Of power, patriarchy, prison: A House without Windows

The protagonist being in a physically acrimonious marriage never enunciates a word. This speaks volumes about the helplessness and powerlessness of women who were unable to restrain and resist the misery thrown their way.

The word patriarchy “infers the rule of the father”. It is usually attributed to explain terms like male hegemony, male intolerance or simple absolute rule of male.

Feminists use the term patriarchy to define the power relations between men and women which is male supremacy over women (Firestone, 18).

Patriarchy is established or composed by amplifying the biological differences between males and females by attributing them to social concepts like masculinity and femininity. Since it embodies the power men hold over women, patriarchy is deeply single-rooted with the concept of power.

A myriad of narratives has been written about the patriarchy and male preeminence in the form of fiction and non-fiction which bring forth the problems faced by women on daily basis. These stories are important as they elucidate the female perspective of all the unheard and long-forgotten stories and also provide value to the miseries of these women they deal with daily.

One major patriarchal set-up in the current world is Afghanistan and Nadia Hashmi in her book ‘A House without Windows’, reflects the injustice that women of Afghanistan undergo in general.

Hashmi portrays how Afghan women are jailbirds in their own lives because of the authority that men hold over them. The novel elaborates on how patriarchy takes over as the power edifice and women are sequestered from this system, how patriarchy becomes a burden and limitation to them while the male bodies keep replacing themselves as the controller of women.

Hashmi employs the technique of using many standpoints of women to show not just a few but all women endure equally where men monopolies the ordinances, dominate women, incarcerate them to certain domains by attaining the leverage of all the vital places that intrinsically comes with patriarchy or just by being a man.

By analyzing power and patriarchy, Hashmi’s book stands in disparity to the theory of power, knowledge and discourse by Michael Foucault.

Foucault is an inspirational and renowned theoretician in many disciplines. He uses the term power/knowledge to signify that power is constructed through the excepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and truth.

But Foucault’s idea of power does not stand true for such patriarchal setups as illustrated by Hashmi in her book, as in such situations power is only practiced by one entity to influence and overwhelm the other in multiple forms. Hence how Foucault’s idea of power fails in such setups shall be discussed in detail.

‘A House without Windows’ is the story of women of Afghanistan who end up in the prison Chill-Mehtab for one reason or the other but the base spur of all is the same—male dominance. It’s the regime and the decree of the men in their lives that propel them into prison.

The book title in literal understanding translates to the prison where all women end up but when viewed in the context of the idea of power, the house symbolizes the women in the novel without any window that is the symbol of power and resilience and are left in the darkroom of their coverings without any kind of entitlement or control over anything, kept away from all forms of power edifice their entire lives.

According to Foucault, power is diffused and dispersed among people not yielded by a single group, but rather persuasive. For him, it’s spread through society.

Power is what makes us who we are but this idea fails to ascertain itself for women under the oppression of men in societies like Afghanistan which is predominantly patriarchal and misogynistic. Women still lack control over their lives while being deprived of even basic rights such as education.

Hashmi highlights how women are underpowered and lack agency and a voice of their own hence becoming easier to be blamed. This marks the beginning of the novel.

“I suppose this bloody mess might be partly my fault.” (Hashmi, 1). This line by the protagonist Zeba explains how easy it is for the agencies to blame the women for any undo happening because they would never be able to fight back. This explains that Zeba faces powerlessness on multiple levels, be it social political or cultural.

Patriarchy gives men reign in both the private and public spheres. Women in Afghanistan suffer from the social system that is made and dominated by men. It’s told from the beginning that is a Zeba even lacked the choice to choose a spouse of her liking who eventually begins to beat her, but she remains non-vocalize about this throughout her life because of the complete dependency she has on her husband for the basic survival.

And when her husband lies dead in front of her in a puddle of blood she assumes herself to be reprimanded only because she is a woman.

And this thought of Zeba soon comes to reality when all men of her neighborhood surround her like hounds and blame her for the death of her husband. Men who ingrained power from the patriarchal setups decide that she is the murderer of her husband. This is not merely an outcome of gender but also of culture.

Culture has mainly been a reason for stripping women of their identity. All the men who surround Zeba fabricate narratives—that it was her who killed her husband—and spell out the verdict for her, leaving her out of any chance to save herself and hence pushing her into jail.

Because they have the power to decide and dictate the truth for Zeba’s life.

In jail, Zeba finally realizes that other women inmates have different reasons for being there but the root cause of them is the same. And that’s repudiating or somehow rampaging against the power figures — the men of the society.

These power figures are somehow offended and the women are detained into the space of a prison, to create a sense of discipline, so that they will not overstep again.

Zeba’s story remains central even in the prison as well as meanwhile small dismal stories of other women like Meghan, Nafiasa, Gulnaz, Latifa and others are told as well, who are coerced by the men of the society in this situation by being subordinated oppressed all their lives.

These women describe how they have been dominated by men in the physical, mental and sexual spheres of life throughout.

Foucault’s idea of power when culminated with culture makes one set of society or particularly one gender the yielder of power and the other gender completely miserable.

He was quite adamant about removing the negative usage of power as it causes the other person into being submissive. But he explained that there’s always scope of resistance when power is asserted. So for him, it includes domination and submission and resistance. But in such a patriarchal setup, resistance is never an option.

Women have a deep-rooted dependency on men—be it their father, husband, brother, or son—as witnessed in the novel. ‘Yes, she’d been too dependent on him, but what else was a husband for? She would not turn to him as much, as she promised herself. She had less and less desire to it anyway.’ (Hashmi,73)

Zeba being in a physically acrimonious marriage with Kamal never enunciate a word. This speaks volumes about the helplessness and powerlessness of women who were unable to restrain and resist the misery thrown their way.

This scenario eventually leaves all these women confined within their selves. It is well established in the novel that Kamal used his patriarchal power to exploit Zeba in so many ways and dominate and humiliate her and restrict her within herself.

Men and others who live around women derive the concrete gains in different forms out of what is called the ‘patriarchal mood of the production’.

Women’s labor is expropriated by their husbands where they are exploited for a tremendous amount of labor for purposes and yet considered dependent on their husbands (Walby, 33).
So there is nothing what Foucault called resistance among these power setups.

This understanding completely decried his idea that power is not owned by anyone and can be exercised by anyone. The ground reality speaks otherwise.

Kate Millett in her Sexual Politics developed the notion that men have institutionalized power over women. She analyzed how females are socialized into accepting patriarchal values and norms subjugated in each form.

Women in power are such a hindmost phenomenon that it makes them extremely happy and mighty illustrated by some very powerful lines. ‘Some wore uniform proudly, excited by the authority they felt putting it on, the knowledge that they were in control and above somebody’ (Hashmi, 43).

This explains how deeply even women have given roots to this male preeminence and patriarchy among themselves that seeing themselves in the position of power is merely a chance for them.

For Foucault, resistance plays an important role in the power dynamics but these women are unable to resist this in any form and when they do try to resist they are coerced into something miserable.

Finally, when the outside world fails to provide any kind of actual voice to these women or any kind of helping hand, they’re seen creating a solace of their own in the actual house without windows — a prison cell.

They derive a sense of power by narrating and hearing each other’s stories, proving to each other how they are innocent of the crimes that they have been accused of.

It seems quite contrary but in the prison, these women change the course of their lives by sharing each other’s stories and providing each other resilience and power.

They weave a sense of sisterhood that gives them what they have been denied of all their lives — the love they had been missing all their lives, peace they yearned for and a sense of power that at least they own and control their lives within this House without Windows.

Works cited
1. Firestone, S. The Dialect of Sex; The Case of Feminists Revolution, New York; Morrow press, 1974.
2. Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality; The will to Knowledge, London, Penguin, 1998.
3. Hashmi, Nadia. A House without Windows, William Morrow Publishers, 2016.
4. Millet, Kate. The Sexual Politics, Doubleday Publishers, 1970.
5. Rainbow, Paul (editor). The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, London, penguin


Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counter-views are welcome at [email protected]

Click to comment
To Top