The Inner Strength of Women
The theme of inner strength of women is the most prevalent theme. Both Mariam and Laila endure so much heartache merely because they are women, yet each continuously pulls together the strength to persevere. Mariam faces a father who refuses to acknowledge her, a husband who abuses her for twenty-seven years, and the need to murder the man when he is determined to kill Laila. Through every instance, she keeps her inborn grace and accepts what fate hands her. Laila faces the loss of the boy she loves, the deaths of her parents and marriage to Rasheed who abuses her for first producing a girl and then finding out it’s not his child. In the end, she faces the challenge of being a woman who returns to her home country with the intention of helping rebuild the country and to honor the memory of Mariam.
The Human Capacity for Evil
The theme of the human capacity for evil is also an important idea. The characters are victims of the Soviets, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban all of whom have little compassion for human life. Power becomes the all-encompassing motivator in the lives of these evil men instead of the hopes and dreams of their countrymen as well as the beauty and success of their country. The women are victims of the power games of men. The Taliban establishes rules and regulations that deny women even basic health care or the capacity to care for their children. But their evil is more individually seen in men like Rasheed who marries to produce sons and abuses when he doesn’t have one. He is a man who presents no fury like the one he unleashes against a scornful woman. He would have killed both Mariam and Laila had Mariam not killed him first. Under the Taliban, he may never have been punished for such an act.
Loyalty and Devotion
Another theme would be loyalty and devotion. This occurs between Laila and her father and Laila and Tariq as well as Mariam and Laila. Laila loves her father more than life itself and totally understands his desire that she be an educated, successful woman. It is his belief that women will be needed to help re-build Afghanistan that convinces her to return to Kabul. Laila’s loyalty and devotion to Tariq begins in childhood when they become fast friends. It continues in adulthood when he asks her to marry him when his family leaves Kabul. She refuses, because of her devotion to her father, but makes love with Tariq and brings his beautiful daughter into the world. Thoughts of him never leave her and so when he comes to her house, she thinks nothing of bringing him inside at the risk of Rasheed finding out. Later, she marries him and looks toward a future of rebuilding her country. Of course, the devotion and loyalty between Mariam and Laila is the central idea of the novel. The two women face an abusive husband together and help each other cope with raising two small children. Then, when Rasheed threatens to kill Laila, Mariam accepts the fate of being his murderer and offers up the last great devotion she can: her life.
The Discrimination of Women
A final theme involves discrimination of women in Afghan society. Every group that rules Afghanistan allows men to have complete power over their wives and then, the Taliban makes it law. Beatings, murder, loss of control of their children, and humiliation are only a few of the discriminatory practices among some Muslim countries. They continue even today. Mariam and Laila were only two women in the story who were abused and mistreated by their husbands. It is only their sense of loyalty to their children that often gives them the strength to persevere
Ties to Afghanistan
Many characters express their feeling of connection to the geographical place that is Afghanistan. Hakim quotes poetry. Fariba does not want to leave the land for which her sons have died. Despite the escalation of war in Afghanistan, many characters refuse to leave due to their connection to the physical country as their home. Other characters return to Afghanistan after the dangers of war have subsided. Laila feels an urge to return to Kabul and contribute to the restoration effort. Tariq also feels the need to return home, motivated in large part by Laila's desire. Against all logic, then, and perhaps against their own survival instincts, many of the main characters cling to or drift back home, as if their identities are inextricable from their country. Besides the fear that comes with leaving a known place, the characters also believe that the violence will subside and that hope offers a vision of a more peaceful future.
Oppression and Hope
The people in the novel often work to retain hope while dealing with the realities of political and personal oppression. At significant points throughout the novel, characters express their individual hopes. For instance, when Mariam asks Mullah Faizullah if she may attend school, her journey of hope begins. For Laila, hope lies in Tariq and an attempted escape from Rasheed. Most characters walk into such events with high levels of hope for the future, but once reality sets in, a character's hope is crushed. Not only do these waves of hope provide the reader with suspense and emotional attachment to the characters, but this cycle appears to reflect the cycles of hope and dashed dreams that Afghan women suffer, time and time again. The personal stories of hope, moreover, are mirrored in the political hope of the Afghan citizens. With every new ruler, people express their convictions that finally Afghanistan will be free. Yet, similar to the personal hope of individuals, Afghanistan’s hope often turns to despair after the realities of each new regime leave the nation unfree.
Jalil and Rasheed emphasize the importance of their reputations by doing their best to avoid any shame to their names. Jalil thus takes action by casting Nana out of his house once she becomes pregnant with his illegitimate child. Jalil also does not keep his promise to take Mariam into town with him. He also marries off Mariam to Rasheed after Nana's death. For his part, Rasheed notes that he would need to marry Laila because he could not have her living in his house without some sort of pretense—otherwise, people would gossip about him. He also spends beyond his family's budget in order to make it seem that his family has wealth. Ironically, both men behave in ways that are ethically shameful. To protect their names in order to meet their own ideas of social expectations, they neglect or even abuse their offspring and wives, sacrificing the welfare of those around them in order to save face.
Pregnancy and Children
Hosseini sets up pregnancy as a symbol of hope throughout the novel. Mariam's pregnancies each offer her an opportunity to be hopeful for the future despite her bleak living situation. Laila's pregnancy with Aziza allows her to remain positive after she learns about Tariq's death. Aziza and Zalmai thus offer light and joy to a story that is otherwise bleak and dark. Childbirth is painful, and the pain that mothers feel during the various birthing scenes reminds us of the sacrifices that parents make in order to bring new life into the world. The mother’s pain is worth the joy and attachment that she feels once the child is born.
Additionally, the contrast between fertility and infertility has a traditional meaning: a woman's value in Afghan society has often been measured by her ability to bear children, specifically boys.
Education of Women
The women in A Thousand Splendid Suns have very different educational experiences. Mariam is tutored by Mullah Faizullah in the Koran, and she learns how to read and write. Yet, when she asks her mother about going to school, Nana insists that the only lesson that Mariam needs to learn is to "endure." Laila, in contrast, has a father who emphasizes the importance of her education. Hakim diligently works with Laila on her homework and provides her with extra work in order to expand her education. He emphasizes that Laila's education is as important as that of any boy. After the streets of Kabul become too dangerous, he insists on tutoring Laila himself. He comments about the importance of women attending universities.
Aziza is educated by both Laila and Mariam, who contribute what they know in order to educate her. Mariam teaches the Koran, and Laila eventually volunteers to teach at her school. The end of the book feels hopeful in terms of the education of women in that Zalmai (a boy) and Aziza (a girl) head off to school together.
Marriage Versus True Love
A clear distinction is made throughout the book between true love and marriage. Since the marriages in the novel tend to be forced, they are not likely to be influenced by love. For Nana, the prospect of marriage was ruined by a "jinn." She remembers the lost prospect fondly. Mariam finds hope in her marriage as something that could lead to contentment and possibly to love, but the marriage actually devolves into abuse and oppression. Only Laila escapes the abusive bonds placed on her by Rasheed when she finds true love with Tariq. The contrasts between forced marriage and true love are obvious once Laila and Tariq finally are able to marry and live as a family. Daily living in a forced marriage, for Laila, involved disgust and futile hopes for a better future. With Tariq, in contrast, daily routines leave Laila content and fulfilled. Sexual relations between Laila and Rasheed were completely one-sided, with Rasheed forcing himself upon Laila. With Tariq, however, Laila finds safety in making love. Perhaps most importantly, Laila felt fearful and restrained with Rasheed, but she can be honest and brave once she finds true love with Tariq.
The women forge strong bonds despite the efforts of their husbands and their government to reduce women’s power. The bonds differ in nature. For instance, Giti, Hasina, and Laila form a bond of girlish friendship, but Mariam and Laila form a much more powerful familial bond later in the novel. Nana finds strength from her daughter Mariam, and Mariam finds an admirer when she arrives in a Taliban-controlled prison. The novel thus suggests that women have a strong ability to find strength and support in one another. Mariam never would have gained the strength to fight Rasheed if she had not gained confidence and love from Laila.