Afghan secrets

<strong>A Thousand Splendid Suns</strong>

Khaled Hosseini<br /><em>Bloomsbury, 389pp, £16.99</em>

Far away from battles in dust-ridden villages infested with Taliban insurgents, and beyond the scream of fighter jets in the skies, is the real Afghanistan: the world of ordinary Afghan men and women.

Ever since the iconic image of a burqa-clad woman kneeling in Kabul's stadium with a Kalashnikov held to her head was broadcast around the world, the west has been fascinated with Afghanistan's women. Most of what we know about their lives is from daily news reports offering sketchy details of families killed by Nato air strikes or by insurgents. Unfortunately, death tolls tell us very little.

Two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, attempt to examine the sexual politics between Afghan men and women. In both - Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns and Deborah Rodriguez's The Kabul Beauty School - war is a distant backdrop; Afghan women cannot make political decisions, though they bear the brunt of their awful consequences.

Over the past few years, scores of books have been written from the two front lines of the "war on terror", Afghanistan and Iraq. Most are by foreign correspondents or westerners who dip in and out of the cultures, offering a taste of the mysterious Orient but rarely penetrating the real lives of the region's people. Refreshingly, there is not a single quotation from Rudyard Kipling in either Hosseini's or Rodriguez's book: theirs are insider perspectives.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is Hosseini's much-anticipated follow-up to The Kite Runner, which sold eight million copies worldwide. It centres on two very different women born a generation apart: Mariam, born as the illegitimate daughter of a maid in the 1950s, when the country was still at peace, and Laila, a middle-class girl adored by her father and born the night the communists seized power in 1978.

At 15, Mariam is forced to marry Rashid, a brute of a man three times her age, while Laila falls in love with her childhood sweetheart. The couple plan to marry, but the civil war of the 1990s brings a terrible tragedy and the lives of the two women are unexpectedly thrown together. As the novel sweeps across the past 40 years of turmoil in Afghanistan, we watch Mariam and Laila struggle to keep their sanity and families together until the final, shocking end.

Hosseini, whose family settled in California when he was a boy, is among the very few Afghans who have written accounts of their country's wars. Indeed, he is the first Afghan writer to be published in English.

He has a wonderfully sparse style and a talent for rendering an alien culture familiar. As the country changes from the relatively liberal days of the 1960s to the backlash against modernity with the rise of the Taliban, he traces a disastrous shift in dynamics between men and women. Unable to control the chaos outside the home, Rashid takes out his anger on his wife. As Mariam's mother tells her, "like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman".

This could be the theme of The Kabul Beauty School, a fascinating account of Rodriguez's four years of running a school that teaches women how to become economically independent. Escaping an abusive husband in Michigan and unable to make sense of the tragedies of 9/11, Rodriguez arrived in Kabul in May 2002 with an emergency medical team. But walking into a beauty parlour and seeing the "hedge-clippers" that passed for scissors, she quickly recognised another pressing need. The self-styled "beautician without borders" opened a salon and school with donations from beauty companies. Along the way, she married an Afghan, Sam - who describes the marriage as their own "Afghan-American war".

Rodriguez is in a unique position. As an outsider, she is not subject to the same rigid social boundaries as her students, such as not being able to talk to men who are not blood relatives. But as a woman, she is privy to their secrets - and like any good hairdresser, she teases out the stories of their lives.

Her school is probably the only place in Kabul where women are safe to be themselves. As Rodriguez writes: "I wonder if this was the real reason the Taliban had been so opposed to beauty salons. Not because they made women look like whores, but because they gave women their own space where they were free from the control of men."

In the gripping opening chapter, a young bride prepares for her wedding night with the help of Rodriguez, her former teacher. But she is hiding a terrible secret. Straight away, a curtain is drawn back on a world we hear much about but rarely see in all its terrible manifestations: the unfairness of being born an Afghan woman.

There is Shaz, a teenager so starved of affection that she grabs other students' breasts. Another young girl is being groomed for prostitution by a paedophile who anally rapes her so as to keep her virginity intact and sell it to the highest bidder. In this world controlled by men, beauty is something to be destroyed. Women are attacked for no other reason than being pretty. The violence is endless, sickening and compelling.

If a clash of civilisations is imminent, we need writers such as Rodriguez and Hosseini to show that those on the other side of the divide are humans too, with the same fears and aspirations as the rest of us.

Hamida Ghafour's "The Sleeping Buddha: the story of Afghanistan through the eyes of one family" is published by Constable & Robinson

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state