The morning of the planned runaway, Laila is sure that Rasheed must be aware of the plan. However, he leaves for work just as he does every other day, without mentioning anything to Mariam or Laila. The women pack up Aziza and take a taxi to the bus station. On the way, Laila noticd the destruction that had affected Kabul during recent fighting.
Once they arrive at the station, Laila plans to find a man to help her buy her bus tickets and act as her relative. Ever since the Mujahideen takeover two years earlier, women were forbidden to travel without a male relative, as per Shari’a, strict Islamic law. These laws also required women to cover themselves, and punished adultery with death. Laila and Mariam also looked ahead to their plan’s second most risky element, crossing into Pakistan, a nation so filled with Afghan refugees that it had to begin turning people away.
Laila and Mariam choose a manto pose as a relative. He agrees to help them buy their tickets, after Laila explains that she was a widow with her mother and daughter. The man buys their tickets, and tells Laila that he would say they were his cousins if any guards questioned them.
Laila thanks Mariam for her participation in the escape, and she confesses that she can’t do it without her. Laila becomes hopeful and strong. The family gets in line to board the bus with their posed male relative. However, after he enters the bus himself, the man whispers something to the militiamen guarding the bus. Laila, Mariam, and Aziza are told to step aside. The three of them are taken to the police station, despite Laila’s protests.
Laila is questioned by an officer, who ultimately determins that her story about visiting her uncle in Pakistan is false. The officer reveals that the escape that Laila attempts is not uncommon among Afghan women. Laila pleads with the officer not to send them back to a house in which they would be endangered, but the officer refuses to interfere with “private family matters.”
The police officers drops Laila, Mariam, and Aziza off at Rasheed’s house. Rasheed is enraged, and Laila attempts to explain to Rasheed that Mariam is innocent. After punching Laila, Rasheed draggs her with Aziza into a bedroom and locks the door. Rasheed then proceeds to beat Mariam, and locks her in a toolshed. Rasheed then nails boards across the window of the room in which he has thrown Laila and Aziza, leaving them in complete darkness.
Locked in the room, Aziza cries for milk, but Rasheed does not give them any food or water. Aziza quickly becomes dehydrated. Laila dreams that they found Tariq, but that he could not hear her. After three days, Rasheed opens the door of the room. He threatened that if she attempt such an act again, he would kill Mariam first, then Aziza, and then would kill Laila after making her watch the murders of the other two.
The novel now jumps ahead two and a half years, to September 27, 1996, the day of the Taliban’s arrival to Afghanistan. The Taliban are a group of young Pashtuns, many of which grew up as refugees. They follow Mullah Omar, a man of which the characters in the book know very little. Rasheed looks to the Taliban for hope to “clean up this place”.
Since Laila and Mariam’s attempted escape, Rasheed has begun to conceive of the two of them as one being that he detests. He rarely directs his speech towards the women. Rasheed, Laila, Mariam, and Aziza go out to greet the Taliban. Many Afghans they passed seemed hopeful as well. Along their trip, the family learns that Massoud has withdrawn from Kabul. The people of Kabul celebrate the Taliban’s arrival.
The main spectacle of the Taliban’s entrance is a scene in which a Talib stands with a megaphone next to two dead Soviet sympathizers hanging from traffic posts. The Talib proclaims that the men were infidels and their punishment reflects what will come to those who commit crimes against Islam. Rasheed seems pleased by this announcement.
The next day, the people of Kabul receive a message that lists the laws enacted by the Taliban. These new statutes require strict adherence to Islamic law. For the men, this includes growing beards and wearing turbans. Women are forbidden from leaving the house unaccompanied, showing their faces, or speaking without being spoken to first. The punishment for women who laugh in public or neglect to wear a burqa is a beating by the Taliban. All schools for girls are immediately shut down, and women are forbidden from working.
Laila is in disbelief about the forced house arrest of women that the Taliban enforced, yet Rasheed assures her that the rest of Afghanistan had been following these practices already. Laila is thankful that her father could not see what the Taliban had done to their country. Universities and museums are ravaged, and artifacts and books are destroyed. Talibs patrol the streets, beating people for violations of the strict laws. Cinemas are ransacked and the graves of entertainers are terrorized. Mariam wonders what happened to her father and his cinema.
Rasheed is tolerant of the Taliban takeover, and even seemed satisfied by some of their twisted law enforcement practices. He reveals that he notices that Aziza’s eye color does not match his or Laila’s. He also threatens Laila, telling her that he can go to the Taliban if he chooses to explain that he suspects he is not Aziza’s father. Laila calls Rasheed despicable, and Rasheed assures her that he is the only thing keeping Laila and her daughter off the streets. Laila knows that he is right.
Laila soon realizes that she is pregnant again. She prepares to abort her unborn child, using a bicycle spoke. She does not think she will have the capability to love Rasheed’s child as she does Tariq’s. However, while sitting on the bathroom floor, she could not go through with the abortion. She realizes that her battle with Rasheed does not involve the baby, and that killing the baby would be another murder of an innocent, when so much killing has been going on around her.
On the day that Laila goes into labor with her second child, she and her family are forced to travel around Kabul due to the Taliban’s shifting of the hospital system: separating men and women into separate hospitals. The family is directed to Rabia Balkhi hospital, which they learn does not have clean water, medications, or even electricity.
When they arrive at the hospital, the waiting room is packed by women and their families. Mariam makes an effort to assure Laila that she will be seen by a doctor, fighting through the crowd in the waiting room. In the process, Mariam begins to realize the sacrifices made by a mother, and she reflects on her betrayal of Nana. Mariam learns that there are only two doctors working at the hospital, and a nurse instructs her to take a walk with Laila and to wait.
When Laila is finally seen by a doctor, the delivery room is completely open, so that all of the women delivering can see one another. The doctor wears a long burqa, and she tells Laila that she needs an immediate caesarian section. However, the doctor whispers to Mariam that there is no anesthesia available for the procedure. Despite Mariam’s protests, the doctor insists that the hospital has very little medical equipment in general. Mariam attempts to get the name of th anesthesia so that she could go get it for Laila, but Laila just asks the doctor to “cut me open and give me my baby.” The doctor goes ahead with the procedure and Mariam is amazed by how long Laila is able to go without screaming.
In the Fall of 1998, a drought falls over Afghanistan. Mariam has the idea to dig a hole in the backyard to find a spring. Mariam is now forty, and she is showing signs of her age. Zalmai, Laila’s son, is now two years old. He is a sweet child when alone with Laila, but when with Rasheed, Zalmai became more brash, which Rasheed condones.
Rasheed began to spend excessive amounts of money on Zalmai, not reusing any of Aziza’s old toys or diapers. Rasheed informs the family that despite slow business, he is able to borrow the money for Zalmai’s things from his friends. He insists that their financial situation will turn around soon. Rasheed is often annoyed if Laila speaks to the two of them when they are together, and he is hurt if Zalmai reaches for Laila when he is present.
The culminating purchase of Rasheed’s spending spree for Zalmai is a television and a VCR. These were illegal according to the Taliban, but Rasheed is able to buy them in an underground market. Rasheed proclaims the TV to be Zalmai’s alone.
In the meantime, Aziza had grown up to be a very mature and thoughtful child, despite her young age. She had taken on great responsibility in helping to take care of Zalmai. Rasheed decides that he wants Aziza to beg on the streets, to help cover the money that he had borrowed for Zalmai’s things. Laila protests against this decision and Rasheed slaps her in response. Laila punches Rasheed in retaliation. Rasheed leaves the room, and he returns to put the barrel of his gun in Laila’s mouth. But he does not shoot.
Mariam and Laila bury “Zalmai’s TV” in the backyard. While they dig, Laila daydreams that she and Mariam are not burying the TV, but rather, they are burying Aziza. In the dream, Aziza is begging for the women to let her out of the hole, to stop covering her with dirt. Laila keeps reassuring Aziza that this is only a temporary situation, and then she and Mariam will dig her out of the hole.
When the day comes for Laila and Mariam’s escape with Aziza, the tone is hopeful, anticipatory. Once Laila finds a man to buy her the tickets, she reflects on how far she has come and takes pride in her strength. Yet, as we have seen repeatedly in the novel, this hope is quickly followed by a surge of despair, as Laila and Mariam are arrested, and soon suffer brutal consequences at the hands of Rasheed.
Ironically, the people of Afghanistan welcome the Taliban as a force that will change Afghanistan’s chaotic and impoverished state. However, the Afghan people do not seem to truly understand what the reign of the Taliban really will mean to their day to day lives. Once their strict laws are announced to the people, it seems as if the idyllic hope of the Afghan people once again dies. However, Rasheed’s affinity for the Taliban further allows readers to see insight into his sexist attitudes, and how he can use the Taliban reign to gain even more power within his household.
Laila’s inner turmoil about whether or not to abort her unborn child provides insight into the multiple layers of her character, and how her character has changed since she has become hardened by Rasheed. Prior to Rasheed’s harsh treatment of her, Laila could not have conceived of abortion for she was immensely protective of life and her own maternal ambitions. However, she has become so hateful and angry over the severe abuse from Rasheed that she battles herself over whether or not she could ever properly raise a child fathered by him. Ultimately, the mothering, caring side of Laila overwhelms the hateful side, and the baby is saved.
Laila’s delivery of Zalmai adds two levels of insight to the novel. First of all, the struggle that the family endures just to see a doctor shows how far the Taliban have gone to subjugate women. The Taliban have denied women even the most basic right, that of healthcare. The only women’s hospital in the city is in poor conditions, and is insufficiently equipped. Additionally, the scene depicts the sacrifices made by a mother. By allowing the operation to go forward without anesthesia, Laila subjects herself to excruciating pain and severe risk. Yet, she puts her child before herself, and does her best to tolerate the pain at hand.
Laila’s vision of Aziza down a hole in place of Zalmai’s television symbolizes how Aziza is suffering the consequences for Rasheed’s excessive spending on his son. For example, due to the family’s poor financial state, Rasheed is willing to put forth Aziza as a beggar. Additionally, this vision of Laila reassuring Aziza that it is a temporary arrangement and Aziza begging her not to go through with it foreshadows how Aziza will be left in an orphanage later in the novel. Laila is rendered helpless in the situation, except to do her best to reassure Aziza.