others will look down on her once they know her identity and the facts about her life. Indeed, most of the individuals described in Hosseini’s novel are just like in Nana’s description and they accuse the child of being an illegitimate human being. This gives them the right to exclude Mariam from their closed, legitimate community in order to eradicate ‘bad’ individuals or false commitments. She will not be adopted but rather sent away. This event of exclusion complies with some adoption laws in the region, since it is illegal to adopt a child in Middle Eastern and other countries with laws based on the Islamic Shari’a Law (See the Joint Council on International Children’s Services-Afghanistan & Iraq in Richards 2013, 404). In Iraq and Afghanistan, due to these laws, there are no reliable statistics of adopted children by parents from Western countries. Overall, governing laws and religious beliefs in these countries have a significant role in shaping a love-child’s future. As they do in Hosseini’s novel.
When Mariam goes to live in her father’s house after Nana’s death, her illegitimate status becomes more problematic. One of Jalil’s daughters accuses her of lying when she tells Mariam that “[M]y mother says you’re not really my sister like you say you are” (Hosseini 2007, 39). The marginalization of Mariam becomes more and more pregnant. Although all children are siblings in that house, the mothers’ marital status decides on the status of the children; this, in Mariam’s case structurally violates her right to that family. Later on, after she is given into an arranged marriage, this violated right seems to fade away. Rasheed, Mariam’s husband, makes it clear that he can look at her with different eyes, provided she is well-hidden from the eyes of the outside world. He says:
But I’m a different breed of man, Mariam. Where I come from, one wrong look, one improper word, and blood is spilled. Where I come from, a woman’s face is her husband’s business only. I want you to remember that. Do you understand? (63)
At first glance, what makes Rasheed different from other men is the way he thinks―and his beliefs. Such beliefs are not necessarily religious (as he is not) but these count more on an individual basis under the influence of various ideologies at work for the moment in that given community. The novel has also an example of a more integrating character, Rasheed’s neighbor, Babi, who is a teacher and who is very open-minded ―as well as some others living in Kabul then.
The ethnic doctrine leading to conflicts is a significantly provocative element in the existence of structural violence in general. Hosseini’s novel abounds in the description of such doctrines, when describing the Pashtuns as the majority in Afghanistan with other minor groups, such as Hazaras and Tajiks in the words of Babi, who said that
there were tensions between their people the Tajiks, who were a minority, and Tariq’s people, the Pashtuns, who were the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Tajiks have always felt slighted, Babi had said. Pashtun kings ruled this country for almost two hundred and fifty years, Laila, and Tajiks for all of nine months, back in 1929. (117)
For Babi, all this is nonsense, as he argues, believing that they are all “Afghanis,” while any separation into ethnicities is merely separation from all their fellow humans on the planet. His thoughts are far more liberal than most who lived in the same country with him as they promoted human-made differences increasing the tension among various groups. In the novel, the Tadjik-born Laila, Mariam’s young neighbor, does not feel any difference when she is at Tariq’s Pashtun home and such a topic never comes up although they are from different ethnical backgrounds. But this is different on a grand scale. In neighboring Pakistan, the situation is similarly tensioned as different religious communities noticeably become antagonized (Riaz and Khan 2015, 345). This particular geographical area has always struggled with the conflict between various religious and ethnic groups and this has been the main reason of the structural violence so far in the region that is mirrored in the novel as well. The brutality of structural violence reaches to its peak as the two main ethnic groups start reacting violently and with outmost aggression to the crimes done to them by the other:
Laila heard that Pashtun militiamen were attacking Hazara households, breaking in and shooting entire families, execution style, and that Hazaras were retaliating by abducting Pashtun civilians, raping Pashtun girls, shelling Pashtun neighborhoods, and killing indiscriminately. Every day, bodies were found tied to trees, sometimes burned beyond recognition. Often, they’d been shot in the head, had had their eyes gouged out, their tongues cut out. (Hosseini 2007, 159)
In the novel this is the most brutal point where both the Pashtuns and the Hazaras arrive as a result of their structural violence. At the time of the civil war in Afghanistan that took place between 1992 and 1996, rape and gang rape were systematically used against the other ethnic group’s women as a weapon (Ahmad 2014, 15). Due to its consequences, Babi would rather have a communist ruling system, that is why in the novel “Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan” (Hosseini 2007, 232). The structural divisions were already decided, they are taken as acceptable or not, according to different interpretations of various groups and individuals of the Afghan society. However, the differentiation between various groups is always an excuse to raise the tension among the individuals in each community. This is exemplified in the novel when “Rasheed had called the customer a monkey faced Uzbek. A gun had been brandished. A skewer pointed in return.” (271).
Gender differences are also important issues in the novel, leading to the creation of structural violence. There are many scenes clearly showing discrimination between genders, be them children or adults. In this context, Rasheed’s attitudes towards both his children, Aziza and Zalmai, are utterly discriminative in his behavior at home:
Aziza pushed the TV’s power button. Rasheed scowled, snatched her wrist and set it on the table, not gently at all. "This is Zalmai’s TV," he said. (265)
Rasheed is in doubt about the real identity of Aziza’s father; he firmly believes that he is not the biological father of the child―and that is true as she is from Tariq, Laila’s love, whom she met before getting married to Rasheed. Despite the fact that Aziza’s bastard identity is not proven (since nobody confessed it yet), Rasheed still treats his children differently―as he always wanted to have a son not a daughter, and so his son has more rights in the house and outside of it. Generally speaking, Afghanistan is a more gender unequal country compared to many others around the world (Lough et al. 2012, 2). Thus the unequal opportunities for Aziza and Zalmai are made pregnant in Hosseini’s text to present a close-to-authentic picture of the world in the characters inhabit. As a result of the war and the ongoing conflicts, starvation is a daily issue in the world of the novel and many families give their children away to orphanages as they cannot provide food at all. Accordingly, Laila and Mariam decide to place Aziza in an orphanage, as they see this a better solution than forcing her to beg on the streets―as suggested by greedy Rasheed. There is not much they want for the only girl, Aziza, just basic nutrition so she can survive. They explain it in a simple way: “Here, you won’t go hungry. They have rice and bread and water, and maybe even fruit.” (Hosseini 2007, 281). Fruit is seen as a luxurious food item while in many other countries such nutrition is a basic right for each citizens. At this point, this is clear evidence of structural violence, as there are people can access to food easier in other parts of the world, even across the borders of Afghanistan. When there is an unfair system in distributing the food among human beings with some people starving due to siege, war, conflict or any other reason, there is definitely, as Galtung argues, the existence of structural violence (Galtung 1969, 174).
When the Taliban takes control over Afghanistan, the people of the country face poverty and starvation as well as many other problems. The main issue is gender discrimination as women cannot go out without a legal male companion, with those who lose their family and husbands being affected the most, as they are not allowed to go out of their homes alone to make a living. When Mariam is obliged to give and put Aziza in an orphanage due to not being able to afford to feed her child (she lies to the head, stating that she is a widow and has lost her husband), the head of the orphanage tells her:
It isn’t your fault. Do you hear me? Not you. It’s those savages, those wahshis, who are to blame. They bring shame on me as a Pashtun. They’ve disgraced the name of my people. And you’re not alone, hamshira We get mothers like you all the time all the time mothers who come here who can’t feed their children because the Taliban won’t let them go out and make a living. (Hosseini 2007, 283)
Here are religious radicals, who enforce such rules, but they are Pashtuns and many of those in the same ethnicity feel ashamed due to their commitments. The Taliban’s followers interpret Islam, but not in the same way as it is interpreted by many other Muslims in Afghanistan, as well as by many others in various Muslim majority countries. During the punishment of Mariam, the executer says:
"I wonder," the young Talib said. "God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this. This is why we require only one male witness but two female ones." (324)
He does not see a woman as even semi-equal to a man; the executer starts to reference the Westerners, who he opposes in almost everything. There are excuses being made not only in the name of the religion, but science is used to support and prove his claim. The man interprets the religion in such a way that he makes all the decisions and punishments absolute, and they are all carried in the name of God: “What frightens me, hamshira, is the day God summons me before Him and asks, Why did you not do as I said, Mullah? Why did you not obey my laws?” (325). The acceptance of Sharia Law in one way or another by all political groups may have had a significant influence on shaping the common belief towards human rights; Sharia Law is formulated differently based on rural areas and more modern and developed areas (Barfield 2012, 48).
The structural violence continues even at the very end of the story. There are ongoing conflicts between people, even those with the same religious background and doctrine. Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghani politician and commander, is assassinated as he is against the religious interpretations of many armed groups including the Taliban. He is a Sunni Muslim, just like those that assassinated him, but they have different religious interpretations. Al Qaida terrorists assassinated him and
[T]hey say he gave an interview to a pair of journalists who claimed they were Belgians originally from Morocco. As they’re talking, a bomb hidden in the video camera goes off. Kills Massoud and one of the journalists. They shoot the other one as he tries to run. They’re saying now the journalists were probably Al Qaeda men. (Hosseini 2007, 339)
Massoud is a real character mentioned in a fictional text. The Afghani people love him to the point that even his assassination date is now a national public holiday in the country. Different interpretations of a certain belief itself can turn into structural violence if they are not handled with logic and calmness. If the interpreters do not control their attitudes and limit their extreme thoughts, opposing thoughts and ideas can start structural violence very easily. Abdul Majid Samim argues by saying that
[W]e can divide the understanding of Islam in Afghanistan into two categories. One is the rural or traditional or primitive interpretation of Islam which is almost based entirely on our customs and traditions. Second is the urban which tries to find a more modern interpretation of Islam. Due to the stronger influence and dominance of primitive interpretation of Islam, we are not able to open our doors to science and technology of the modern world. (Barfield 2011, 180)
Those contrasting understandings towards the same religion have always been a reason for possible conflicts, which can easily lead to structural violence. Due to the lack of a modern legal system organizing the certain rights of each individual and specific groups of the community, dominations start to exist and minorities, or the weak groups, are oppressed by the superiors. Different thoughts are not accepted and people start to be less tolerant – the attitude of the Taliban follower towards Mariam and the assassination of Massoud in the novel can be clear evidence supporting this claim.
2.2. Cultural Violence
Galtung describes this type of violence as a mediator or transition bridge from the first type, structural, to direct violence. This type of violence somehow legitimizes the first type and prepares an acceptable route, changing it to direct violence. He defines cultural violence as
those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. (Galtung 1990, 291)
Cultural violence is also a very frequently seen type in the novel and it can be argued that it is a mediator or transition point in transferring the structural violence into the direct. The first type of violence can be stopped and resolved through this step if it is dealt with properly. But when violence is accepted or at least seen as normal, the last stage becomes an increasing possibility and individuals get seriously harmed.
In the context of the novel, when Nana becomes pregnant by Jalil, as a servant, she becomes unlikable and is left with no support – even her father leaves her and disappears. Jalil says that she forced herself on him and he is innocent. Nobody in the community around her tries to solve the issue in a fair way nor to support her. Nana stays at the house until her belly begins to swell and
[W]hen that happened, Nana said, the collective gasp of Jalil’s family sucked the air out of Herat. His in-laws swore blood would flow. The wives demanded that he throw her out. Nana’s own father, who was a lowly stone carver in the nearby village of Gul Daman, disowned her. Disgraced, he packed his things and boarded a bus to Bran, never to be seen or heard from again. (Hosseini 2007, 6)
Nana starts to disbelieve everything, and she becomes sure about the status of women in the society in which she lives, saying to "[L]earn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam."” (7). She comes to believe that the man is always right and that nothing can be done towards the rights of a woman, Mariam remains accustomed to this reality until her execution at the end of the story. When Mariam goes to see her father, she is not allowed inside the house, despite the fact that she has the right to see her biological father in his house. There is no one there to state that reality for her, or support her; even the driver chooses to be silent while he can see that there is something unfair going on. The driver sighs and, as the novel says, looks at her with “gentle reproach.” (31).
Mariam is only 15 years old when she is pushed into a forced marriage by everyone in her surroundings and the ceremony is conducted by a Mullah – a preacher in Islamic religion:
"And do you, Mariam jan, accept this man as your husband?"
Mariam stayed quiet. Throats were cleared.
"She does," a female voice said from down the table.
"Actually," the mullah said, "she herself has to answer. And she should wait until I ask three times. The point is, he’s seeking her, not the other way around." (48)
Despite Jalil’s wives not caring much for anything, Marian leaves and chooses to live far away from them. The Mullah sees this ceremony as his duty and finds this to be a religious and social norm – they all accept the marriage of a child with a man of who is almost three times her age. It was only with the introduction of the Afghan Constitution, the “2004 Constitution”, which was said to be a “well-developed document”, that many rights were legally allocated to female Afghan citizens (Ahmadi 2015, 314). Post-2004 can be considered in a positive light, that is, the time in which the Communist rule lost power and Islamic radicals started to rule the country. In the novel, all of the women’s issues which are revealed take place during the 2004 pre-constitution era, this demonstrates extent to which women lived with no reasonable or supportive rules and laws to protect her. Thus, the post constitution era, though not a radical upheaval, still shows positive changes compared to the old times, which gives some hope in terms of women’s rights improvements.
In certain cases, the wars in the novel are seen as holy actions – for example, a mother can be proud of her martyred sons while being fully aware that the war or conflict in they were which may be complete nonsense. Nana praises the talents of her passed away sons, as they both had the potential to be a leader and an architect respectively, however she must accept that: “now they’re both shaheed, my boys, both martyrs.” (Hosseini 2007, 128). Nana was initially in favor of the ideological conflict that led to this deadly war, which ultimately ended in her losing both her sons. However, she still finds ways to support the cause, rather than being wholly against conflicts that will continue to cost many more lives.
In another case, Laila hears some distressing news and it seems the family no other choice but to escape. As the following excerpt shows, Nana goes a step further, stating that the brutality in itself is not forever and that she accepts the situation in its temporality:
Laila heard that Pashtun militiamen were attacking Hazara households, breaking in and shooting entire families, execution style, and that Hazaras were retaliating by abducting Pashtun civilians, raping Pashtun girls, shelling Pashtun neighborhoods, and killing indiscriminately. Every day, bodies were found tied to trees, sometimes burned beyond recognition. Often, they’d been shot in the head, had had their eyes gouged out, their tongues cut out.
Babi tried again to convince Mammy to leave Kabul.
"They’ll work it out," Mammy said. "This fighting is temporary. They’ll sit down and figure something out."
"Fariba, all these people know is war," said Babi. "They learned to walk with a milk bottle in one hand and a gun in the other." (159)
Throughout the novel, Laila remains aware of what is happening around her, as can be seen in this passage:
Laila knew that somewhere in the city someone had just died, and that a pall of black smoke was hovering over some building that had collapsed in a puffing mass of dust. There would be bodies to step around in the morning. Some would be collected. Others not. Then Kabul’s dogs, who had developed a taste for human meat, would feast. (169)
The brutality is at its peak when the reader discovers that dead human bodies are left as food for street dogs, this shows that war and killings has become normalized to the point that people cannot even bury their dead. The ongoing violence has become impossible to stop, and especially for Leila it becomes difficult to continue putting up a fight as despite being aware of what is going on, she is powerless against the terrible reality of the situation. It is the same for Babi, who states that people involved are used to guns, therefore that nothing can be done apart from fleeing the factual situation of the country. Fariba, on the other hand, remains hopeful that the conflicted parties may reach an agreement in the future – in this case, hope itself can be seen as resistance towards cultural violence. Though there are a few instances of resistance towards violence, they remain limited and not necessarily influential.
Cultural violence does not occur in an uninterrupted manner in the novel, that is to say that this mediator is seen more often than it is directly practiced. On numerous occasions, resistance is at least attempted – for example in the following scene, when Laila tries to stop Rasheed from beating Mariam:
"I should have known that you’d corrupt her," Rasheed spat at Mariam. He swung the belt, testing it against his own thigh. The buckle jingled loudly.
"Stop it, bas" the girl said. "Rasheed, you can’t do this." "Go back to the room."
Mariam backpedaled again. "No!
Don’t do this!"
Laila knows that she does not have enough power to stop her husband from beating his first wife, but at least she is courageous enough to at least try to stop him. It could be said that these small acts of resistance are all that are needed in order to make cultural violence disappear, and therefore to help in abolishing direct violence. In the novel, there is a passage in which Mariam and Laila run away from home but are caught by a police officer in a bus station. The officer insists on sending them back home, arguing that he simply enforces the law, even when they tell him that they could find themselves in danger with their husband: “As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters, hamshira” (238) The women respond to his statement with the following: “Of course you don’t. When it benefits the man. And isn’t this a ‘private family matter,’ as you say? Isn’t it?” (238). As there are no laws to support the women against a husband that denies them their basic human and women’s rights, they find themselves with no one to help them at all.
One last case of cultural violence that can be examined in the novel is the passage in which Mariam is executed in front of a crowd in a stadium, a punishment that she receives for murdering her own husband. Though it is possible that a majority of spectators may have been forced to be present, this may also not be true for many attendees. In the excerpt, Mariam imagines the shaking heads of the audience which can be interpreted in two ways: either that the audience do in fact agree with the punishment, or that they disagree with the crime itself (that is to say, that a wife should not have committed said crime against her husband):
Thousands of eyes bore down on her. In the crowded bleachers, necks were craned for the benefit of a better view. Tongues clucked. A murmuring sound rippled through the stadium when Mariam was helped down from the truck. Mariam imagined heads shaking when the loudspeaker announced her crime. But she did not look up to see whether they were shaking with disapproval or charity, with reproach or pity. Mariam blinded herself to them all. (328)
2.3. Direct Violence
Direct violence can be found in the last stage of Galtung’s violence triangle, after having been built step-by-step by the first two types. This type of violence is identified as “direct violence where means of realization are not withheld, but directly destroyed. Thus, when a war is fought there is direct violence since killing or hurting a person certainly puts his “actual somatic realization” below his “potential somatic realization” (1969, 169). Here, violence is visibly identified through various signs such as blood, torn clothes, wounds and such; thus, direct violence becomes the physical manifestation of the other two types of violence. As structural and cultural violence are the main factors in promoting or leading to the last step of direct violence, it can be stopped and abolished if there is no base for it to grow.
At the very beginning of the story, Nana starts to psychologically berate Mariam, which can be traumatic for a child when coming from someone that they love. It could be argued that Nana attempts to prepare Mariam for the reality that she will later face, however as she is just a child and needs the love of a father this excuse can be seen as invalid. Nana always talks badly of Jalil when he leaves, which Mariam cannot say anything about despite it clearly upsetting her. An example of the way Nana speaks of Jalil can be seen in the following passage:
"What rich lies!" Nana said after Jalil left. "Rich man telling rich lies. He never took you to any tree. And don’t let him charm you. He betrayed us, your beloved father. He cast us out. He cast us out of his big fancy house like we were nothing to him. He did it happily." (Hosseini 2007, 5)
In this case, surely no child would like such words to be used for his/her father, as it can lead to the same type of psychological violence that was apparent in the way that Mariam was treated by her mother. At one point, Jalil gives his daughter a present and Nana continues with her verbal abuse by stating: “"Nomad jewelry," she said. "I’ve seen them make it. They melt the coins people throw at them and make jewelry. Let’s see him bring you gold next time, your precious father. Let’s see him."” (22). Nana’s aim is to distress Mariam, or even scare her, she does this by continuing: “I’ll die if you go. The jinn will come, and I’ll have one of my fits. You’ll see, I’ll swallow my tongue and die. Don’t leave me, Mariam jo. Please stay. I’ll die if you go.” (26). Nana clearly threatens the small child not to leave her mother, and consequently to not go to her father. Everything that happens to Mariam can be traced back to the psychological abuse inflicted upon her by Nana, Jalil and even by society once she falls pregnant with an illegitimate child.
Another form of direct violence is sexual violence, which occurs when one of the partners do not give consent for the act. Mariam, at fifteen years old, can be considered to be a child, while Rasheed is three times her age. Today, the law of Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was decreed in 2009 in Afghanistan, states that marriage before the legal age, rape, beating and other brutal acts are legitimate forms of violence, and therefore punishable (Wimpelmann 2015, 102). However, as there was no such law in the past, in a non-fictional context men comparable to the character of Rasheed had more freedom in how they could act towards women, especially during the Taliban administration. In the novel, Mariam and Jalil’s first sexual encounter reveals the extent to which Mariam is scared of what is about to happen. This leads the reader to realize that though the couple are legally married, that is to say that their religious marriage is considered legal according to the rules and norms of the country, the sexual encounter between them is non-consensual. Her uncertainty concerning sexual affairs, as well as her fear, is portrayed through the fact that she is shivering, as well as through the words that she utters:
Mariam began shivering. His hand crept lower still, lower, his fingernails catching in the cotton of her blouse.
"I can’t," she croaked, looking at his moonlit profile, his thick shoulders and broad chest, the tufts of gray hair protruding from his open collar. (Hosseini 2007, 69)
Though the legal age for marriage is 18 for boys and 16 for girls, in many parts of Afghanistan this law is ignored, especially in rural areas: Save the Children estimate that 48% of marriages involve children under age (Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict 2010, 29). This is an incredibly high percentage, and unfortunately it seems that girls make up the majority of this portion. Mariam, though fictional, is one of these many girls forced to marry a much older man while she is only fifteen years old.
In one occurrence in the novel, Rasheed does not like the rice that Mariam has cooked for him, claiming that it is not well boiled. When Mariam insists that there is nothing wrong with the rice, he forces her to chew pebbles: “He snatched her hand, opened it, and dropped a handful of pebbles into it.” (Hosseini 2007, 94) and the result: “Then he was gone, leaving Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars.” (94). Direct violence here becomes brutal, a form of torture even, which Rasheed justifies with trivial excuses. However, most of the direct violence towards Mariam throughout the novel is psychological. Since her childhood, forms of psychological violence and abuse have been inflicted upon her, which Rasheed simply builds upon. In order to justify his behavior and to find the courage to carry out these acts, he conceptualizes her as nothing more than an illegitimate child with no family ties, as someone that is completely alone in life. This behavior is not exclusively reserved for Mariam though, as when Rasheed marries a much younger girl Laila, he also berates her verbally by making comparisons and discriminating against his older wife:
We are city people, you and I, but she is dehati. A village girl. Not even a village girl. No. She grew up in a kolba made of mud outside the village. Her father put her there. Have you told her, Mariam, have you told her that you are a harami? … I’ll say it this way: If she were a car, she would be a Volga." (199)
By comparing the women to car brands in this instance, they are reduced to a simple commodity; this comparison continues in the following passage when he refuses to let Laila out the house, ordering Mariam to do whatever she asks her: “Well, one does not drive a Volga and a Benz in the same manner. That would be foolish, wouldn’t it?” (200). Unfortunately, though Mariam’s psychological distress is clearly understandable given the conditions and insults she must endure, her case is not an isolated one, as many women are not actively engaged in Afghan society. Their lack of freedom certainly constitutes the main reason, as women are not only separated from women, but they are also separated from the community (Sehin, Coryell and Stewart 2017, 96).
Violence also arises between Mariam and Laila, particularly in the form of verbal violence. There is one specific instance in the novel in which they fight, which can also be considered the only moment in which there is a form of direct violence between them. After this passage depicting their fight however, the women become close friends until the end of the novel:
"And it’s possible you hid it somewhere, to aggravate me." "You’re a sad, miserable woman," Laila said.
Mariam flinched, then recovered, pursed her lips. "And you’re a whore. A whore and a dozd. A thieving whore, that’s what you are!" (Hosseini 2007, 209)
This can be seen as the simplest and least harmful form of violence in the novel, as it seems to be nothing more than an ordinary fight that could happen between two people in daily life. This is also supported by the idea that compared to all of the other forms of ongoing violence and brutal scenes throughout the novel, the reader may not even consider it violence at all.
The peak of direct violence within the family is reached when both wives are caught after a failed escape plan. After they are taken back home by police car they are alone in the house with Rasheed, and as he had always threatened, there would be no one and no law to stop him from giving his wives a lesson:
At the top of the stairs, Laila turned to him.
"She didn’t want to do it," she said. "I made her do it. She didn’t want to go."
Laila didn’t see the punch coming. One moment she was talking and the next she was on all fours, wide eyed and red faced, trying to draw a breath. It was as if a car had hit her at full speed, in the tender place between the lower tip of the breastbone and the belly button. She realized she had dropped Aziza, that Aziza was screaming. (239)
Rasheed cares about no one and listens to no one to the point that he does not even consider the small child that could get hurt because of his violent actions. Here he even starts to act violently towards his beloved young wife, however it is worth mentioning that Mariam receives most of the beating, as usual. Rasheed wants to send Aziza out to beg as he is making enough for a living, but Laila disagrees: “The slap made a loud smacking sound, the palm of his thick fingered hand connecting squarely with the meat of Laila’s cheek. It made her head whip around …Then Laila punched him.” (266). As they find no other solution, both Laila and Mariam start to consider using violence in order to protect themselves and their children. Rasheed finds more and more excuses all the time to behave violently, for example when he loses his shop after a fire, as can be seen in this passage:
After the fire, Rasheed was home almost every day. He slapped Aziza. He kicked Mariam. He threw things. He found fault with Laila, the way she smelled, the way she dressed, the way she combed her hair, her yellowing teeth.
"What’s happened to you?" he said. "I married a pary, and now I’m saddled with a hag. You’re turning into Mariam." (271)
He commits all types of direct violence: physical, psychological, even child abuse. As there is no law to stop him, the women can only endure his fits as they were taught to do so, much like Nana taught Mariam from a young age. In Afghanistan, domestic violence has always been a significant issue and there are still no well-structured solutions to deal with it (Gibbs et al., 2018, 11-12).
It becomes clear throughout the novel that no one and nothing can escape from direct violence, as its basis has been paved for a long time. This is shown in the following passage, in which even dead bodies are not exempt from brutal acts committed by various ideological groups, often by those that had opposed their actions when they were alive.
“The Taliban went to the grave of Tariq’s favorite singer, Ahmad Zahir, and fired bullets into it.”
"He’s been dead for almost twenty years," Laila said to Mariam. "Isn’t dying once enough?" (Hosseini 2007, 251)
We learn from the narrator that the Taliban prohibits all types of musical instruments as well. Their violence transcends death even, as they set fire to the grave of somebody that had committed an act that they had disagreed with, despite the fact that it occurred when the person was alive. This reveals a thought process that can seem illogical and unthinkable to the reader, but perfectly clear to the perpetrator of said violent act.
Sometimes, however, it must be considered that people use violence in order to survive and to get what they need to make a living as they have no other choice. For example in the novel, when Tariq is a refugee in a refugee camp, his mother becomes seriously ill and he is left with no option:
That same winter, Tariq had cornered a kid.
"Twelve, maybe thirteen years old," he said evenly. "I held a shard of glass to his throat and took his blanket from him. I gave it to my mother." (299)
In this particular case, the use of violence makes the reader think twice, and directs many questions to him/herself about the reasons which make Tariq act in such a way – it can be even argued that this might not be violence due to the circumstances, however the nature of the act remains clear. The reader cannot easily judge the decision Tariq makes as he is obviously left with no solution if he wants his sick mother to survive the cold winter. It is crucial to take into consideration the brutal nature of war and refugee life as factors here, as they lead to the point at which words start to be meaningless. Tariq’s narration here also reveals that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he developed due to his traumatic experiences. As he narrates his memories he is clearly torn: though he believes that he had no other choice, he still knows that cornering somebody and taking their property by force was wrong. Tariq may be a fictional character, but he is representative of a real issue, as in real life a significant number of children in conflicted or war zoned countries face PTSD (Catani, Schauer and Neuner 2008, 166).
Mariam murdering Rasheed can be seen as the last important example of direct violence to be examined in the novel. Rasheed finally finds out that Tariq has returned and that Aziza is indeed his child – a fact that, although he had always had his suspicions, Laila had hidden from him. In the following passage, Rasheed starts to beat Laila, and as usual there is no law or any other means to stop him – except one person:
In the toolshed, Mariam grabbed the shovel.
… Mariam saw that she was no longer struggling. He’s going to kill her, she thought. He really means to. And Mariam could not, would not, allow that to happen. He’d taken so much from her in twenty seven years of marriage. She would not watch him take Laila too. (Hosseini 2007, 310)
Here, Mariam uses violence to stop another violent act: she is left with no choice but to stop Rasheed by any means possible. In order to stop him and in turn, abolish the source of brutality in the household, she must carry out a violent act herself. This situation echoes that of Tariq’s, in which his morally questionable actions were actually to save his mother, the reader is therefore faced with a position which can be difficult to accept or reject. In identifying with Tariq or Mariam, the readers themselves become involved in cultural violence, forced to contemplate a complicated situation in which a clear cut decision is almost impossible.
The violence triangle is present in narrative details in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and its points are smartly connected to each other adding stress to each other. Direct violence is a manifestation of the existence of the first two types: structural and cultural violence and comes into existence only after the occurrence of the other two types. This happens the same way in the novel as well. Direct violence can be stopped, and if not, at least controlled and made less influential, if we can deal with the other two forms which occur in an invisible manner.
Rasheed’s mistreatment of Mariam is facilitated by the fact that he considered her as an illegitimate human being, as well as by the fact that no laws or people were around to support her. From her childhood, she is psychologically conditioned through the presence of structural violence to submit herself to future acts, such as being beaten by her husband – which is a case of direct violence. Cultural violence can also play a great role in preventing direct violence, but only if members of society resist the structural violence already in place. A case in point would be if Jalil, his wives or the Mullah had tried to stop an underaged girl from getting married to a man three times her age. When structural violence prevails, followed by the invisible steps of cultural violence, the visible manifestation of direct violence becomes a greater possibility, and even expected to a certain extent.
Fictional works, as this novel has shown, test within a narrative environment and well demonstrate theories which are mostly adopted in nonfictional contexts. The reader can see in a more direct and explicit manner how violence theory and its consequences work in various fictional situations, which may be used for example in an educational context in order to raise awareness of the negative outcomes of violence, as well as how to treat and deal with it. Analyzing this fictional work by adopting a theory in the field of conflict and peace would not only lead to a generally clearer understanding of the messages of the fictional work, but may also help the reader to better comprehend the messages that the work intends to give.
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