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Symbolic violence and resistance against it: ‘Embroidered Handkerchief’ (Review)

 By Mahdi Dehqan*  

“Embroidered Handkerchief” is a collection of 12 short stories by Reyhane Bayani (Kabul: Taak Publications, 2017) that mainly revolve around male-female relationships within and outside the family. The stories depict the cultural violence that runs beneath society’s skin and into the lives of women both inside and outside Afghanistan. The stories tell of women distressed and tormented by  the power of a deeply held patriarchal tradition.  

Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021 and the resulting economic crisis, many families have forced their daughters into arranged marriages, even those far too young to be wives and mothers. The gender bias and misogyny in this collection of short stories echo what is going on in Afghanistan right now.  

The stories can be divided into two streams: in the first “resistance” stream, the characters in the story are aware of the oppression they face and resist it; while, in the second stream, men and women unconsciously produce or reproduce those same oppressive, male-dominated traditions. In this second stream, the men and women are trapped within a patriarchal space with the suffering women being unaware of the illegitimacy of such traditions, while the oppressive male characters inflict pain without awareness.   

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In “Fruit” a wife who cannot have children tries to cope with the patriarchal pressure of her infertility. The symbolic violence of the male-dominated culture that justifies her husband’s second marriage in such traditions and the derisive remarks from the community make the woman feel ashamed. “I can’t bear it anymore,” she says. “If you were in my place and heard comments in every gathering…” The man responds, “I hear comments, too, but I don’t care. I don’t torture myself like you do.” Later, his wife warns, “You are being patient now, but one day your patience will run out.” To analyze those two streams as well as the short stories themselves, I use the theoretical framework of “symbolic violence,” from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  He perceives “symbolic violence” as a form of violence is exerted through symbols and cultural traditions, rather than physical abuse. Yet, it is as real as physical violence and causes genuine suffering. Another characteristic is that both its perpetrators and its victims are often unaware of it, especially as it stems from a symbolic authority that appears legitimate on the surface and thus doesn’t provoke resistance.  

An example of “unconscious” symbolic violence in everyday life is how people of different classes behave in a restaurant. While a middle-class person knows which fork (or utensil) to use for the salad and which is to be used for the main course, a person from the lower class is unaware of this etiquette and chooses the “wrong” utensil. That “mistake” causes embarrassment as people in the middle or upper classes use such an “error” to identify those of the lower classes. However, both the perpetrators (those from the higher class who mock the incorrect use of utensils) and the victims of this behaviour are unaware of the symbolic violence being imposed and unknowingly contribute to the reproduction of the class structure.  

Below, I have categorized the short stories into those two main streams, though some stories encompass elements of both streams:  

Stream of Resistance  Stream of Symbolic Violence  
“Sleep Doesn’t Take Me”, pp.11-14  “Embroidered Handkerchief”, pp.7-10  
“What Are You Looking At, Arzoo?”, pp.15-20  “Sleep Doesn’t Take Me”, pp.11-14  
“Spider Man”, pp.21-25  “What Are You Looking At, Arzoo?”, pp.15-20  
“Fruit”, pp.27-29  “Fruit”, pp.27-29  
“Have You Not Bumped Your Head Today?”, pp.45-58  “Whispers of Aunt Marjan”, pp.31-44  
“Cards”, pp.71-73  “The Taste of Good Soil”, pp.61-68  
“Stay Calm”, pp.75-84  “The Cat Woman”, pp.85-93  

The traditional, religious, and patriarchal world of Afghanistan values a woman’s ability to bear children, particularly a son. A woman is like a field, valued only for her fertility, while a barren woman is considered fruitless or worthless. This theme is explored in three stories –  “Fruit,” “Whispers of Aunt Marjan,” and “Taste of Good Soil” – in which women suffer from societal pressure to conceive as well as due to their infertility. They do not consider such pressure illegitimate but instead, they accept it and blame themselves for not fulfilling the desires of their patriarchal society. The stories, which focus on women in Afghanistan and migrants in Iran, depict their encounters with symbolic violence and their roles in perpetuating the cycle of violence.  

“The Taste of Good Soil” is a particularly evocative example of the stream of unconscious violence. It tells the story of a woman, hospitalized after giving birth at just six months of pregnancy. She fears what will happen if her child dies. Next to her is a Pashtun woman who has risked her life with multiple pregnancies to fulfill her husband’s desire for a child. Both live in a patriarchal society in which childbearing holds a value that is imbued with symbolic violence. In this story, the women are unaware of this violence as they strive to bear children, even if it risks their lives.  

The resistance stream can be seen in “Have You Not Bumped Your Head Today?” As Michel Foucault said, “Where there is power, there is resistance,” which is seen in this story that revolves around a couple with cultural differences. The woman is unhappy with her marriage and refuses to succumb to what she sees as her husband’s uncultured behaviour.  

In this collection, Reyhane Bayani has portrayed examples of gender bias with such clarity and candor that they are still vivid fictional reminders of what is occurring today in Afghanistan.  

Mehdi Dehqan is a writer and cultural commentator from Afghanistan.  


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