A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi is not the typical book that I read. It is set in a war-torn country, but it is nothing about war. It’s a story about women in Afghanistan and how they survive in a male-dominated society.
A bit about the plot from the publisher:
For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice.
Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed. As Zeba awaits trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have also led them to these bleak cells: thirty-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an honor killing; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, who ran away from home with her teenage sister but now stays in the prison because it is safe shelter; and nineteen-year-old Mezhgan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for her lover’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, as they have been, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment. Removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.
Into this closed world comes Yusuf, Zeba’s Afghan-born, American-raised lawyer, whose commitment to human rights and desire to help his motherland have brought him back. With the fate of this seemingly ordinary housewife in his hands, Yusuf discovers that, like Afghanistan itself, his client may not be at all what he imagines.
The book is wonderfully written with great descriptions of the scenery and the characters. For example, Hashimi uses great imagery to describe the landscape – dry, brittle plains that go for miles and towns stuck amidst the plains and valleys in the mountains. Although I do not know much about Afghan culture, I do know a good story. Hashimi engages you and keeps your attention.
Hashimi writes in a way that you can sympathize with Zeba and her fellow inmates. In male-dominated societies, it appears next to impossible for women to be treated fairly. Zeba and her fellow inmates seem destined for a lifetime of imprisonment or death for their “crimes.” But, hope, whether it is in the form of a fellow inmate being released or the continuation of the trial without a conviction is seeded in among the despair.
Hashimi also brings another angle to her story – that of an ex-pat Afghan who comes back to Afghanistan to do some good. Yusuf has been heavily influenced by his American upbringing, but he still has a pull toward the Afghan culture. He wants to bring American equality and justice to an Afghanistan that is in many ways backward – corrupt and heavy-handed toward its treatment of women.
As mentioned earlier, Hashimi brings great descriptions of Afghan village life. You can see in your mind’s eye the narrow streets surrounded by walled houses. How the world is shut out behind steel doors that protect the families, but also keep them isolated. This is the life for hundreds of thousands of women scattered in hundreds of villages throughout Afghanistan.
The book is excellent with its excruciating look at women in Afghani society.