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Zulaikha is a thirteen-year-old Afghan girl, whose face is disfigured by a cleft lip. She is a victim of derision and cruel treatment in a male-dominated society because of her deformity. Zulaikha is called "donkey face" by many, and this just illustrates how challenging her life is because she is different from others. So, if we focus on her appearance, different is the key word which describes Zulaikha because of her deformity, which makes her undesirable and unappealing to others. Even her stepmother says that she will never get married because of her cleft lip.
However, Zulaikha is also brave, hopeful and optimistic because she does not allow herself to focus on her misfortune; instead, she thinks about what the future holds and focuses on the good things, such as education. When she meets her mother's friend and a former literature professor, Meena, Zulaikha wants to be tutored by her because Zulaikha's mother was killed by the Taliban members before she could teach her daughters. So, now, we can see that Zulaikha is indeed different, because she is willing to fight to be educated, which makes her really unconventional. Only men are supposed to get a good education; women's roles would mostly pertain to household duties. Zulaikha's desire to choose a different path in life makes her freethinking, ambitious and unique.
Her commitment to help her often inconsiderate stepmother with the household chores makes her hard-working, considerate and modest, which is why some readers feel like Zulaikha is the modern-day Cinderella.
When Zulaikha learns that American soldiers, together with a medical officer named Captain Mindy, promised they would help her fix her deformity, her persistence to get through life, her patience and her unbridled enthusiasm finally seem to have paid off. When she finally becomes as normal as any other girl, she realizes that her appearance does not really matter as much as she thought it would. People do look at her differently, but she contends with the same issues and fears like before.
Zulaikha is truly a champion in a war-torn society, dominated by males and orthodox values imposed on all women because she manages to choose a path less traveled by women--she desires to fight for education. She does not want to end up in an unhappy marriage with an older man who can pass as her father, just like her sister does. But, her individualism does not make her forget the traditional values she has stood by. Towards the end, we see that Zulaikha cares about her family too--she is a caring daughter and sister--because she decides that she does not want to pursue her education outside the town her family lives in. She wants to stay in it and attend the new school for girls which her father helped build. And her father is definitely content:
You’re a good girl, Zulaikha. More like your mother than you will ever know. And I would be honored for you to go to the school your baba built.
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