Dusty mirrors: A feminist criticism of Asef Soltanzadeh’s stories

By Rayhana Bayani 

Feminist criticism, or women-centric critique, is a method of modern literary criticism that aims to protest the portrayal of female characters in literature, especially fiction. The female character in the works of male authors usually follows clichéd patterns consistent with a male-dominated culture. These patterns reflect the author’s perception and expectations of women and present them as subordinate entities on the sidelines. 

In literary texts written by male authors, women are often depicted as the “other” or objects who aid the male protagonist, move in his shadow, or become obstacles to his goals. Such literature denies women’s intrinsic individuality and independent identity, repeatedly representing them through stereotypes and worn-out moulds. The common thread in these limited forms is women’s dependence on men. These works do not depict a woman’s internal experiences as the woman’s inherent identity isn’t the focus. Therefore, the reader can’t grasp the woman’s true feelings, thoughts, and character from the male narrator’s perspective (Ahmadi, 1378/1999). 

The emergence of feminist criticism as a legitimate perspective began in the 1920s in Britain with the publication of “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf, one of the leading pioneers of feminist criticism. She was one of the first to examine women’s issues in contrast to prevailing discourses and assumptions. 

Feminist criticism examines the scarcity of female characters in the works of male authors and studies the use of patriarchal culture in the works of female authors. A common approach of feminist criticism is to examine the portrayal of women in male-authored works, revealing how women have been oppressed due to patriarchal traditions and how these traditions are reflected in the portrayal of women by male writers (Zawarian, 1370/1991). 

One of Afghanistan’s famous short story writer’s Asef Soltanzadeh’s works narrate the tumultuous and chaotic years of Afghanistan’s contemporary history. He crafts his stories against the backdrop of his country’s social, political, and cultural events over the last three decades, vividly depicting the suffering and adversities of his people. His works, whether novels or short stories are commendable in structure, technique, and content. However, this article attempts to view his short stories from a different angle, analyzing the life journey of women during three periods in his story collections: 

  1. The civil wars era (1990s) 
  1. The Taliban era (1996-2001) 
  1. The era of migration to Iran and subsequent migration to Western countries 

In the short story “We Are All Lost” from the collection “We Get Lost in Escape” (published by Aagah, 2000), which depicts a day in the grim and bitter era of the civil wars in Kabul, we accompany a woman who is forced into prostitution to save her husband’s life. In the end, she is saved by a young man. The portrayal of the woman in this story is of a passive and innocent figure, lacking any significant or memorable traits. Considering the turbulent environment of those days in Kabul, the story’s conclusion is implausible. 

In the story “Janan-e Kharabat” from the collection “You Whose Land Is Not Here” (published by Aagah, 2008), set during the first Taliban era, a young Pashtun Talib falls in love and marries a Persian-speaking girl from the Kharabat neighbourhood of Kabul. Her family strongly opposes this mismatched marriage and even decides to kill the Talib. However, with the woman’s intervention, they change their minds.  

The story’s atmosphere softens when the woman enters the Talib’s life as her gentleness and kindness contrasts with her husband’s rigid religious beliefs. She paints, sings, and dances. Moreover, through symbolic actions like sewing and embroidering a white (a symbol of peace) cover for her husband’s weapon, she manages to change his character. However, at times, her actions become poetic, and her dialogues become slogan-like, such as: “If we cover all the weapons in the world with embroidered covers, no wars will occur.” 

Few of his stories narrate the migration by Afghan people to Iran, yet, even in those few stories, women are absent. Women reappear in his stories that depict the re-migration to Europe from Iran. Those stories – “No Woman on the Sidewalk,” “Everyone is You,” and “Roskilda” – are from the collection “Now, Denmark” (published by Niloufar, 2004), which share common themes. In them, we have the archetypes of a dreamy and unattainable woman alongside a daydreaming, romantic man. The immigrant man imagines getting into a relationship with a beautiful and kind Danish woman, and even in the story “Roskilda,” he lives with her for a while. After some time, the woman leaves the man without reason. The man searches for her but finds no trace – it’s as if she never existed. 

The fear of facing the bitter realities of immigrants’ lives in Europe, the consequences of alienation, as well as cultural, religious, and linguistic differences and also the Eastern man’s lack of confidence in front of the Western woman, causes the men in these stories to fail to establish a romantic relationship with their desired women and resort to daydreaming. 

After migrating to Europe, Soltanzadeh tries to portray women from a new perspective but again presents a vague and dusty image of them. In none of these stories do the women become complete literary characters; they don’t even have names. The stories only mention their superficial relationships with the male characters. The Danish women in these works only seem to ornament the story like beautiful statues. 

In the story “Woman and Mirror” from the collection “Now, Denmark,” Soltanzadeh pays more attention to the female character and presents a relatively more straightforward image of her to the reader. It’s as though a woman sees herself in a mirror for the first time. She remembers her femininity and discovers her womanhood. In this story, we see a glimpse of her mundane life and her face in the mirror. Her actions and reactions to the new environment and the plays of fate make her more tangible for us. Her anger towards her loneliness connects with readers. She is a lonely and depressed woman living with her little daughter. The story begins when she can no longer bear the loneliness and emptiness of her life. She sees a man in the mirror and wants to join him. In the end, she leaves her child and enters the mirror. 

The woman’s loneliness is well conveyed through tricks like setting the house’s atmosphere: “She closed the closet, and a mirror inside it moved, showing the entire empty house before closing,” but the expression of the woman’s emotions and thoughts is inadequate. As the story’s beginning states, “The woman didn’t know what to do; she couldn’t figure out how long she could stay this way.” Then, there’s a reference to her growing loneliness, boredom, and gradual loss of vivacity.  

Leaving her child is not justified to readers and isn’t believable in the story’s logic. We only know that she wants to remove a photo frame from the wall (symbolic of erasing memories), but the author provides no information about those memories. In this work, what has the potential to be a successful story centred on a woman is not well-executed, and we remain distant from the woman of the story. 

In the story “The Sleep-Inducing Trumpet,” also from the collection “Now, Denmark,” we see how the imposed innocence of a woman from Afghanistan dissipates upon her migration to the West. The narrator perceives traditional and religious societies’ constraints, pressures, and compulsions as the reasons for preserving a woman’s innocence. Little of that innocence remains once she steps into a free land. Initially, in the story, we meet a man who has sought refuge in Denmark while his wife is in Pakistan. A Danish friend recounts the fate of another man from Afghanistan living in Denmark with his wife and two children and whose wife betrayed him after meeting a Danish man. The narrator reflects on how this tragedy unfolded, increasingly believing that constraints kept the woman from faltering, and she is transformed into an unbridled being when she gets newfound freedom. In this story, the author couldn’t maintain his impartiality and portrays the female character in an entirely negative light. 

In a feminist review of Soltanzadeh’s story collection, which primarily narrates tales of migration, what cannot be found is the natural character of the migrant woman – someone who, after enduring the pains of being a woman in a land like Afghanistan and losing her husband or children in wars, migrates to exile of Iran and distances herself from her loved ones; a mother who is both mother and father to her children, a woman whose husband gets deported, a woman whose child travels to a distant exile, a woman who bears irrevocable departures and burns in longing and waiting, a woman who hears horrifying news of migrants dying at European borders and trembles in fear. In Sultan Zada’s stories, like in the story “Woman and Mirror,” the image of the woman is faint and vague. 

* Rayhana Bayani is a short story writer and literary critic from Afghanistan.   




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