“Our sick society” – how often do we hear this sort of thing?
I recently read “Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini’s second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. This novel traces the history of two Afghan women, and their one husband, from the 1970s through 2003. If you want to know what a “sick society” looks like, read this. It put me in mind of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which also depicted a society where male-female relations are, well, crazy. But that was an imaginary society; Afghanistan’s, in Hosseini’s book, is all too real.
At least one married couple portrayed had a relationship we’d almost recognize as normal. But not the main characters. The husband, Rasheed, didn’t start out bad. He’d been a longtime widower. One of the book’s most affecting scenes was when his new wife discovered his stash of porno magazines. She was shocked and confused. But she also found his hidden photo of his son, who’d drowned in childhood. “And she felt for the first time a kinship with her husband. She told herself that they would make good companions after all.”
But Rasheed, alas, is a limited man, trapped in the cultural norms of his society. He’s been programmed to behave a certain way, and he follows the program remorselessly, rather than actually relating to his new wife on a human, companionable level. When she can’t produce a child, and an additional wife produces that “useless thing,” a daughter, the marriage spirals down into bleakness and violence. Bad enough anywhere; but this was under the Taliban, with all women veritable prisoners (not even allowed to leave the home unaccompanied by a man; not even in the obligatory burqa). The eventual arrival of the longed-for son comes too late to detour this human train wreck.
I kept comparing against my own family relationships. Muslim fundamentalists sneer at our supposed immorality. But the ultimate test of any moral system is how it serves human flourishing. My family – and most of those I know – have a modus vivendi enabling us to love and cherish one other, to help each other to flourish, and we do flourish. I think that’s supremely moral. In Rasheed’s family, with all its rigid adherence to a putatively moral code, no flourishing can take place. Indeed, the contrary occurs, their lives are blighted, Rasheed’s included. (And – spoiler alert – he ends up with his head smashed in by a shovel.)
But the book has a happy ending. The Americans ride in to the rescue, ousting the Taliban. (We mustn’t let them back.)
I recently attended a presentation by a photojournalist who’s traveled in Afghanistan. See the posting below for a report. Interestingly enough, she noted the cultural dictates for domestic violence; but she said the men actually don’t like it, are receptive to a different marital model, and want to be shown the way.
Cultural norms can be powerful, but they are not written in stone. Societies can and do change. Our own has changed enormously in my own lifetime, and mostly for the better. It’s one of the things that makes me an optimist.