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Mariam and Laila work together now. Aziza grows fond of Mariam, and the child seeks Mariam’s affection regularly. Mariam’s heart opens to the child, the first real connection Mariam has ever known. Factional tensions in Kabul shift and grow. Rasheed is forced to stay home from work, because the fighting has gotten so bad. Rasheed fires his gun in the street and dares anyone to break into his house. When Aziza follows him around the house, Rasheed shouts at her to leave him alone. While the two women take care of Aziza, Mariam opens up to Laila about her life. Mariam tells Laila about Nana, Jalil and his wives, Mariam’s swift marriage to Rasheed, the babies they had lost, and how Rasheed’s temper had turned. Laila has a story of her own. Rasheed is not Aziza’s father. Laila has been stealing small bills from Rasheed’s wallet since Aziza’s birth. Laila plans to leave Kabul with Aziza, and she asks Mariam to come with them. Mariam thinks of her last three years, how volatile life has been in Kabul. Love, for Mariam, has always been a dangerous mistake. Mariam wonders if it is the will of Allah for her to build a new life with two people she now loves.
Laila tells Mariam to be ready to leave. As women are not allowed outside without a male family member, Laila and Mariam will need to find a man to escort them. A man helps Mariam buy bus tickets and agrees to let them travel with his family. Guards stop them from boarding the bus, and Mariam, Laila, and Aziza are taken to the police station. The women are questioned separately about their story, and the officer reminds Laila that it is a crime for women to run away. Laila tells the officer about Rasheed’s temper, but the officer does not care what another man does in the privacy of his own home. The women and Aziza are escorted home. Rasheed beats Laila and locks her and Aziza in Laila’s room, and then he turns on Mariam. When he is finished beating Mariam, Rasheed takes her outside and locks her in the shed. Laila worries for Mariam and for her child in the heat. Laila and Aziza spend the days and nights in darkness, and Laila dreams of Tariq. Laila begs Rasheed for water for Aziza. Laila watches her daughter constantly for signs of death. Finally, Rasheed unlocks the door. Rasheed warns Laila that he will kill Mariam, then Aziza, and then Laila if the women try anything again. Rasheed kicks Laila one more time before he leaves.
As of 1994, a force called the Taliban, made up of Pashtu refugees, has taken over Kandahar. Two years later, the Taliban arrive in Kabul. Rasheed takes his family to see a gathering at Pashtunistan Square. Two brothers had been hung for being communists and infidels. The next day, the city is papered with new rules, Shari’a law. Rasheed is pleased that his rules for his wives have become law, and its violations punishable by death.
Laila is glad her father isn’t alive to see the changes in Kabul. The university is shut down, cinemas and music halls are ransacked, and every book but the Koran is burned. Laila is disgusted with Rasheed’s glee over the punishments and hangings. Rasheed’s only response is to threaten Laila. Rasheed knows that Aziza is not his child, and Rasheed reminds Laila that he is the only reason Laila and Aziza are still alive. One day, Laila cuts a spoke from an abandoned bike and prepares to attempt an abortion. But Laila is unable to endure taking a life, one as innocent as Aziza and Mariam.
Mariam tries to get medical help for Laila at the hospital newly designated to treat only women. The staff are overrun, and crowds beg to be treated. Laila needs surgery, but the hospital has not been given anesthesia. There isn’t time for Mariam to go buy the drugs, so Laila undergoes a cesarean section with no painkillers.
Zalmai, Laila and Rasheed’s son, is two years old now. Rasheed has endless wells of patience for his son. He brings Zalmai expensive gifts, including a television set, that Laila knows the family cannot afford. Rasheed tells Laila that his solution to their financial problems is to send Aziza into the streets to beg. Laila refuses and punches Rasheed in the face. When he returns to the room, Rasheed puts a gun in Laila’s mouth. Laila and Mariam dig a hole in the yard. They need to bury the TV in case their home is raided by the Taliban.
Rasheed finds a job at a restaurant, but he is quickly fired. Rasheed begins selling household items, and hits everyone in the family except Zalmai. Laila worries that her children will starve as food runs out, but Mariam has a plan to ask her father for help. Rasheed manages to borrow five minutes on a satellite phone, and Mariam calls the mayor’s office in her hometown. Mariam remembers the last time she saw Jalil when he tried to visit her in Kabul thirteen years prior. Mariam refused to see him. When Mariam learns that Jalil died in 1987, she realizes he had been trying to say goodbye.
The Taliban destroys the Bamiyan Buddhas. Laila remembers going there with Tariq and Babi. Laila and Mariam take Aziza to live at an orphanage and coach her to lie about her father’s death. The director of the orphanage takes Aziza’s information. Laila cries and the director comforts her. He blames Laila’s desperate situation on the Taliban. Laila visits Aziza as much as she can, but soon Rasheed tires of the frequent trips. When Laila visits alone, she is sometimes caught and beaten by Taliban soldiers. When Laila is able to avoid them, she spends hours playing with Aziza. Rasheed finds a job as a doorman, and he promises Laila she can bring Aziza home once Rasheed has saved some money. One day, Zalmai shouts about a man at their door. When Laila sees who the man is, she cannot help but run straight into Tariq’s arms.
Mariam waits upstairs with Zalmai, and she tries to understand what has happened. Mariam thought she recognized a man at Rasheed’s work. Now Mariam is certain it is Abdul Sharif, and she believes Rasheed paid the man to tell Laila that Tariq had died.
Tariq tells Laila about his life since he left Kabul. Both of Tariq’s parents have died. Tariq spent some time in prison. Tariq is not married and lives in Pakistan. Tariq had already heard about Laila’s parents. Laila tells Tariq about Abdul Sharif’s message, and she tries to apologize for marrying Rasheed. But Tariq understands, and he does not blame Laila. Laila tells Tariq about Aziza. Tariq promises to return and hopes to meet his daughter. Zalmai tells Rasheed that a man had visited Laila.
Rasheed takes Zalmai upstairs while Mariam and Laila await their husband’s wrath. Rasheed begins beating Laila with his belt. Laila fights hard, but Rasheed wraps his hands around her throat. Knowing that Rasheed intends to kill Laila, Mariam goes out to the shed. Rasheed took Mariam’s youth, but she will not let him take Laila’s life. Mariam strikes Rasheed with a shovel, knocking him off of Laila. Mariam remembers the gun she found in Rasheed’s drawers, and strikes again, knowing she must kill Rasheed.
Laila has passed out from lack of oxygen. When she regains consciousness, Laila sees Rasheed dead, and Mariam with the shovel. The two women drag Rasheed’s body into the shed. Mariam comforts Laila, and they make plans to leave with the children and Tariq. Laila is alarmed by the look on Mariam’s face when they part for the night. When Zalmai asks about his father, Laila tells her son that Rasheed has gone away. In the morning, Mariam tells Laila to visit Aziza. Laila knows what Mariam is planning, and Laila protests. The two women argue, but Laila cannot prevent Mariam from taking all the blame for Rasheed’s death. Mariam asks Zalmai to kiss Aziza for her. Laila and Zalmai leave Mariam behind. They never see her again.
The Taliban allow no visitors to the Walayat women’s prison. Mariam shares a cell with five other women and four children, all serving time for “running away.” They are given no food. One woman had tried to elope with the mullah’s son. She was sentenced to five years in prison, and the young man was set free. Mariam’s trial lasted fifteen minutes, and she was given no legal counsel. Mariam admitted to killing Rasheed. When Mariam told the judge that Rasheed would have killed Laila, her defense was not accepted. Witness testimony from a woman is only admissible if corroborated by another person. The judge, an old man on the verge of death himself, believes that Rasheed was a violent man. The judge forgave Mariam, but he must sentence Mariam to death. Mariam spends the last day of her life watching children fishing in the river outside the cell window, and she remembers fishing with her father. In the morning, Mariam is taken to the stadium. Her escort, a Taliban soldier, asks her if she is afraid. Mariam is afraid, but the young man tells her it is normal to be scared. Thousands of men wait in the stands to witness Mariam’s execution. Mariam wishes she could have grown old with Laila, and watched Aziza and Zalmai grow up. Mariam’s last thoughts are from the Koran, asking Allah for forgiveness.
Through Laila and Aziza, Mariam comes to find belonging and human connection with other women. Fraught relationships have thus far punctuated Mariam’s life, particularly relationships with women. Nana is the chief example of how this pattern has manifested and perpetuated in her life. Chapter 35 offers a glimpse of Mariam and Laila’s mended relationship through Mariam’s point of view. In Laila, Mariam finds true companionship for the first time in her life. In Aziza, Mariam finds the unconditional love she never received as a child.
Gender bias and inequality codified in laws set forth by the Taliban is contrasted with Mariam and Laila’s galvanizing solidarity and determination to fight the status quo. Rasheed’s gun, a symbol of his perceived power, prompts the women to plan their escape soon after he fires it into the street. The pair grow closer with each passing day. Familiarity, in their case, breeds respect, unlike the contempt bred in their relationship with Rasheed. Sharing more of their lives with each other signifies trust that they will rely on as the novel builds toward the climax. When Laila asks Mariam to leave Rasheed and run away with her and Aziza, it is not only a watershed moment, but the ultimate sign of trust. When they are brought to the police station after being caught, her fear turns to anger when she sees just how unimportant her rights are to the police. Standing up to inequality is an uphill battle in a society ruled by men.
As Laila retreats into a world of daydream and fantasy, she shares another bond with Mariam. The daydreams occur when her waking life is especially difficult, similar to her daydreaming prior to the missile attack that struck and killed her parents. Daydreams are an ominous device in the narrative. As Laila dreams of her trip to the Bamiyan Buddhas with Tariq, it is to escape Rasheed’s threats on her life, as well as the lives of Aziza and Mariam.
As the Taliban bolster their political strength and power by entering Kabul, so too does Rasheed’s strength and power grow. The Taliban’s laws ban a multitude of things, but most notably are the laws that restrict what women can do, wear, and say. These restrictions align with Rasheed’s political and personal beliefs. Rasheed’s joy at the institution of these laws underscores his belief that women should be controlled by men. The anti-intellectualism espoused by the Taliban is also espoused by Rasheed. The Taliban use this anti-intellectualism to control the population, while Rasheed uses it to control Mariam and Laila.
The reappearance of Tariq is symbolic of a hopeful future. The novel takes a sharp turn from the desolate tone established since the Taliban invaded. When the Taliban destroys Laila’s cherished Bamiyan Buddhas, the site of a joyous moment she shared with Tariq, she is left numb by the callous act. But Tariq’s appearance poses a potential end to “enduring” and suffering her reality. He symbolizes a beacon of hope to Laila. When Tariq likens the volume of unsent letters he wrote to her to those of a famous poet, it is meant to highlight the beauty of words, but the poetry motif also harkens back to when Rasheed compares Tariq and Laila to lovers in a poem.
In the novel’s climax, Mariam, whose name is the Arabic form of “Mary,” attains Christ-like status in an ultimate show of sacrifice. While Rasheed’s violence begets more violence, it also arouses a change within Mariam as she takes agency over her life for the first time. The brutality of Rasheed’s beatings suggest he is losing control over himself, and the animalistic imagery paints him as wild, feral, and bestial. In witnessing Rasheed choke Laila to within an inch of her life, Mariam makes the conscious decision to kill him, knowing full well that it would mean the end of her life as well. By sacrificing her own life, the lives of Laila, Aziza, and Zalmai are saved.
Mariam also embodies a mother figure in the aftermath of the climax. Mariam and Laila’s differences are emphasized in the moments following Rasheed’s death. The theme of relationships between mothers and daughters plays out between the two protagonists. Although Laila is a mother, she turns inward and becomes more childlike and trusting. She allows Mariam to take care of and reassure her of her future safety. Mariam insists on taking responsibility and makes a great sacrifice. By acting like a mother to Laila and Aziza she finds the strength to protect them.
Mariam’s trial shows that as far as gender politics are concerned, it is a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Just as in other moments of the novel, confronting injustice at the hands of men usually results in suffering and “endurance.” Mariam sits in a cell with other women charged with “running away,” a euphemism for escaping situations where they faced domestic abuse. Instead of providing refuge, the government punishes them for leaving. While the judge is transparent in his sympathy for Mariam, he remains complicit by maintaining that the laws are powerless under Taliban rule. The men watching Mariam’s execution are equally complicit in the political system that benefits them and punishes women like Mariam for having agency.