Mariam and her mother, Nana, a former housekeeper for Mariam’s wealthy father, Jalil, have been banished to a hut near a small Afghan village to avoid humiliating Jalil’s three wives and nine children in Herat. Nana bitterly disparages both Mariam and Jalil, who visits his daughter weekly. Even though the village mullah urges Nana to send the girl to school, she refuses, insisting that the only skill a woman needs is endurance.
To celebrate her fifteenth birthday, Mariam begs Jalil to take her to a cinema in Herat, but both parents strenuously object. When Jalil fails to meet her, Mariam walks alone to the city, only to be told that her father is not at home. On her return she discovers that Nana has killed herself.
Reluctantly, Jalil takes Mariam into his home. The three wives, who wish to get rid of her permanently, inform her that they have found a suitor, Rasheed, a forty-five-year-old shoemaker from Kabul, whom she will marry tomorrow. At the wedding, she is ignored by her father. She mopes in Kabul until Rasheed instructs her to behave like a wife. His only son had drowned, and he wants another son. Waiting at the communal oven, Mariam encounters Fariba, a politically and socially liberal neighbor, whose husband, Hakim, is a teacher.
Conservative Rasheed buys Mariam a burka, a floor-length garment that covers her completely; he orders her to wear the garment in public. He also thoroughly disapproves of Fariba, who merely covers her hair with a scarf. Rasheed takes Mariam to a restaurant, buys her a beautiful shawl, and shares her bed that night, but when she miscarries in the public bathhouse, his attitude changes. After four years of marriage and six more miscarriages, which he regards as personal insults, he believes Mariam is a useless nineteen year old; he frequently beats her.
Meanwhile, Hakim and Fariba have a daughter, Laila. Fariba is full of fire until their two sons go on jihad against the invading Soviets. Then, blaming Hakim for permitting them to leave, she retreats to her bed. After the brothers are killed, Laila becomes a caregiver for her parents, preparing her father’s dinner while he helps her with schoolwork. A calm and patient scholar, Hakim urges her to get an education before marrying.
When the Soviets are finally driven from Afghanistan, unrest returns to Kabul, as local warlords turn against each other. Fariba supports the Mujahideen, the Islamic militia that her sons had joined, but Hakim fears them and wants to leave Kabul. As ethnic violence continues, Laila is forced to drop out of school after a fellow student is blown to bits in the street.
Laila’s closest friend, the neighbor boy Tariq, has an artificial leg because of a Soviet land mine. Tariq and Laila become intimate after Tariq announces that his family is going to a refugee camp in Pakistan. Although he begs Laila to come with them, she cannot leave her father, who seems lost without Fariba’s support. Hakim and Fariba are killed when their home is shelled, and Rasheed finds Laila injured in the rubble. Mariam reluctantly tends her as she recovers. Later, Laila is informed that Tariq has died in a Pakistani hospital. Observing her husband with Laila, Mariam realizes that Rasheed, now sixty years old, is courting the fourteen-year-old girl. Mariam attempts to dissuade him, but she is at his mercy, as is Laila, who accepts his marriage offer because she is pregnant with Tariq’s baby. She hopes to deceive Rasheed.
Rasheed keeps his new bride at home, and Mariam serves them both. The two women resent each other until Laila’s baby girl, Aziza, brings them together. In time, Mariam becomes another mother to Laila and a grandmother to the child. Laila begs her to escape with them to Pakistan. They prepare to flee but cannot travel without a male relative. A young husband offers to help but betrays them, keeping their money. They are questioned by police and returned to Rasheed, who hurls Aziza across the room and imprisons the women for three days.
The fundamentalist Taliban seizes Kabul, leading Rasheed to view them as liberators. They distribute strict rules: All men must have beards; no school for girls; no jobs for women, who must stay in their homes unless with a male relative. The university is closed, books other than the Qur՚n are burned, and musicians are imprisoned. Rasheed threatens to send Aziza away or to lie about Laila’s behavior to the authorities. Then Laila discovers she is pregnant with Rasheed’s child.
In labor, Laila goes to the former women’s hospital and is turned away because the hospital now accepts male patients only. She is sent to a small hospital without medicine, clean water, or electricity. She requires a caesarean section and must suffer through the surgery without anesthetics. Her female doctor, who is required to perform her duties while wearing a burka, is unable to properly see through the garment, so a nurse guards the door to warn of any approaching Taliban. Laila gives birth to a boy, Zalmai.
Two-year-old Zalmai loves both parents but favors Rasheed, who is gentle with him while holding his wives in contempt. Although in debt, Rasheed brings home a television for his son, but decides that daughter Aziza, who is six years old, will beg on the streets. Laila objects, and Rasheed slaps her. They struggle, then he shoves a gun barrel in her mouth. Mariam ends up digging a hole to hide the forbidden television.
Rasheed’s shop burns, and he must sell nearly everything. He steals food, but the family begins to starve. Finally, Aziza is sent to an orphanage so she will get some food. The director seems kind and comforts Laila, who is weeping, but Aziza panics when her mother leaves. Laila is permitted to visit her daughter but cannot travel without Rasheed, who often deliberately stops and turns back, forcing her to do the same. Without him, she risks a beating from the Taliban, but she quickly learns to use padding to cushion the potential blows.
Tariq suddenly appears at Laila’s home; the story of his death was false. Son Zalmai, although still an innocent, throws a tantrum, luring his mother away from Tariq. Furious, Rasheed beats her with his belt, but she retaliates. He begins to choke her. Mariam, realizing he will murder both of them if he can, hits him with a shovel. Laila revives from the beating, horrified, but Mariam is very calm. Together they dispose of Rasheed’s body, and Laila tells Zalmai his father has gone away. While Laila, Aziza, and Zalmai disappear, Mariam refuses to escape; she will accept the blame. She is sent to a women’s prison and publicly executed for murdering her husband.
Arriving with the children in Pakistan, Laila and Tariq marry. Once the Taliban are driven from Afghanistan, the family returns to contribute to the rebuilding. Kabul has changed—a seeming normalcy—although the local warlords responsible for so many deaths have also returned. Laila teaches at the orphanage where Aziza once lived, and she is once again pregnant.