Study Guide

Mother in The Breadwinner

By Deborah Ellis


Mother is one resilient woman. Thanks to the Taliban, she's lost a son, her career, her house, and even—for a while—her husband, but every time she gets knocked down, she pulls herself back up. Suffice it to say, nobody breaks Mother's stride.

Mother lost her firstborn son to a land mine when he was fourteen, a loss we know wracked her to her core since she's held onto his clothes, keeping them in a cupboard in the family's tiny apartment; she looks sad when she touches them. But despite this loss, Mother remains fully committed to her other children, engaged with their lives and taking good care of them day in and day out.

Our Mother Too

And while it's great that Mother is there for her kids—adding a deadbeat mom into the whole war-ravaged-childhood thing would be pretty rough—the bigger role she plays in the book is to show readers just how badly women suffer under Taliban rule. Because while Parvana can disguise herself as a boy and roam freely through the streets, Mother's become a prisoner in her own home.

Mother—like Father—received a university education, so we know she is bright and skilled. But she's been stuck in the house since the Taliban forbade women from walking freely outside alone and forced her to quit her job; so when our story opens, she hasn't been outside in eighteen months. And remember—she's lost the home she and Father worked so hard to provide for their family, so the place she's been stuck inside is one cramped little room that doesn't even have running water. Yikes.

Mother is surprisingly patient and optimistic for someone whose life has been so dramatically altered, and she believes that the Afghan people, who are "smart and strong" (4.6), will win the war against the Taliban, and then life will be normal again. Despite being pretty much smothered by oppression, she continues to believe that there are good people out there—in the world she is forbidden from joining—who will make things right again in Afghanistan.

That Mother still believes that the good guys will win doesn't just show us that she maintains a positive outlook amid horrible conditions—it also shows us that she is fundamentally good in her own right. Instead of reacting to her horrible treatment with hatred, Mother keeps her eyes on the prize—a brighter future—and her ability to do so lets us know that the faith she has in humanity comes from a strong connection to her own goodness. After all, it's hard to believe that the good guys will win if you are tempted by the dark side yourself.

Nobody Messes with her Man

And while Mother isn't one to needlessly take risks, she also isn't one to sit idly by and do nothing while her family is ripped apart. So when Father is kidnapped, Mother has Nooria forge a note from him granting her permission to leave the house, and then makes Parvana escort her to the prison where she confronts the Taliban and screams:

"Release my husband!" (3.54)

When they refuse, she keeps demanding they free Father, even as they beat her with sticks across her back. Though she ultimately goes home without him, it isn't for lack of trying, and if nothing else, she has at least shown her children that there is one thing that Taliban cannot take from any of them: loyalty and love for each other.

Rebel with a Cause

Mother's only human, of course, and after she fails to free Father from prison, she falls into a depression. Luckily, though, Parvana brings her gal pal Mrs. Weera by the apartment, and Mrs. Weera snaps her out of it. Together, these two start making all kinds of big plans. They turn Parvana into Kaseem (check out Parvana's analysis elsewhere in this section for more on this) in order to bring food and money to the family; they start a small school in their apartment, and they begin writing a magazine so the world can hear about life under Taliban rule.

And while these are all worthy causes, they also have something else in common: they're all major no-nos as far as the Taliban is concerned. But that doesn't deter Mother. The Taliban can keep her stuck inside her house, but she is willing to risk life and limb (literally) to make sure her family is fed, and to work against their oppressive regime using the skills she has by starting the school and writing. In other words, nobody puts Mother in a corner.

As the book ends, we don't know what fate Mother has met traveling with Nooria and the little kids to Pakistan, though we know the Taliban has taken control of the area they were traveling to. One thing is certain, though: no matter what's happened while she's been away, we can be sure that Mother has done her best to protect her family, and been willing to fight to keep them together.