Nadia Hashimi’s A House Without Windows is the kind of book tailor-made to make feminist Westerners seethe. Hardly a chapter goes by without a new variation on injustice to Afghani women. And yet, Hashimi is a skilled enough writer to keep her message from overwhelming the very interesting mystery that anchors the novel. We get to ponder the abuses of women accused of zina (sex outside of marriage, prohibited by sharia law) for being troublesome while also trying to figure out if Zeba, the protagonist, really did murder her husband with a hatchet.
When the novel opens, circumstantial evidence stacks up against Zeba. We learn within a few pages that her husband is a violent drunk and that she has just seen him do something awful. The next thing anyone (even us readers) know is that Kemal is dead with a hatchet buried in the back of his head. The local policeman has to act quickly to keep the dead man’s brother from killing Zeba in retaliation. He quickly arrest Zeba, writes her “confession,” and has her shipped off to a women’s prison.
Half of the novel stays with Zeba as she adjusts to life in prison, with dozens of women who were accused of some kind of zina. I don’t think we meet a character who’s in prison because she committed a crime that Westerners would recognize. The women soon develop a game of coming up with rhyming couplets to express the absurdity and unfairness of their situations to relieve the tension. It’s not much help because, on top of her anxiety about her children and her looming trial, Zeba’s memories of the day her husband was killed are coming back.
The other half of the novel centers on Yusuf, Zeba’s lawyer. In alternating chapters with Zeba, Yusuf does his best to cobble together a defense for his client. Almost every meeting with the judge in Zeba’s case is an exercise in banging his head against a wall as, between Afghanistan’s sharia law, Zeba’s refusal to talk about the murder, and his status as an American (Yusuf was born in Kabul, but was raised and taught in New York), Yusuf has the deck stacked against him. To his credit, Yusuf does learn a few things about navigating the legal and social environment as the case develops.
A House Without Windows can be a tough read, but I’m glad I read it. I worry that most Americans have put Afghanistan into their mental “done” file and don’t think about the country and its people much anymore. Hashimi’s novels put the spotlight back on a place that is strange, broken, and angry. This book only asks that we look back and learn about day-to-day life among people who’ve lived through near-constant war, terrorism, and a twisted form of Islam. It’s a wonder that there are women as brave as Zeba and the other women in the prison featured here.