Mariam is one of the novel’s two protagonists. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of Jalil, and her status as a bastard child is something she will struggle with overcoming. Mariam has to endure intense suffering and feelings of shame from a very early age. She is continuously made to feel like she has no value, exemplified when Jalil won’t claim her as a legitimate daughter even after Nana dies, and when Rasheed begins to use her status as a harami against her.
After being shunned by both her father and treated roughly by her mother, Mariam endures a further lack of love from the husband her father marries her off to, Rasheed. Although it gives her no pleasure to endure Rasheed’s abuse, Mariam endures it because she knows endurance is what is expected from women in Afghan culture, and to challenge him only puts her in more danger. Mariam finally finds the power to push back when Laila displays her own strength against Rasheed.
When she first meets Laila, Mariam mimics the harsh tone her own mother used with her because she has no other model for how to treat another woman. It is through Laila that Mariam learns how to soften, how to love, and how to create a meaningful bond with another woman. Finally, Mariam is able to find love through the intense bond she shares with Laila and her connection with Aziza. Mariam’s decision to sacrifice herself so Laila, Aziza, and Zalmai can run away is a powerful example of both her capacity for suffering and her ability to love. She is a symbol of strength in the face of oppression and violent political systems.