Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Bamiyan Buddhas

The great Buddha statues Babi takes Laila and Tariq to visit represent not only Afghanistan’s history, but the immense love the characters have for their country. This scene crystallizes the dovetailing of history and significant events in the character’s lives. As Babi explains the history of the Buddhas, he talks of his hopes and dreams for the future. Unfortunately, this is the last happy moment Laila will have with both her father and Tariq for a while. It will later become a cherished memory to Laila, one where she experienced a different and more introspective side to her deceased father and where a more hopeful future seemed possible. The moment is made even more impactful because of Tariq’s presence, who Laila has strong romantic feelings for. Later on, Laila learns that the Taliban has destroyed the Buddhas despite an international outcry to keep them on the mountain. This act symbolizes the erasure of not only Afghanistan’s history but of Laila’s cherished memory. When she hears the news, Laila is drawn back to that moment, which was filled with so much love.

The Burqa

While the burqa, the outer-body covering worn by women in some Islamic traditions, is used as a symbol of repression, it can also be a symbol of comfort for some women. When Rasheed forces Mariam to wear the burqa soon after their marriage, she finds comfort in not being perceived in public. She uses it as protection against the judgmental eyes of others. With the burqa on, people have no way of knowing what she looks like and thus no way to know her past. After being told for her entire childhood that her status as a harami, a bastard child, is shameful, the burqa finally shields her from more hurtful assumptions. In Chapter 37 when the Taliban take over the city, part of the new Shari’a law is that women are forced to wear the burqa. Laila, who grew up with more freedoms than Mariam, is horrified at this oppression. These new laws allow the Taliban to control women’s bodies, how they are perceived, and their lives. Rasheed, who previously forced Mariam into the burqa, supports these laws and it is clear by his behavior that he believes women should be controlled. Even while Laila is giving birth in Chapter 39, the doctor says that they are required to perform their duties in the burqa. This shows the extent to which the garment symbolizes the oppression of women. However, some women in the novel view the burqa as a comforting part of their domestic life or religious practice.

Rasheed’s Gun

Rasheed’s gun is the physical manifestation of his power. When Mariam finds it in the drawer with his dirty magazines, she is disgusted at learning what is important to her new husband: violence and sex. However, the gun’s symbolism is deepened when she finds pictures of his deceased wife and son. Rasheed has transformed his trauma into a fragile and toxic masculinity that hinges on holding power by whatever means necessary. Throughout the novel, Rasheed uses his gun to intimidate not only his wives but also others. Just as gunshots and rockets echo at length outside his home as the novel progresses, Rasheed grows more violent and relies on his gun to show power. He brazenly shoots into the street as the violence in Kabul forces him to stay home from work, the one place where he can display his value. When Laila rejects his order to send Aziza to beg on the streets, threatening the power he holds over the household, he puts the gun into her mouth. This moment is the most violence he has shown toward Laila thus far. Finally, at the novel’s climax, this power is stripped away from him when Mariam takes Rasheed’s life before he can use the gun to defend himself.