The two main characters of the novel, Laila and Mariam, certainly attempt to rise above their lowly status as women in the Muslim world. Mariam has a positive attitude at the beginning of the story, trusting in her father and hoping that she will one day rise above the bastard status of which her mother always reminds her. Although she sees little choice but to agree to Jalil's arranged marriage for her, Mariam at first believes that Shaheed's strict ways are to her benefit. She soon learns that his abusiveness will continue to grow as her failed pregnancies multiply. She takes a giant leap forward when she agrees to attempt the dangerous escape with Laila, but then resolves herself to a life of sorrow after she is caught. The murder of her husband in order to save the life of Laila is one of the supreme acts of her life, exceeded only by her decision to take the full blame of the crime upon herself. Though she has given up at the end, she knows that her death will allow Laila and the children a new start and a life of freedom.
Laila's life seems to be on a positive road, thanks to the progressive upbringing and education by her father. But after her parents' tragic deaths, Laila is forced to make a crucial decision. She decides to marry Shaheed in order to give her unborn baby a father, rather than bringing him up shunned as Mariam was. She has a plan from the start, but her failed escape keeps her imprisoned within Shaheed's home until Mariam rescues her from strangulation. She grows stronger after marrying Tariq, and her decision to return to war-torn Kabul to help rebuild the orphanage endears her to a new generation of young children who, like her, have been orphaned by the long conflict. She never forgets that Mariam has saved her life more than once, and she plans to honor her next child with Mariam's name if it is a girl.
Both of the women rise above expectations that society would otherwise have for them. Despite her birth as a harami (perhaps the lowest possible class in all Muslim society), Mariam rises above it, dedicating herself to being a good wife and mother, but many misfortunes keep her from fulfilling her dreams. Although Laila's dreams of life with Tariq are sidetracked, she eventually fulfills them through persistence and an inner strength which must have surprised even her.