I picked up this book one day while browsing through a Dublin bookshop on the hunt for something that my 9 year old daughter might like. She reads voraciously and it is hard to keep up with her appetite for new material. A novel blurbed as ‘starvation or survival – a girl’s life under Taliban rule’, it was the story of a young girl in Afghanistan who had to become a ‘boy’ in order to ensure the survival of her family after her father had been imprisoned by the theocratic authorities.

While I reckoned it would be ideal for my daughter I thought it best to browse through a few of its pages before letting her have it. Once started I did not leave it down until I had finished such was its beautiful simplicity. When she got to it she read it just as quickly and then asked for the remaining books in the series.

The Taliban are a crowd of religious thugs who have oppressed Afghan society since first seizing control of Kabul in 1996. Even whey they were displaced as a result of the US invasion they continued to target those who would not succumb to their superstitions. A particular target for their religious wrath has been women. They were compelled to stay indoors and if they needed to go out they were either to be accompanied by a male or have a note from a male giving them permission to be outdoors. When on the street they had to wear a burka. Females had been banned from obtaining schooling, education being a men only area. Religions always seem to privilege men. Perhaps it is all to do with blaming Eve.

Parvana, the novel’s central character, is part of a family that in the past had been both educated and lived outside the poverty trap. But due to homes being continuously wrecked by bombing they were now reduced to living in a tiny flat; and education, for the females at least, was now history.

Age allowed the young Parvana to turn the tables on the Taliban. During the arrest of her father the religious thugs had beaten her mother to a pulp. The family had to be sustained but with no male to go onto the streets the task ahead was formidable. The oldest daughter was too physically mature to disguise herself as a male so the task fell to Parvana. She took to the streets as the breadwinner. At such a tender age her skills were limited but she could read and as a result people would ask her to read letters they had received and were unable to read themselves. She also sold cigarettes from a tray she had strapped to her neck and which perched at her waist, much like used to happen at soccer games or cinemas in Ireland. Survival was the name of the game and survive she did along with her family.

I did not pick the book because I wanted my daughter to have some acquaintance with violent religious zeal. I purchased for her John Steinbeck’s The Pearl at the same time. Having read it when I was about her age I wanted her to share something from my history. Breadwinner was more to broaden her reading horizons. Since then she has merely said she enjoyed the book but has mentioned nothing about its religious dimension. She will in time discover for herself how religious zealots will try to constrain her and dictate to her how she shall live her life. She will be well warned to disregard them and permit them no encroachment. But for now the book is one that has a character she might identify with, an eleven year old girl who pushed back against prejudice and shackles for the better of her family.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. Oxford: OUP. 2004.


  1. Anthony,
    Has it ever occured to you that what you are offered here in the West to read about life in other countries, is very selective and extremely one-sided? I, for instance, do not recognize my own country of origin and our life there (that is, life of the majority of the ordinary people) in any of those books that are published here about it. No, I am not from Afghanistan. And I am an atheist, like yourself. But it happens to me all the time: people who have never been in my country and know nothing about it, except for what has been selected for them by the Western media, keep telling me how "awfully" we have lived. It is very annoying, because nothing is further from the truth (and I lived just a very ordinary and typical life in a very ordinary family). Now I have written a book about our lives- how it really was. But I doubt very much that I wlll find a publisher in this "free" society that would dare to publish such book! In conclusion: people here are living in illusion of freedom of choice and in illusion of knowledge about life in other countries. And most of them get terribly upset if anybody writes or tells anything that challenges what they were taught to believe in (and not necessarily only religion).

  2. We saw this on DVD about 5 years ago:

    I suspect it's a film adaption of the book you're talking about.

    Whether it is or not, if you get a chance to watch it you should do so- "harrowing" is not the word.

  3. I watched a disturbing news report on the BBC the other day about a couple being stoned to death for adultery after being tried by a Taliban court.

    Up to the point of their execution they continued to declare their love for each other.

    It is a sick society that brutally murders people for the crime of being in love.

    The only consolation I could take from it was that it is not so long ago in Ireland that teenage girls were locked up and enslaved by the catholic church for similiar "crimes", but we no longer tolerate such repression.

    Like the Pol Pot regiem in Cambodia, the Taliban seem to be in power as a result of a nation being brutalised and made backward by decades of invasion and warfare.


  4. Glumdalclitch,

    interesting take. A bit like novels on the Irish conflict I guess, and they seem so far from what our own take is. But I don't buy into the notion that it is all a plot by the western media. Women are oppressed by the Taliban; people experienced repression under its regime and have the right to tell their story. 'Nothing is further from the truth' would indicate a non repressive society where any depiction suggesting otherwise is utterly false. I don't buy that.

    It will be a shame if you do not find a publisher for your work which seems to challenge prevailing assumptions. But why would the publisher fear to dare? I am sure if the book is based on your experience and has something worthwhile to say, as it would seem to do, I think you will find a publisher.

    Thoughtful post. Thanks for taking the time to send it.

  5. O'Neill,

    thanks. It is certainly the same theme if not the actual adaptation. Time permitting I will try to look at it

  6. The taliban is a new media name for
    the mujaheden

    the mujaheden treat woman as second
    class or third class

    When the americans and brits give
    weapon's to the sexist mujahaden
    in the fight against the russians
    there was no talk about the drug trade or womans rights on the t.v radio or papers

  7. Graycrow,
    we do still tolerate such repression, you only have to re-read some of the comments on the 'Morning After Blog' to realise that the old misogynist mindsets are atill alive and well in Ireland.
    Religion has very little to do with the stoning of women.
    Misogyny had taken root long before the Holy men declared 'God to be in their image and likeness'
    More women die violently in our white western cultivated 'First World' than fall at the hands of the Taliban.
    Intresting, that a country who once produced scientific proof, that women and negroes had smaller brains than 'White Western men' are now seemingly distrubed about women's rights.

  8. Mackers,
    The first book I ever read or rather because I was a daddy's girl had read to me was the 'Children of Lir'
    We always had Michael Mc Laverty books at home and I remember reading 'Call my Brother Back' when I was quite young (maybe thats where it all went wrong)
    Always loved Jane Austen's books Pride and Prejudice' was always my favourite.
    Reading a very good book at the minute called 'Churchills Secret War' by Madhusree Mukerjee, this book sort of a makes a nonsense of a recent claim on the 'TPQ' that the Brits built up all the countries that they illegally entered.
    Theft, corruption and the dismantling of an entire country and people was the British story in India, very poignant and a very good read.

  9. It galls me to watch yanks and brits try to put China on the backfoot over human rights without even a blink of hesitation. Guantanamo, rendition, death row and ethnic inequalities throughout the states. Contemptible.

    my mrs from manila recons tv is showing plenty of horrendous poverty abroad to condition people here that they're better off.

    Always confuses me why USA/UK are so eager to use billion dollar bombs to shift a few sand dunes and goats about a bit. Why dont they stay at home in their media utopia?

    Send their media to Detroit, New Orleans or the 'hood' in any major USA city. Surely theres plenty to be done there before they bring mcdonalds to bagdad and Kandahar??

  10. Fionnuala,

    I know that misogyny is rampant in the western world. I am aquainted with several choice mysoynists myself, some of whom like to think they are proper bleeding heart liberals.

    But at least since we joined the EU the government in the south was forced to leglislate for equal rights for women.


    I'm convinced the US/UK & Co are in Afghanistan to control the world supply of opium, which is certainly being used to destroy the underclass. Eugenics.


  11. Graycrow,
    I think misogyny is a univeral theme which is woven into the fabric of most societies.
    I seriously doubt if religion has any imapact on how women are treated in any given society.
    True the Holy men have put the proverbial boot in.
    However, the not so Holy men and women(shamefully) are equally capable of applying the boot.
    Years ago I read a brilliant article by Nell mc Cafferty as to why women voted against divorce in Southern Ireland.
    In her words they chose 'the fist so they could give their children the soup.'
    In other word, the neo- liberals and all the do gooders had organised a referendum without putting proper financial provision in for women and children.
    So while the Holy men were preaching against divorce the not so Holy rendered it impossible.

  12. Fionnuala-

    Holy men and Holy woman declared God to be white and male

    " more woman die violently in our
    white western cultivated first world than fall at the hands of the
    taliban "
    A brilliant statement about the truth-

    There are a lot in the media who like to preach about others but will then go up the brit crowns ass
    for 1 of their tit-bit awards

    Males are first in line to the throne of sin even if they have a elder sister-makes them anti-female

  13. michealhenry,
    flattered by that, thank you.
    Nice to see there are men who actually think outside the box even if they are few and far between.

  14. Fionnuala,

    Sinking out of my depth here, but must say that I have always admired Nell McCafferty as an advocate of working class women's issues.

    As a product of an all male, catholic secondary school system, I don't really feel qualifed to discuss these issues.

    Interesting fact, in my constituancy (Wexford) there will be NO women contesting the general election. There is a glass ceiling for women and it is pretty low, that's all I know.


  15. Rory,

    a lot of the same repeated comment came through from you.

  16. 'I won't change the world,but i promise you this.Im gonna spark the mind that does'-Tupac Shakur.

    Don't mean to be off key,but Roll on the Egytian revolution.The military so far seem to be with the people.The last israeli attache to leave said the revolution will spread.As Tunisian rap artist el general said-'Today Mr President i'm speaking on behalf of all the people who are suffering in 2011,there are still people dying of hunger who want to work,come down into the streets,
    people have become like animals...we are living like dogs...Mr president your people are dead they are eating out of garbage cans and have nowhere to sleep....if their was no injustice i wouldnt be hear...

    Bygod,are the americans panicking.
    Too few men in too many places.What
    happened in Venezuela when there was a popular revolution is that the CIA were sent in to shoot one or two protestors to cause divisions,but only served to re-ignite the passion of the people for change.The TVs were closed down.In Cairo,the net and the closure of phone servers,cant stop whats going on for the simple reason is that it has no central command structure.The gospel of revolutionary social change has spread...come on the egyptians...come on the tunisians...

  17. Anthony,

    I'm not sure why that happened, I was uploading a video to youtube at the time and it took hours, I think my internet connection was a bit stressed.


  18. Antoin Mac C,

    ‘The gospel of revolutionary social change has spread...come on the egyptians...come on the tunisians...’

    If the Muslim Brotherhood achieves its aims then it might not be such a good thing:

    “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

  19. Graycrow,
    My son was the product of an all male Catholic grammar and he has a quite mature and well balanced opinion on women's oppression.
    Although, to be honest, he said it remains a mystery how women have endured centuries of oppression as he has never met one that would endure it for five seconds.
    Women remain grossly under-represented in politics, which sadly means women's issues remain grossly under-represented. Politics remains very much the stomping ground of the males, maybe that's why it remains so mucked up?

  20. John McGirr Said...

    If the Muslim Brotherhood achieves its aims then it might not be such a good thing.

    Agreed{it's a miracle says john}.

    John,a cara,nobody had an objective other than the youth in tunisia who set himself on fire in protest at the injustice he received at the hands of the authorities.It seems to be a conflict between the rich and the poor.Nothing more.Nothing less.I would certainly hope that a dictatorship is not replaced with a theocratic mubarak for the muslim brotherhood.

    A revolution is based on three things 1)motive 2)objective 3)result.The Tunisians and the Egyptians were motivated by their material,or lack of,i should say,conditions.It's a simple law of physics,that when matter heats up,it expands,it's an historical law that dictates the demise of all dictators,and the survival of people,nobody can change this,not
    even the americans fundamentalists.
    The motive is poverty.The objective is an end to poverty.The result,for the moment,remains to be seen.....

    Nuala said...

    Women remain grossly under-represented in politics, which sadly means women's issues remain grossly under-represented. Politics remains very much the stomping ground of the males, maybe that's why it remains so mucked up?

    You said it,not me.The breadwinner in my home as a child was my mother,the breadwinner before her was my grand-mother.The
    breadwinner in my daughters life is her mother.As Connolly said,the irish are slaves,and the women are the slave of the slave.The women are the ones who know from head to toe who the masters and slaves are in this country.They've had to live like slaves,while at the same time being ruled by the master of the house.

  21. Antoin
    you've obviously never been through a divorce mate. The laws may still be Victorian but there aint too many shrinking violets in the courtroom.

    Women can do what they like these days. It's not 1912.

    many men in Derry would gladly have worked.

  22. Antoin Mac C,

    "If the Muslim Brotherhood achieves its aims then it might not be such a good thing."

    'Agreed{it's a miracle says john}.'

    Sooner or later we had to agree on something :)

    It seems to be a conflict between the rich and the poor.Nothing more.Nothing less.

    But if you check out this source, (yes, I know it is BBC, no doublt if I look I could find others).

    This seems to show that it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are the main opposition and who are formenting things behind the scenes.

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  25. Ta grain agam ar Thacther fos. =I still hate Thatcher...

  26. Antoin
    not being pugilistic, just recon equality equated with an oportunity for sadly too many women to go 'to war'.

    I'm all for equality, but legally too. I wasnt around to give my great granny torment, i sure aint payin for it either.

  27. Nuala

    It is always nice to have books at home. I read from an early age but discovered that I could get quickly bored by it. That lasted up until the blanket. Even in the cages I read a lot but would find myself going off it for a week or two. Because of the deprivation of the blanket that all changed. I read voraciously after that. Not so much these days because of time constraints. To your Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen I would put Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Loved that – dark and brooding.

    PS – at the Patrick’s Day parade in town their was a Children of Lir float.

    Finishing Eoin O Broin’s on Left Republicanism at the minute.

  28. John,

    'If the Muslim Brotherhood achieves its aims then it might not be such a good thing.'

    No religion getting state power is a good thing