A Masculinist Reading of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner An individual’s esteem of himself and thus, by extension, others’ opinion of him is determined by a simultaneous play of variegated factors. This paper is an attempt to unravel various such subtleties of a masculine identity as depicted in the novel The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. At the same time, it also tries to determine the importance of culture in determining an individual’s identity and that of transcending certain pre-conceived notions in order to arrive at a just society.
Khaled Hosseini is a truly talented story teller and has two touching novels to his credit, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Both the novels talk about the plight of the Afghani people during the late twentieth century with various forces taking over the country, incessant bloodshed of innocent people and religious fanaticism. Of both his novels, The Kite Runner is more popular and has been acclaimed as the better novel by both, the public and the critics unanimously. The novel is an account of a twelve-year old boy, Amir and his lower class servant-friend, Hassan.
Amir struggles to win his father’s approval all his life, which Hassan seems to get without any effort. Finally, when he is twelve, he wins the local Kite-flying tournament and gets what he always wanted, his father’s pride in him. However, on the same day, he sees Hassan getting raped by an older boy and fails to stand up for Hassan against Assef’s malevolence out of fear. Hence, Hassan and his father are forced to leave the city. Political troubles stir up in Afghanistan and Amir and his father escape to America. Over the years, Afghanistan is transformed into a living hell and Hassan and his wife are killed by the Taliban.
Amir, then, has to return to America to save Hassan’s son from meeting the same fate as his father and at last, find salvation from his nagging guilt. “Their sons go out to nightclubs looking for meat and get their girlfriends pregnant, have kids out of wedlock and no one says a goddamn thing. Oh, they’re just men having fun! I make one mistake and suddenly everyone is talking nang and namoos, and I have to have my face rubbed in it for the rest of my life. ” 1 These words spoken by Soraya, Amir’s wife show that she is utterly disillusioned with the hypocritical society that she lives in and complains about its unfairness.
She knows that there is an inherent problem in the social system that they live in and that problem evokes in her a typically feminist response. However, the book deals with, not Soraya’s or Jamila Khala’s, (Soraya’s mother’s) problems. It deals with Amir, a man’s problems while placing the quandaries of his life. The discourse of the book is essentially masculinist because it recognises the fact that with the rising support for feminism, women can atleast voice their problems and try to deal with them but for men, it is all the more difficult since they are not supposed to have any problems at all.
Rather, they are supposed to deal with them. It is quite evident that the book deals with masculinities since there are only two major female characters: Soraya and Jamila Khala. Even Jamila Khala is actually a peripheral character but still, she is quite well-fleshed out by the author. Also, these two female characters are not introduced until one is halfway through the book. Hence, the book clearly endeavours to look at the various ways in which the expected ‘masculine’ behaviour may quell men’s real identities and aspirations and how being a man doesn’t come easily and doesn’t mean that they have a natural advantage in the world.
R. W. Connell has identified four major ‘types’ of Masculinities: hegemonic, complicitous, marginalised and subordinated2. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the normative and the desired masculinity. The hegemonic male, then, would have everything one can wish for - power, money, women, dominance. In The Kite Runner, Hosseini tries to give us a whole range of all these types of masculinities and to elucidate how hegemonic masculinity can, infact, prove to be detrimental for men as there is immense pressure of performance. This, of course, is best exemplified in Amir’s case.
Amir is haunted by the fact that his father thinks he is not ‘manly’ enough to stand up for himself. His father does tell Rahim Khan, “A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything. ” (Hosseini, 20) All of Amir’s childhood is scarred by the fact that his father has a poor opinion of him since he can’t even manage to talk to him “mard to mard” (Hosseini, 35). At the same time, Amir is also haunted by the fact that he was unable to stand up for Hassan and save him from Assef’s derogatory act.
He feels inadequate from within and considers himself responsible for it. Even after having grown up, he is not able to realise that he was just a scared child then and to forgive himself. However, what Amir does not know is that even his father suffers from the same complex of conforming to the concept of hegemonic masculinity. Baba has the courage to stand up against evil, something that Amir lacked. But, he does not have enough courage to stand up against the social mores and to accept Hassan as his child. It is a matter of his nang and namoos (honour).
Amir’s father is also under the constant pressure of maintaining his facade in front of the society. If he has to deal with his reputation in Afghanistan, it is the same in America too. He is appalled that Mrs. Dobbins offered him ‘free food’ and considers it as a great insult that he would have to live off charity. Infact, it is all the more difficult for him in America since he has lived in such grandeur in Afghanistan; doing charity for the people rather than living off it. Thus, both of them are traumatised due to the concept of an ‘ideal’ hegemonic identity that they think they have to conform to.
Hosseini also tries to show a balance between the polarities of the ‘aggressive’ and the ‘impotent’ masculine image, the ‘aggressive’ represented by Assef and the ‘impotent’ by Ali. The polarities exist but they are not all that masculine identities can be classified into. Rather, much as Connell theorizes the different types of masculinities, Hosseini puts them in practical, flesh and blood examples. Amir, unlike Baba, is not a hegemonic ideal because he lacks the aggressive force that Baba has. But, his is not a subordinated or a marginalised masculinity.
He is the complicitous man, who has all the benefits of the power but does not exert them over others. Infact, Amir is uncomfortable with the natural superiority that his gender offers him: “I cringed a little at the position of power I’d been granted, and all because I had won at the genetic lottery that had determined my sex. ” (Hosseini, 130) When Soraya tells him that she has slept with a man, his male-ego is hurt. But, that does not affect his decision of marrying her. General Taheri, on the other hand, is a classic example of the male-ego when he clashes with his daughter.
He, sometimes, exhibits a certain ‘hyper-masculinity’, which is accentuated in front of Jamila Khala’s docile femininity. He does so, again, out of a sense of frustration at not being able to do anything for his watan (country) while it is going through such turbulent times and at having to live on charity after having lived in luxury back home. A lot of times, forms of identity are built through relationships of mutual recognition embodied in the family and Nationalism is the most familiar and pervasive of them3.
It is difficult on the General because coming from a military background, he was expected to fight for his country and save it from falling into the wrong hands; at which, he failed. Another important character, who represents the ‘compromised masculinity’ is Zaman, the director of the orphanage where Sohrab stayed. Everytime that Assef goes there to pick up a child, he has to swallow his pride and self-righteousness and give away one of the kids of whom he is supposed to be the care-taker. Another obvious victim to this hierarchy of masculinities is Hassan. Gender is inseparably linked with other social structures.
It is now common to say that gender ‘intersects’ – better, ‘interacts’ – with race and class (Connell, 75). One’s identity does not depend on gender alone – there are many class, caste and religion-based discrimination forming a part of the ‘politics of masculinities’. This politics of masculinities is, then, used by the men in power to claim dominance and conquest over not just women, but other men too. This cannot be better explained than with the example of Hassan and Assef. Hassan has been deliberately ‘feminized’ is the book to reinforce his subordinated position, especially in front of Assef.
Hassan is a Shi’a Muslim, a Hazara - the lower class in the Afghani society which is dominated by the Sunni Muslims, the Pashtuns. Thus, he is automatically relegated to an inferior position. He has everything to get to that position of the hegemonic ideal except for his birth. Amir does wonder once what it must be like for Hassan “to live in the society with such an ingrained sense of hierarchy. ” (Hosseini, 37) The rape incident also serves the purpose of further supplementing Hassan’s ‘feminization’. Sexual dominance over a woman is the best way to establish control over her.
Hence, this idea has been extended to the masculinities’ hierarchy and Assef abuses Hassan sexually to establish his superior identity and avenge his ‘insult’. Hassan’s marginalised masculinity is powerless against Assef’s hegemonic one but Hassan does not try to compensate for it by becoming aggressive or ‘hyper-masculine’. Rather, he goes on with his work and accepts the demeaning behaviour from Assef as well as from Amir without complaints. Ross Poole, in the essay, “Modernity, rationality and ‘the masculine’”, sums up Assef’s stand-point quite clearly: Power is always relative: to have it means to have it more than others.
Hence, one’s own achievements are always liable to be undermined by the achievement of the other. (Threadgold and Cranny-Francis, 58) Hence, when Assef’s masculinity was challenged by Hassan, a Hazara, he needed to reassert it by putting Hassan in his place. At the same time, what is crucial to confirm one’s identity, is that the victim’s submission to the power be voluntary (Threadgold and Cranny-Francis, 57). Hassan has no choice but to give in to Assef and there is nothing but “resignation” on his face. What is interesting here is to study the identity of Assef in terms of a masculinist reading.
A homosexual identity is actually considered to be a subordinated masculine identity. However, here, those notions of subordination and superiority are totally subverted. Assef is powerful because he is very strong physically, hierarchically and especially, in his ideological beliefs, he is a fanatic. His character feels insecure of the privileged position that it occupies now and hence, with the slightest provocation, (like that of Hassan and his sling-shot,) he becomes very conscious and scared of having to lose it.
The most important of the pitfalls of a hegemonic male identity does not spare even Assef and he deals with it in a very different, crueller way than Amir. Even the ethnic cleansing that happened in Mazar-i-Sharif is one of the ways by which the ‘masculine’ Pashtuns subjugate the ‘feminized’ Hazaras and reinforce their dominance. Hosseini, in many ways, has feminized Afghanistan itself while the Taliban and the other forces which ravaged it are the ‘masculine’ forces trying to gain a control over her.
Amir immediately senses this when he returns to Kabul - while in the old days, “the city’s air was impregnated with a sweet scent” (Hosseini, 205), today, “Returning to Kabul was like running into an old friend and seeing that life hadn’t been good to him, that he’d become homeless and destitute. ” (Hosseini, 216) Somewhere between all these years, there is a feeling that the positions have been reversed and when Amir comes back, it is he who is at an inferior position and Farid, at a superior one. Farid remarks that Amir had “always been a tourist here. ” and that he “just didn’t know it. (Hosseini, 204) That is the time when he realises that he had been living a very privileged and a protected life in Afghanistan and that the common people had always been suffering like this. Even the relationships between Amir and Hassan and Amir and his father are interesting to study. Amir shares a very close bond with Hassan. All the same, Hosseini has taken great pains to bring out the magnanimity of the social differences between the two of them. However much they would want it, they can never change the fact that he is a Pashtun and Hassan, a Hazara.
Even if they would have continued staying together and nobody would have raped Hassan, Amir probably wouldn’t have been able to save him from the ethnic cleansing. He would have still remained an illiterate servant. Hosseini’s description is painfully honest throughout the book and he never romanticizes any aspect of their relationship. However, after the rape incident, both, Amir and Hassan feel inadequate and sullied in their own different ways and so, their relationship undergoes an irrevocable change. Hosseini builds up a case for Amir gradually between the rape incident and the time when Ali and Hassan leave.
So, when Amir comes back to Afghanistan to look for Sohrab, there is a parallel incident for all the previous incidents and one can see how Amir slowly finds redemption, in each one of his acts. While he slipped in money under Hassan’s mattress to throw him out of the house and the job, he later slips in the money under Farid’s mattress for his children’s sake. Even after he returns to America with Sohrab, he has to really make great efforts to gain Sohrab’s approval; just like Hassan did while Amir turned away from him out of guilt.
The final redemptive act, of course, is to stand up for Sohrab against Assef, something he could not do when he was twelve. The volte-face here, is Sohrab. He is as cold with Amir as Hassan was loving and respectful. Life’s harsh truths have made him more mature than Amir and Hassan were at his age and Hassan’s lost childhood and innocence is seen accentuated in Sohrab. Also, Sohrab is traumatised by the fact that his rape makes him sinful. On the other hand, Amir and his father share quite a strenuous relationship when they are in Afghanistan.
Baba is more up-tight about being a ‘man’ in Kabul. But, as time passes and they are in America, it seems that Baba understands his son better and doesn’t pressurize him anymore. They even joke about Soraya and Amir’s attraction towards her. It is probably because even he feels that he has to compromise on his ‘masculinity’ by doing manual labour in this foreign country for the foreign men and not living the way they used to in Afghanistan. So, whether it’s about Baba, Amir, Hassan, Ali, Sohrab, General Taheri or even Zaman, it is not easy to be a man in the society.
The pressure of performance and importance attributed to being virile and strong that come along with the powers of being a man are too much too handle. Hence, the novel is a whole saga about living up to one’s gender and conforming to the social norms. How important a role gender plays in defining one’s identity cannot be better illustrated than in The Kite Runner and it can safely be called as a landmark in the Masculinist fiction. Endnotes: 1. Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. (London: Bloomsbury, 2004) 156 2. Connell, R. W. Masculinities. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999. 76-81 3. Ross Poole. Modernity, rationality and ‘the masculine’. Threadgold, Terry and Cranny-Francis, Anne (eds. ) Feminine, Masculine and Representation. (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990) 57 Bibliography: 1. Connell, R. W. Masculinities. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999. 2. Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. Bloomsbury, London, 2004. 3. Threadgold, Terry and Cranny-Francis, Anne (eds. ) Feminine, Masculine and Representation. Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1990. 4. Vannoy, Dana (ed. ) Gender Mosaics Social Perspectives: Original Readings. Roxbury Publishing Company, California, 2001.