Primitive societies

I have just finished reading three books about Muslim societies, two about Afghanistan and one about Iran. They are “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad, “The Kite runner” by Khaled Hosseini, and “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi. Why lump them together, why try to review them in one go? The reasons are perhaps obvious, they each represent an attempt to provide a glimpse into the Muslim societies of Afghanistan and Iran by either a Westerner or by natives who have moved to the West and who have taken up residence in America.
Asne Seierstad is a Norwegian writer who lived with the family of Sultan Khan, “the Bookseller of Kabul,” in order to tell their story. What was most remarkable about this book was the intimate detail she managed to glean about the lives of the women of the family, their hopes, fears and loves. That Asne is a feminist was clear at the start of the book and colors her view, but it is essential in order to appreciate the primitive way that women are treated in Afghan Muslim society. She creates a positive image of Sultan Khan by showing him as a constant book lover, whose books were burned in turn by the Communists, the mujaheddin, the zealous Muslims who overthrew the Communists, and then the Taliban, the extremist fundamentalists who overthrew the mujaheddin, except for the Northern Alliance. The Taliban were in turn defeated by the US allied with the NA following the attack of 9/11/01 and the discovery that al Qaeda were being supported and fostered by the Taliban. So Sultan Khan comes across as a kind of liberal hero. But, as one sees the way of life of this family, that he took a 16 year old second wife and sent his first wife into exile in Pakistan, how he lords it over his family like a Victorian paterfamilias, one realizes that such a view is skewed. Facts, such as that women are not allowed to go out in public alone, and are not allowed to talk to any man they are not related to, show how primitive is the basis of Afghan society, remaining constant thru all the different political regimes. In one case a young woman was beaten and whipped with wire and kept locked in her room for 2 months because she met a young man in a park and talked to him (nothing else). So although in the Afghan context Khan is a “liberal”, he remains consistent to the conservative and backward mores of Afghan society.
The “Kite runner” is a best selling book and many may have read it. It has a touching novelistic story about family secrets, betrayal, and human interactions. But, it tells us less about Afghan life than the “Bookseller,” because the main character is wrapped up in his own privileged life, and the outside world only intervenes when the Communists take over and his family have to flee to America. We see a more detailed picture of the vicious depredations of the Taliban when he goes back to Kabul to try to rescue his nephew, including their vicious racial attitudes in their massacres of the Hazaris, a minority Shia tribe. The overthrow of the Taliban regime was one of the best things the US did, both for itself and for the Afghanis, and now with a resurgence of Taliban in the south of Afghanistan the Western military response is both necessary and good.
Azar Nafisi was a westernised young woman teaching literature at Tehran University when the Khomeini revolution took place in 1989. When regulations regarding wearing scarves and chadors for women in public were introduced she opposed them. But, the vicious enforcement gave her no choice and so she resigned from her job at the University. She then started teaching a private class of 8 girls, and the description of this class takes up the bulk of the book “Reading Lolita in Teheran.” As things got worse in Iran she took another teaching job, but her opinions and the books she chose made her suspect to the authorities and eventually she was forced to leave Iran for America, where she now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. This book is self-consciously literary and is well written, showing the actions of young women in English novels, such as “Pride and Prejudice” or “The Great Gatsby” or “Lolita,” against the background of the happenings in Iran, as things close in. The distinctions of the choices facing Western women, even a hundred years ago, and those in Iran now are stark.
All three books give factual narratives of Afghanistan and Iran, and as such give a graphic picture of the primitive manner in which these Muslim societies treat women. This is one thing that makes Muslim societies backward, keeping women essentially in bondage instead of allowing them freedom and equality. In that respect Muslim societies are at least 100 years behind Western society. We can never go backwards, but can they go forwards. However, even less fundamentalist Muslim societies, such as Egypt and Algeria, still have a long way to go in their treatment of women.


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