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Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

Chapter One


In The Resisting Reader, Judith Fetterley asserts that ‘American literature is male’ (2003:xii). Persian literature is also ‘male’. Women are so absent from classical Persian literature that Reza Baraheni calls it tārikh-i mozakar or a ‘masculine history of literature’ (1983:3). Literature was regarded as a male prerogative and its themes and the structural elements of its discourse, including the language, were also male-oriented. This was especially true for prose narrative and it remained so until as late as the early 20th century.

As Baraheni argues, women are not only absent from this literature as creators, but also as a real presence; an entire sense of femininity is lacking. ‘All [classical] Persian literature speaks about women in the abstract and almost with a feeling of their absence,’ observes Baraheni, ‘just as one speaks about someone who is not in the room’ (Baraheni 1977:76). While there were a few female poets during this long period,1 there was a total absence of women from narrative prose.2

Therefore, the emergence of female fiction writers in mid-20th century Afghanistani literature is not only an important cultural development; it is a historic achievement that marks the end of a thousand-year tradition of exclusion (Bezhan 2007:8).

In Afghanistan in the 1960s, less than 2% of women were literate and from this tiny group a generation of writers emerged. Were they exceptional? Were they from privileged upper-class families? Many of them, like Maryam Mahboob, were neither conspicuously exceptional nor born into privilege. Rather, they came mainly from ordinary urban families. Some of these authors became so prominent that they not only competed with male authors, they eclipsed them in terms of artistic merit. Such was the case with Spozhmai Zaryab and Maryam Mahboob.

What developments allowed women to gain this foothold in narrative writing and create a discourse that was female-centred in its subject matter, structure and language? What socio-historical conditions made it possible for these women to write, and what oppressive or liberating structures contributed to shaping their responses?

Taliban efforts to sever women from the rights and achievements they had gained during the course of the 20th century caused outrage both locally and internationally, but Afghanistani women first spoke out against such policies themselves. However, the subsequent support of the international community, especially feminist organisations, was critical in influencing their respective governments, including the USA government, to back away from early motions to officially recognise the Taliban regime.3 Afghanistani women defied the Taliban and their ‘gender apartheid’ polices through a number of forms, and writing was one of the most significant of these.

Of course, it goes without saying that the work of women writers is not restricted to exploring issues and experiences specific to women; however, some women do choose to write out of their own experience, and this work often provides the reader with detailed depictions of women’s lives, ideas, emotions and preoccupations, and insight into the writer’s understanding of what it means to be a woman in the social context in which they live or have lived. They convey their needs and link these needs with the needs of their society, both at communal and individual levels. In this way, women’s writing can provide great insight into the continual negotiation of the relationships between the public and private, and the personal and political. These works can be viewed as ‘social’ documents, not only in the sense that they ‘reflect’ society, but also in the sense that the language, subject matter and symbolism they use are social. As Herbert P Philips might argue, these writers are ‘socially situated to talk about things that in their culture are judged to be “important”’ (Philips 1987:4),4 but which might otherwise be hidden.

In Afghanistan, women function mainly within the private sphere. For women writers and their female characters, political struggle is mainly defined within the arena of the domestic, which is defined by structures of gender and sexuality, ethnicity and class.

As we will see later, Mahboob connects this domestic world to the outside world to show how power structures in the private realm mirror those in the public and reflect the contemporary social and political situation. Mahboob’s works of fiction are powerful allegories of gender oppression, speaking not just of the fictional fate of one woman but of Afghanistani women as a whole.

However, depictions of the domestic life of women by Afghanistani writers are radical acts even when they do not draw explicit comparisons between the private and the public. Such subject matter challenges what Judith Herman calls the ‘tyranny of private life’ historically suffered by women:

The cherished value of privacy created a powerful barrier to consciousness and rendered women’s reality practically invisible. To speak about experiences in sexual or domestic life was to invite public humiliation, ridicule, and disbelief. Women were silenced by fear and shame, and the silence of women gave license to every form of sexual and domestic exploitation. (Herman 1992:28)

Women’s domestic-based writing represents a different view, one that is usually not seen: that of ordinary and marginalised groups. Stuart Scheingold suggests that such acts of ‘literary imagination [are] a counterpart, a complement, perhaps a corrective’ to fields of scholarly inquiry such as history and social science.

Novels of political estrangement shift attention from political actors and institutions to the general public—ordinary people whose agency has been appropriated by autocratic regimes, by bureaucratic institutions and by professionals with the expertise to colonize consciousness. (Scheingold 2010:2)

Some of these works that explore the dilemmas and obstacles of women’s everyday lives also portray female characters who struggle for their rights and eventually change their circumstances accordingly. These characters may serve as ‘role models’ for women readers who recognise the reality of their own lives and also the means for change. ‘Writing is precisely the very possibility of change’, Hélène Cixous believes, as it is ‘the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures’ (1976:879, emphasis in original).

Literature does not only depict the world as it is, as Griselda Pollock argues, it can be a force of resistance that reconstitutes meaning:

Images and texts are no mirrors of the world, merely reflecting their sources. Representation stresses something refashioned, coded in rhetorical, textual or pictorial terms, quite distinct from its social existence. (Pollock 2003:8–9)

And to be truly resistant, claims Cixous, women’s literature should explode identity, rather than merely reflect it:

If woman has always functioned ‘within’ the discourse of man … it is time for her to dislocate this ‘within,’ to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it into her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of. (Cixous 1976:887)

A writer’s aesthetics sense can be part of the act of reconstituting meaning and identity. As Barbara Herrnstein Smith observes, ‘aesthetic experience is inseparable from memory, context and meaning, and hence from who we are, where we are and all that has already happened to us’ (as summarised in Felski 2003:142).

Why did Afghanistani women gravitate towards literature as a medium of resistance, as a means for expressing women’s suffering and exploring the ways that they can seek change? It may be that ‘fiction can do the job that history, geography, economics, sociology, etc, are supposed to’, as Deepika Behri believes (quoted in Amirah 2000:240). I would respond to this question with two more points. Firstly, literature has traditionally been ‘a domain as well as an instrument of cultural and political contention’ in Afghanistan (Ghani 1988:428). And secondly, in the absence of other means, such as the opportunity to participate actively in political organisations, literature serves as an accessible tool for resistance.

Islam and women’s literature

Perhaps surprisingly to some, one of the main features of fiction written by Afghanistani women is its lack of reference to religion. Islam as a subject is virtually absent in most of these works. This is the case in the fiction of earlier writers such as Maga Rahmani (b. 1924), and in the work of women of Mahboob’s generation like Spozhmai Zaryab (b. 1950). Even in works written in the 1980s that positioned themselves as against the leftist regime, and in works by the new generation of writers such as Homaira Qaderi (b. 1979), there is little reference to Islam.

It is almost as if Islam did not contribute to the lives of these women and to their position in society. Rather, it is the traditions and customs and the general backwardness of Afghanistan that seem at the root of their suffering. Equally, it could be that Islam is so sacred a subject that women writers scarcely dare touch it.

Islam should be seen through the socio-economic and political contexts within which it exists. In order to understand the effects of religion, argues Marina Lazreg, one must ‘address the ways in which religious symbols are manipulated by both men and women in everyday life as well as in institutional settings’ (1988:95). Hence, gender relations can only be analysed in terms of religion when the latter is conceptualised within the relevant socio-economic and political context.

Characterising Afghanistani women only by their religious beliefs is problematic, because there are fundamental differences between and within Muslim societies. Aziz Al-Azmeh asserts that ‘there are as many Islams as there are situations that support it’ (quoted in Karim 2003:7).5 Like all other religions, ‘Islam has had a contingent nature, influencing and being influenced by the different cultures and societies that it has come to dominate’ (Rahnema 2006:31. In Afghanistan, knowledge of Islam was limited to a few rituals and folktales for the majority of people in rural areas, and even for people in most urban areas. Many supposedly Islamic beliefs and practices in fact relate to local pre-Islamic customs. According to Dupree, ‘the Islam practised in Afghan villages, nomad camps and most urban areas would be almost unrecognizable to a sophisticated Muslim scholar’ (1973:104).

In fact there are few or no boundaries between existing customs and religion. Therefore saints and shrines, magic and shamanism, and tribal codes of honour were given an Islamic colouring. Tribal codes of conduct known as Pashtunwali or ‘the way of the Pashtuns’ have prevailing status among the Pashtun population. Pashtunwali is central to the tribe’s identity and social structure and emphasises honour, chivalry and kinship loyalties. The Pashtunwali code, as described by Rubina Saigol, is ‘an informal, unwritten code of ethics around which Pashtuns are expected to order their lives’ (2013:50). Its tenets include nang (honour), ghairat (pride) and badal (revenge). These tenets, which have little to do with Islam and in fact run counter to it in most cases, are largely responsible for the oppression of women in tribal areas, and for the practice of honour killing.

While all Muslims ‘adhere to a set of beliefs in common, a vast plurality exists not only in cultural but in religious behaviour’ (Karim 2003:7). The different responses of Afghanistani women to Islam are linked to the politics of their communal identity. There are a great number of differences between women according to their religion (and sects such as Sunni or Shiite), region, ethnicity, class and education. Putting all Afghanistani women in one basket, a basket labelled ‘Islam’, does not lead to a thorough understanding of their status and dilemmas. It reduces the complex politics and social dynamics of the Afghanistani people to only one of its aspects (even if it is a significant one). Thus, the apparent rejection of such reductionism by Afghanistani women writers may be interpreted as yet another act of resistance.

However, in traditional Afghanistani culture, traditions function in the context of Islam and Islam supports men’s tight control of women and the family. As argued, the line between religion and tradition is almost non-existent, particularly for ordinary people, and this runs both ways. As Farida Shaheed insists:

what women in most Muslim societies share is that the cultural articulation of patriarchy (through structures, social mores, laws and political power) is increasingly justified by reference to Islam and Islamic doctrine, a process facilitated by Islam’s central role in the self-definition and cultural reality of Muslims at large. (1995:79)6

In Muslim communities, women and women’s conduct are commonly seen as ‘symbols of communal identity and markers of “tradition” and culture’ (Chhachhi 1991:162; see also Basu 2011:3). Muslim communities everywhere are consequently preoccupied with the position of women and their roles in the family and community. For Muslim women, whether they live in a Muslim country or belong to a minority Muslim community, there is an ongoing pressure to be seen as loyal to Islam. Muslim women in these communities are also perceived as ‘the carriers of culture’ (Rosario 1996:209) and if their dress or appearance shows a ‘Western’ influence, they are regarded as having been corrupted by Western values. As a result, women are expected to suppress their own needs and rights in favour of the Islamic, cultural and national interests. Mahboob is the first Afghanistani female author who explores the impact of Islam on the lives of Afghanistani women.

Women and the war story

Not all Afghanistani writers of the war era explicitly explore the conflict their country has struggled with over four bloody decades, but the impact of the war can be discerned in all of their writing, even if the impact is an indirect one.7 As Miriam Cooke asserts, all people ‘who have lived through a war, even if on the margins, have participated’ (1988:2). Those who write during the war, Cooke argues,

do so because they hope, however forlornly, to intervene in the situation and thus make a difference. Such writing is an integral part of the war endeavour, and as such it has new and often surprising things to say. (1995:7)8

The last four decades of war have had a complicated impact on women and their literature, much of which is devoted to the war and its impact on their lives. While women fiction writers, including Mahboob, had begun to emerge before the war, it was in wartime that their literature reached new dimensions. Earlier writers continued writing and published their best works during this period; meanwhile, a new generation of writers began to make themselves heard. Women’s literature in general, and their fiction in particular, gained recognition and women were published with greater frequency. Some female writers became the pioneers of certain genres of fiction. Sphozhmai Zaryab was the first Afghanistani author to write antiwar fiction, and Mahboob was the first author to write jihadi fiction.9

Contrary to Larry P Goodson’s claim that the publication of Afghanistani literature declined during the war period, with only the ‘diaspora organizations such as the Writers Union of Free Afghanistan show[ing] any vitality’ (2001a:129),10 a large number of literary works were published inside Afghanistan during this period, especially by the Afghanistan’s Writers’ Association (which Goodson fails to mention). In addition to organising a series of literary meetings, seminars and conferences, the Writer’s Association published some 300 books of poetry and fiction, which eclipses the total number of works published in Afghanistan between the introduction of printing in 1873 and 1978. While in the past there were only a tiny number of women writers in Afghanistan, a relatively large portion were represented in this number.

Opportunities for publication created by political and social developments during this period can account for some of this growth. The leftist government, for example, established the Afghanistan Writers’ Association in which all writers could gather, regardless of gender, ethnic group or political affiliation. It also gave writers the opportunity to present their work to the public on different occasions and in different forms, and it allowed for the publication of their work, especially in book form. Women were active participants and their involvement with the association consolidated their position as writers.

It was not only the leftist regime that contributed to this increase in Afghanistan’s literary output. The opposition established cultural committees in Pakistan and Iran that were responsible for political, ideological and cultural activities, including publishing books, newspapers and journals.11 One of their main intentions was to encourage authors to write in support of ‘their’ war. However, it was only Jamyat-i Islami Afghanistan (the Islamic Association of Afghanistan) that established a ‘writers and poets association’ in 1988.12

During the 1980s no writer in exile, especially in Pakistan and Iran, could write and publish without the mujahideen parties’ approval (Olszewska 2007:208). The mujahideen did not have much sympathy for women’s literature, just as they did not have sympathy for women’s political participation. Thus, no exceptions were made for female writers of so-called jihadi-fiction.

With the outbreak of the civil war in the early 1990s, which saw the emergence of the Taliban, conflict became more ethnicity- and gender-based. Ethnic differences aside, the parties shared the same ideology: they were all fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state. Under these circumstances, some of the warring parties established literary associations outside Afghanistan in order to increase ‘awareness’ of the ethnic and cultural background of the groups they claimed to represent, and possibly to establish a sense of solidarity with their cause. At the same time, Afghanistani citizens (many of them women) who were angry and devastated at what was happening in their homeland, gathered around these organisations, looking for a means to convey their hatred of the war and the gender apartheid policies of the Taliban.

The most significant of these literary organisations was established in Mashhad, Iran, with the help of one of the factions of Hezb-i Wahdat Islami (Islamic Unity Party). This organisation succeeded in publishing two successful literary quarterlies, Dur-i Dari (literally ‘The perilled Persian language’) and Khatt-i Sevum (literally ‘The third line’), to which many female writers contributed.13 Indeed, it was these two journals that introduced some of the new generation of women writers, especially from the Hazara group, an oppressed ethnic minority. It is worth noting that these two journals, throughout their publication, avoided overt political content, concentrating instead on cultural issues and literature.14

Another significant effort to defy the Taliban’s gender apartheid was the establishment of underground literary courses by young women in Afghanistan, especially in Herat. These courses taught the art of writing and facilitated discussion of students’ writing, some of which was successfully published. From these courses a few outstanding writers and poets such Homaira Qaderi, Khaleda Khorsand and Nadia Anjoman emerged. While these courses were not linked to any political organisation and their apparent aim was only to foster literary activity, their existence had political implications. They challenged the Taliban’s edict that women had to remain behind the walls of their homes and to engage in domestic affairs only. These young women had different ideas. The establishment of the writing courses in the face of potentially severe consequences demonstrated the determination of women to take their destiny into their own hands. Support was received from male members of their families and the wider community who, in allowing women’s attendance, providing them with rooms, or assisting with teaching,15 risked severe punishment, as the Taliban held men accountable for the alleged crimes of the women in their family and they did not permit interactions between women and men who were not related by blood or marriage.

Politicisation of women’s literature

While the earliest women’s literature of Afghanistan’s modern era was inherently political due to its depiction of women’s oppression, it developed a more explicitly political focus as Afghanistani literature became increasingly politicised in the early 1980s.

Just as women’s political alliances differed, their approaches to narrating the war also varied. Some praised the government’s army officers and revolutionary corps (see Torpekay Qayum),16 some expressed admiration for the mujahideen (Maryam Mahboob in her early works), while others were critical of both sides of the conflict (Spozhmai Zaryab). Some writers imagined the war through the eyes of men, and others portrayed its effect on women.

From its very early stages, the war was a reality that affected every citizen, no matter where and how they lived. Its impact was as severe and wide-ranging as the influence Samuel Hynes attributes to the First World War in A war imagined:

It brought an end to the life and values…but it also did something more radical than that: it added a new scale of violence and destruction to what was possible—it changed reality. (1991:xi)

Some women writers chose to depict the severe impact of war on the Afghanistani population and on women in particular. In these works of fiction, women are eyewitnesses to the destruction of their rights, their homeland, their homes and their personal belongings. ‘If we wish to approach the dynamics of war and not just to repeat canned tales of heroism and victimization, we should listen to these writers’ words’, argues Miriam Cooke. ‘It is this literature … that can teach us about war, about the ways in which people negotiate violence, and about construction of counternarrative’ (1995:7).

Can these works be considered as social and political documents as well as reliable sources of information? In ‘Gender and violence in the Lebanese war novel’, Evelyne Accad suggests that works of fiction can be just that:

Creative works are more appropriate than other works to be analysed and give us the “total” picture because not only do they include all the various fields—social, political, anthropological, religious, and cultural—but in addition they allow us to enter into the unconscious and imaginary world of the author, with all the implications in hidden meanings and underlying significance, an author reflects his or her own individual vision, which is linked to the collective imaginary. What he or she says is an image of his or her society. The tension between the individual and collective imagination adds complexities and subtleties not found in more direct scientific documents. Literature thus covers the most complete domain. It can make us grasp the whole picture because it is multidisciplinary and reflects the complexities of a situation. (Accad 2007:299)

The war compounded historic problems of gender discrimination and oppression for women writers, but as discussed, it also opened up spaces for women to make themselves heard and saw the emergence of a new generation of female writers. No writer better represents these paradoxical changes than Maryam Mahboob, who in her writing captures the fractured interactions of individual life stories that construct and represent ‘the people’ and ‘the truth’ about war, displacement, radicalisation, marginalisation and diaspora.

1     These poets, from the points of view of quantity and quality of output, are not regarded as comparable to those of notable male poets of the period. For the biographies of classical women poets, see Rahmani 1952.

2     Women made substantial contributions to oral storytelling, but this book is interested in written literature.

3     On the day the Taliban took Kabul, the state department offered them more than an olive branch. ‘On the face of it, there is nothing objectionable at this stage’ (quoted in Gutman 2008:77). In initiating a deal with the Taliban, the Clinton administration was planning to send an envoy to Kabul and set out 17 talking points, including urging the Taliban to send an envoy to represent them in Washington, and the reopening of the US embassy in Kabul. However in the talking points, there was no mention ‘of the sudden loss of women’s rights’ (Gutman 2008:77).

4     According to Philips (1987:4), what these writers communicate to their readers is ‘totally intracultural in nature’ and therefore what ‘is being communicated—in content, meaning, assumption, and purpose—is, above all the native point of view.’

5     ‘Heresiographers have identified over 72 sects in Islam, each considering itself the ‘saved sect’, believing the others to be misguided’ (Rahnema 2006:31; also see Montgomery Watt 1998:3); contrary to the general view, Islam is a diverse religion. Studies of women in contemporary Muslim countries confirm them as equally diverse in terms of custom and belief. See, for example, Bodman & Tohidi 1998 and Ask & Tjomsland 1998.

6     It is not only Islam, the scriptures of other major religions justify the same subordination of women to men:

According to the Hindu Code of Manu, “in childhood a woman must be subject to her father, in youth, to her husband, [and] after the husband’s death, to her sons. A woman must never be free of subjugation.” In the orthodox Jewish prayer that a male repeats daily, there are the words, “I thank Thee, O Lord, that thou hast not created me a woman!” The New Testament instructs: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church … Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Quoted in Stepaniants 1992:239)

7     Even a few authors such as Rahnaward Zaryab and Akram Osman, who apparently in their writings stood outside the war, were nevertheless also influenced by it.

8     According to Cooke ‘these war texts may also have a unique and important role to play, because they not only reflect but may sometimes interact with the events and mood of the conflict’ (1995:9).

9     For Zaryab and her contribution to antiwar fiction, see Bezhan 2011, 2014.

10   Interestingly, the Peshawar-based Writers Union of Free Afghanistan paid little attention to literature and to the publication of literary works.

11   Thus the only independent literary association (from the mujahideen groups) in the diaspora was Itehadi Newisendagan Azad Afghanistan (Writers’ Union of Free Afghanistan) established in 1985 and sponsored by the West. Its main goal was to publish works on the Afghanistan conflict written by both Afghanistani and foreign authors. It had little interest in literature. The other two Western-sponsored organisations with somewhat similar goals were Markazi Saqafati wa Farhangi Afghanistan (The Afghan Information Centre) and Shura-i Saqafati Jihad-i Afghanistan (Cultural Council of Afghanistan Jihad).

12   Correspondence with Fazil Rahman Fazil 5 July 2006, the president of the association.

13   Dur-i Dari came out in 1997.

14   Dur-i Dari was replaced by Khatt-i Sevum after 13 issues.

15   The man who taught in the underground literary course was Nasir Rahyab, a well-known scholar and a professor at Herat University.

16   Qayum (b. 1958), who began writing fiction in the early 1970s, was distinguished for the genre, theme and method of writing from her contemporary female writers. She chose the novel and socialist realism. Qayum published three novels in the 1980s, Wa sukot shekast (And the silence was broken), Faryād-hāy shekasta (Broken cry) and Qurbāni begunā (An innocent sacrifice), which are centred on revolutionary and class struggle themes.

Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

   by Faridullah Bezhan