There are so many things I take for granted because I grew up in Canada. Clean, running water (though that isn’t always guaranteed here, given the deplorable conditions on many First Nations reserves). Safety from imminent threats, like militants and terrorists. Justice, hot and cold running justice, served up to me on a fine platter of rights and due process. Oh, plus I have the bonus of being a man, and therefore getting treated like a first-class citizen. In A House Without Windows, Nadia Hashimi examines the precariousness of living as a woman in Afghanistan, and how events beyond one’s control can shape and redefine one’s life in terrifying ways.
Zeba is married to an abusive man. When her children come home one day, the oldest finds Zeba in the back garden, holding the corpse of her husband, a hatchet wound to the head the obvious cause of death. Accused and essentially convicted in all-but-name of this murder, Zeba goes to Chil Mahtab, a women’s prison, to await her “trial”. The other main character, Yusuf, is assigned as her defence lawyer. Born in Afghanistan, Yusuf and his family relocated to the United States before September 11th, where he grew up and flourished. He has returned to his homeland with the aim of doing good and helping his country and his people—but of course, it is never that simple. He soon discovers a society torn between the old ways and the new, a people stripped bare by the repeated incursions of other countries in the names, alternatively, of war and peace. Yusuf wants to help Zeba, but Zeba isn’t sure she wants to be—or can be—helped—and once you grasp some more about these aspects of Afghan culture, can you blame her?
I want to start by talking about judging other cultures.
Hashimi’s portrayal of the treatment of women in Afghanistan is very critical. But there’s a difference between Hashimi, a woman of Afghan descent, and me, a man of European descent, expressing such criticisms. There is an element of white supremacy lurking within this discussion: it’s very easy for white people to look at other cultures with a Eurocentric lens and look down on those cultures, judge them, call them “backwards” or “oppressive” while simultaneously declining to keep their own house in order. We shouldn’t be wringing our hands over the treatment of women elsewhere in the world when women here in Canada still experience sexism and violence daily, when Indigenous women go missing and are murdered disproportionately. We are not better; we aren’t even all that different. We’re just brought up being told we are.
So, yeah, as I read this book and watched how Zeba and other women were being treated, I felt a mixture of resignation (that people in the world have to go through this) and disgust (that women have to endure such treatment). And I had to sit with this and think about how much of this reaction was genuinely about the women on these pages and how much of it was internalized white supremacy bleeding through. The manifestations of oppression might be different in different cultures, but at the end of the day, the patriarchy sucks no matter your race, country, or religion. One passage in particular jumped out at me:
No spell would change the fact that a woman’s worth was measured, with scientific diligence, in blood. A woman was only as good as the drops that fell on her wedding night, the ounces she bled with the turns of the moon, and the small river she shed giving her husband children. Some women were judged most ultimately, having their veins emptied to atone for their sins or for the sins of others.
This is so true, this relationship between women and blood—but what really caught my eye was the phrase “with scientific diligence.” With that simple expression, Hashimi connects the dots between modern Afghanistan the modern West: modernization does not equate with liberation or equity. As our scientific knowledge has increased and advanced, there have always been those who seek to use science to quantify and justify oppression. Science, being a human endeavour, is very much political. Just because a society cloaks its oppressive attitudes with scientific language instead of religious language does not make it more progressive.
So, as a story about the oppression of women, A House Without Windows is thoughtful and moving. Hashimi explores the ways in which women find freedom within the constrains of their culture: Zeba’s mother, and now Zeba, take on the role of jadugar, one who can work spells and magic to help (or hinder) others. Then you have women like Latisha, who find life in Chil Mahtab far preferable to a life outside the prison, where she might be forced to marry. Hashimi contrasts these women from more conservative walks of Afghan life with women like Aneesa and Sultana, who were lucky enough to receive more liberal educations and have a drive to change their country. What Hashimi strives to make clear, however, is that even the women in Chil Mahtab want to change their country in their own way. The fact that they do not have a university education or degree, that they are mothers and wives but not lawyers or journalists, does not change their ability to mock, critique, and subvert the system.
As you might have glimpsed in the quotation above, Hashimi’s prose is lush. Indeed, at times it feels almost purple. I have not emerged a huge fan of her style—at the beginning of the book, I was a little bored by the amount of exposition, and no amount of careful descriptions of settings and characters is going to compensate for not moving along the story. Once the plot really gets going, and you become more invested in Zeba and Yusuf’s individual stories, the novel picks up. Yet I still never fully embraced Hashimi’s way with words.
A House Without Windows has within it a certain power and gravitas, and if you like rich description and careful characterization, then you might find this captivating. Although it did not have quite so powerful an effect on me, I still enjoyed its story and the way Hashimi shows us a post-occupation Afghanistan with nuance and sincerity. There is no romanticizing happening here. There is ebullient hope but also carefully learned despair, and Hashimi’s greatest achievement in this book is managing to balance them in a way that seems believable.