A tale of Afghan women’s plight —by Miranda Husain
The Patience Stone By Atiq Rahimi Other Press; Pp 160
Afghanistan, a nation still
on fire, a nation still home to a centre-stage Taliban. An entity that still remains resoundingly more concrete than an outward manifestation of an inner descent into madness, despite its supposed toppling.
Back in 2001, the coalition of the willing told the world that their invasion of this country had been determined by a single goal: the dead-or-alive capturing of Osama bin Laden. When this revealed itself to be nothing more than a pipedream, the narrative swiftly changed. Suddenly, the war was being waged to liberate Afghan women. So that they, too, would be free to paint their nails.
Of course, the notion of liberation and what it actually means at the individual level is rather more complex than cosmetic benchmarks, regardless of what two hapless First Ladies were trying to convince us of at the time.
Which may explain the international acclaim enjoyed by Afghan author and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi for his latest novel. Originally written in French and published in 2008 as Syngué Sabour: Pierre de patience, the book went on to win France’s prestigious Goncourt Prize. Its English translation was published this year, under the title The Patience Stone.
The plot, as such, is deliberately simplistic. It unfolds in a single room and revolves around a nameless Afghan woman and her comatose factional hero warrior husband. As she tends to him, she initiates a one-sided conversation, an airing of grievances, liberated by the security that he cannot berate her, or worse, for unveiling secrets that women are supposed to keep covered.
Thus as the woman’s soliloquy progresses from her concern over keeping her hero alive; to feelings of being held hostage by a man who can no longer protect her and her two young daughters; to resentment towards a patriarchal system that seeks to crush any notion of a woman’s right to self-determination — it, perhaps, predictably, culminates in a reassertion of herself as a sexual being with her own right to pleasure.
It is the focus on the latter that has won Rahimi praise for apparently breaking the last Afghan taboo. It is also credited with his decision to write the narrative in French, given his belief that his native Persian, at times, brings with it the cultural baggage of self-censorship.
Yet it is also this focus that, in places, serves to overshadow the important contradictions inherent within a system that, in theory, places women as the custodians of family honour but that, in reality, results in the dishonouring of women and their bodies.
Thus we only hear in passing about the woman’s aunt who was raped night and day by her father-in-law, who was disowned by her family and whose only sanctuary was to be found in a brothel. We only hear in passing how the woman, to avoid abandonment due to her apparent barrenness, is ‘mated’ with a man provided by her aunt’s pimp to produce children.
Instead, greater focus is placed on the woman’s body. Thus we are witness to her vilifying her husband and his ilk for thinking a woman’s menstrual blood impure while placing untold value on the blood that comes with the loss of virginity. Yet rather than suggesting a reclamation of her body, these scenes bring to mind the horrific slideshow that was the Abu Ghraib scandal.
When the woman is confronted by an unknown factional warrior, she tells him that she is a prostitute so as to avoid being raped. She tells her husband that men like him would not want to rape a whore since they can never possess a woman who uses sex as an exchange of power. While this point is well put, it is not dwelled upon. Instead, we see the woman enter into illicit relations with a young boy who really does take her for a prostitute. Apparently the boy’s inexperience makes it easy for her to tell him what to do. An initiative she could never have dared take with her husband.
The book’s title, taken from Persian mythology, refers to a black magical stone that absorbs the suffering of the penitent until it one day explodes, signalling relief in the form of Judgement Day. In his introduction to the English translation, fellow Afghan author, Khaled Hosseini, suggests that the woman had been initially cast in the role of the patience stone, bearing the suffering meted out by the unjustness of patriarchy. Her journey of self-revelation, played out before an incumbent husband, however, effectively reverses those roles. Thus he holds her up as giving voice to the millions of women throughout the world who have been subjugated, objectified and silenced.
But one must ask what kind of voice it is that links freedom to sexually explicit and, at times, degrading behaviour that simply mimics that of the oppressor? Is it really the voice of liberation? Or is it the voice that unwittingly serves to yet again objectify women? Is it a voice to which we should listen?