Narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, The Breadwinner opens with a scene in Kabul Market, Afghanistan. Eleven-year-old Parvana, the novel’s protagonist, whispers into her chador headscarf that covers most of her face that she can read as well as her father, who is reading a letter for an illiterate man. She doesn’t say the words loud enough for her father’s customer to hear her because she is not supposed to be outside.
The Taliban—a fundamentalist Muslim movement whose militia took control of much of Afghanistan from early 1995, and in 1996 took Kabul, the capital, and set up a radical Islamic state—has ordered all girls and women to stay home. This means that Parvana and her older sister Nooria cannot attend school, and their mother must stop her work as a radio journalist. For the past year, Parvana and her siblings have been stuck inside one room. Parvana only goes out to help her father walk to the market, since he lost the lower part of his leg when the school he taught at was bombed. Parvana sits in silence at the back of his blanket in the marketplace and tries to make herself look small, hoping the Taliban won’t notice her and question her father about why she is outside.
The narrator comments that most people in Afghanistan cannot read or write. Parvana can because her parents are university-educated and believed in education for everyone, even girls. Her father had been to university in England, and so knows English. Parvana knows Dari and some Pashto. Parvana sees boys run around the market selling tea and whispers that she could do that. But she would rather be in school. However, when the Taliban first took over the country and closed the schools, Parvana had been happy because it meant an arithmetic test had been canceled.
The narrator digresses to explain that Parvana’s family came from respected families and once had high salaries, but their house was bombed, forcing them to move. With each bombing they grew poorer and lived in increasingly cramped places. Kabul had once been beautiful, but whole sections had been reduced to dust and rubble. There had been war for more than twenty years in the country. First, the Soviets invaded and retreated, but the other forces in the conflict continued fighting, and Parvana grew up with a near-constant threat of falling bombs. With Kabul under Taliban control, now most of the fighting takes place in the north of the country.
Parvana and her father pack up the family's belongings that they were trying to sell. They walk back. Parvana’s father once had a false leg but someone offered to buy it, and he needed the money. There are many false legs for sale in the market, many of which men take from their wives who are confined to the home anyway. Parvana sees women in burqas and asks how they see where they’re going. Her father says they fall down a lot. They enter their building, cautious as they walked up the zigzagging steps, which rocket attacks have blown dangerous gaps into.
Nooria and Parvana’s mother are cleaning, which Parvana resents because it uses up the water. Her father stretches out on a toshak (thin mattress) to rest. Nooria argues with Parvana until she agrees to haul water. Nooria flips her hair, which is long and beautiful, and which Parvana envies. As she makes several trips down the block to the local community tap, Parvana resents how she is the only family member capable of collecting water to fill the family’s tank, as her mother and older sister must wear burqas in public. At home, Parvana removes her chador and looks at the sparsely furnished room and laments all the furniture their family no longer has after their homes were either bombed or looted. She longs to make friends with someone her age, but since the Taliban encourages neighbors to spy on each other, the family keeps to themselves.
While cleaning and looking for things to sell, Parvana’s mother puts a parcel of Parvana’s dead brother Hossain’s clothes on the top shelf. He was killed by a landmine when he was fourteen. Her parents never talk about him. The family eats dinner Afghan-style, sitting around a plastic cloth spread on the floor. Parvana reflects on her father’s beard, and how she’d had to get used to it after the Taliban ordered men to grow beards. Her father talks about the history of how whenever nations have tried to take over the country, the Afghans have kicked them out. He speaks of Malali, a young girl who, when the Afghans were fighting the British in 1880, took off her veil, waved it like a flag, and roused the Afghan troops to defeat the British. He says they have inherited her courage and that Afghanistan has always been home to the bravest women. Nooria asked how they can be brave when not allowed to leave the home; her father says there are many types of battles.
Four Taliban soldiers burst through the door. Nooria makes herself small, as soldiers sometimes take young women away. The soldiers look especially intimidating with their high turbans. They search the apartment and grab Parvana’s father, yelling that Afghanistan doesn’t need his foreign ideas. They beat him and Parvana’s mother. As two soldiers drag her father away, Parvana worries that the other two, who are tearing open their mattresses and going through cupboards, will find her father’s hidden compartment full of English books. She throws herself at them and they beat her with sticks until they go away. Thinking it’s a solider, Parvana flinches when her sister Maryam comes over and strokes her hair. The family trembles as the chapter ends.
Chapter three opens with the family calmly cleaning up their single-room home. They spread blankets on the floor and go to sleep. Parvana can’t sleep. She misses her father’s snoring. She wonders what his experience inside the prison is like. One of her aunts had been arrested as a schoolgirl for protesting the Soviet occupation, as all Afghan governments jail their enemies. Parvana’s mother sometimes says you can’t be truly Afghan if you don’t know someone who’s been to prison. The one window in the room is high on the wall. Though the Taliban ordered all windows be painted black so women can’t be seen, their window was high enough that they got away without obscuring it. Parvana watches the light change through the night.
In the morning, over breakfast, Parvana and her mother realize they would have to walk to the prison to get Parvana’s father free. Pretending to be their father, Nooria writes a note giving Parvana’s mother permission to be outside without him. They wonder if it will protect them from the Taliban, as many of the Taliban can’t even read. Parvana helps her mother down the stairs, which are difficult to descend in her burqa. Her mother shows people a picture of her husband. Though photos are illegal, and anyone could report them for having it, the people simply shake their heads. At the prison, she holds the photo to the guards and demands her husband’s release. Parvana joins in demanding they free her father. A solider rips the photo in pieces. Others begin beating Parvana and her mother with sticks. Parvana gathers the torn photo fragments under her chador. They agree to leave as the soldiers spit at them to leave. They hobble away slowly from the prison.
The opening chapters of The Breadwinner establish the novel’s setting, characters and—most significantly—political context. Simultaneously, the first pages also establish the novel’s major themes: the oppression of women, the importance of family and education, cooperation, courage, trauma, and resilience.
Since the Taliban’s takeover of the capital city Kabul and much of the rest of Afghanistan, Parvana’s life has changed dramatically. Before, her greatest concerns had to do with getting along with her family and not getting into trouble at school. In an instance of dramatic irony, Parvana welcomed the closure of her school. She didn’t anticipate that it was the first of many restrictions she would come to resent, as she now lives under a fundamentalist regime whose interpretation of Islam leads to severe restrictions on the Afghan people, particularly on the freedoms of women and girls. While Parvana’s mother Fatana once worked as a journalist, and she and her older sister Nooria went to school, they are now confined to the home, only allowed in public if accompanied by a male.
Preferring to get out of the cramped one-room apartment, which is occupied by her mother, Nooria, and two younger siblings Maryam and Ali, Parvana accompanies her father to watch him work at the market. She must conceal her face behind a chador cloth, a requirement for any girls appearing in public. She tries to appear small and inconspicuous behind her father, who is prepared to explain that she is out of the house because he needs her assistance walking. Parvana is irritated to know that she could read letters just as well as her father—a thought that foreshadows how she will eventually take over his job.
While life for Parvana’s family has been difficult since the Taliban took control of their lives, they are able, within the privacy of their modest home, to comfort one another. This intimacy is violently interrupted when the Taliban bursts in the door, creating the inciting incident that sets the novel’s plot in motion. The terrifying violence of Father’s sudden arrest by the Taliban traumatizes Parvana and her family. Parvana’s body remains on high alert, as evidenced in the way she flinches when her sister Maryam gently strokes her hair.
Left with no information about her husband, Parvana’s mother walks to the prison to demand her husband’s release. The scene reveals a glimpse of Mother’s resilient spirit and courage; however, the prison guards, unable to comprehend a woman demanding something of them, react with more violence and oppression, beating Mother and Parvana until the women give up and retreat.