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Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

Chapter Two


Maryam Mahboob writes ‘true’ stories about Afghanistani women. She writes about women at home or in diaspora, in peace or wartime, single or married, young or old, illiterate or educated, but she mainly deals with the position of women in the family and in society. Her main characters are rooted in Afghanistani society, where the roles of men and women are determined by a patriarchal system. In order to analyse her works, we need to see what it means to be a woman in Afghanistan.

Women and socio-cultural restrictions

According to Chow and Berheide (1994:14), patriarchy can be defined as ‘the principle of male dominance that forms both a structure and ideological system of domination in which men control women’. In other words, patriarchal society promotes male privilege. Allan Johnson describes it thus:

Patriarchy’s defining elements are male-dominated, male-identified, male-centred, and control-obsessed character … Patriarchal culture includes ideas about the nature of things, including men, women, and humanity, with manhood and masculinity most closely associated with being human and womanhood and femininity relegated to the marginal position of “other”. (Johnson 2005:38–39)

While patriarchy in Afghanistan has all these general features, it is situated in ‘the patriarchal belt’, and is an extreme case of what Deniz Kandiyoti terms ‘classical patriarchy’ (1988:278–81). Its characteristics vary by ethnicity (qawm), social class (tabaqa ijtemāi), region (manteqa) and sect of Islam (mazhab). The family structure is based on this system in which men have the power to determine the status and roles of women and children within the family. In this structure, women are conceptualised through their relationships with men and are thus recognised as wives, mothers or daughters. Because gender relations are ‘concerned with how power is distributed between the sexes’ (March, Smyth and Mukhopadhyay 1999:18), they are based on male superiority and female submission.1

For Butler, gender is not biological, but something that is socially constructed in relation to our environments and performed through the body:

Gender ought not to be constructed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repletion of acts. (2006:179)

Notions of gender are similarly described by Ortner and Whitehead as ‘largely products of social and cultural process’ that inform our ideas of ‘what men and women are, what sorts of relations do or should obtain between them’ (Ortner and Whitehead 1989:1).

Gender is also seen as a lens through which difference can be understood more generally. This includes those ‘categorizations of persons, artefacts, events, sequences, and so on, which draw upon sexual imagery—upon the ways in which the distinctiveness of male and female characteristics make concrete people’s ideas about the nature of social relationships’ (Strathern 1988:xi). As a concept, gender ‘orders a wide range of values and ideas’ (Strathern 1989:70). Eve Sedgwick argues that ‘“male/female” functions as a primary and perhaps model binarism affecting the structure and meaning of many, many other binarisms … [it is] inextricable from a history of power differentials between genders’ (Sedgwick 1990:27–28).

In Afghanistan, gender (jens, jensyat) is understood in the sense of gender identity and gender relations, based on the binary categories of ‘man’ (mard) and ‘woman’ (zan).2 Gender distinction plays an important role in the organisation of everyday life. The function of gender, as Christiane Harzig notes, can be tracked again and again in people’s everyday activities, ‘in the constructions of meaning as well as in the unspoken assumptions that form the essence of institutions and laws’ (Harzig 2003:50).

Fatima Mernissi argues that women’s sexuality is seen as a threat to Muslim social order in Moroccan culture (1987:30–42) and the same argument could be equally applied to Afghanistan. Understood as ‘the epitome of the uncontrollable, a living representative of the dangers of sexuality and its rampant disruptive potential’, and the cause of social chaos (fitna) (Mernissi 1987:44),3 female sexuality must be accordingly controlled. This assumption justifies women being kept at home and confined to the household world; otherwise they might invite disorder into society.4

The family

Family is the nucleus of society in Afghanistan. The extended family is central to the identity of the individual and the reputation of an individual reflects on the family. According to traditional marriage customs, young people, in particular women, have little or no say in choosing their spouse. Early arranged marriage is a common practice. Divorce is very rare, especially in rural areas and it is viewed as dishonourable. A man rarely marries a divorcee. It is also dishonourable for a widow to return to her natal family. Instead, she will often marry the dead husband’s brother, especially if she does not have male children. A widow with sons can refuse to be remarried and may succeed in managing an independent household of her own (see Tapper 1991:183–86). While the family may restrict a woman’s autonomy, it is also a cause for family solidarity and protection. Although subordinated, women are protected by male members of the family at all costs.

Gender relations differ according to social class, ethnic group, religion and even region. However, the family is the primary space in which political, economic and cultural functions are performed. An individual’s honour, his or her social status, and personal codes of conduct are largely determined by the family. As Suad Joseph and Afsāna Naǧmābādī argue, ‘family functions as the primary social institution’ in a patriarchal culture where ‘authority remains in the hands of the elder males’ (2003:510).5

Moghadam notes that men exercise ‘control over women in two crucial ways: by controlling marriage and property and by barring landownership for women’ (2003:241). Gender relations are rooted in notions of personal property and, in Afghanistan, women are the personal property of the male members of her family. Two common practices of marriage illustrate this: the first is the toyāna or bride price, which is an agreed amount of money the groom pays to the bride’s family;6 the second is the badal or ‘blood payment’, which is a common custom among Pashtuns, in which a woman is given in marriage to another household to settle a feud caused by injury or death. One of the immediate results of this notion of women as property is women’s submission as well as their segregation. As the property of another, for instance, women do not have the right to leave the house without the permission of a husband or male relative. This practice allows men to maintain their possessions.

This is tied to the notion of honour. Ideas such as hujb (shyness), sharm (shame), ifat (chastity) and nejābat (decency) are regarded as essential qualities of womanhood. The woman is seen as being at the core of the family’s honour.7 In honour-based societies such as Afghanistan, women’s chastity could be said to represent the family’s ‘symbolic capital’ (Bourdieu 2005:178). The primary obligation of women is to uphold family honour by conforming to the norms of accepted behaviour (Tapper 1991; Grima 1992; Dupree 1998). The demands and restrictions on women make them completely submissive to the men of their families. For a woman to protest against any physical or mental abuse by her father, brother or husband, would be to bring disgrace to her family. Women are denied the opportunity to fully exercise their personal authority in public affairs or within the family.

Women and obedience

The idea that obedience is an essential virtue of womanhood is used to control women’s bodies and their mobility. Obedience is considered the core condition necessary to maintain familial and marital relationships. It is believed that marriages will not work without wives’ subservience to their husbands. Parents, husbands and those outside the family admire an obedient woman and regard the quality of obedience as a source of pride for women. The result is the maintenance of the patriarchal status quo and dominant gender norms in the family and in wider society.

The following passage was recorded during field research conducted in the early 20th century in Sheghnan, a town in Badakhshan (north-eastern Afghanistan). The passage related to a social tradition current among the Sheghni ethnic group and shows a clear picture of family structure, the position of women and the etiquette of social intercourse. According to this tradition, the mother of the bride delivers the following ten pieces of advice to her daughter on her wedding night:

1.   For all your life you have to be faithful to your husband.

2.   You have to get up early in the morning every day and keep yourself and the house clean and tidy up.

3.   You have to keep clean your, your husband’s and your children’s clothes.

4.   You have to be nice to your husband and never make him upset, as this may weaken love.

5.   When your husband is hungry try your best to feed him and never argue with him when he is hungry, because men get angry quickly when they are hungry.

6.   Try hard to spend little money and save, as there is nothing better than this in life.

7.   You have to follow your husband’s ideas, because disagreement brings disharmony between you.

8.   You should indirectly encourage your husband to like home, because men naturally do not have much interest in domestic life.

9.   You should be nice and behave well to the father, mother, brother, sister and other relatives of your husband. This will improve your status among them.

10. Until the end of your life you have to have in mind that you should have a flourishing home and your husband should be happy with you. (Badakhshi 2007:198–99)

This advice shows the position of women in the family, and emphasises that woman’s virtues should be her obedience, docility, sense of duty, respect and submission.

Women and honour

The meaning of honour in Afghanistan is multidimensional and encompasses familial respect and social prestige. The ways it is upheld are equally complex. ‘Honor’, argues Frank Stewart, ‘is a notoriously paradoxical topic, and one of its most famous puzzles is the effect that women’s behavior can have on men’s honor’ (1994:107). A woman’s body, sexuality and name are the bearers of nāmus (honour and modesty), but this nāmus belongs to the male members of her family, kin, community, tribe and nation. A woman ‘can help or hinder honor, but she cannot control it’, claims Benedicte Grima, (1992:164; see also Tapper & Tapper 1992). Women may represent ‘collectivity, honour and unity’ but they are ultimately ‘excluded from the collective “we” of the body politic, and retain an object rather than a subject position’, argues Nira Yuval-Davis (1997:47).

One explanation for this idea of women as conveyors of honour is the symbolism attached to their biological capacity for reproduction. As Suha Kudsieh has it, ‘women are considered fertile bodies that “reproduce” certain racial and ethnic groups’ and therefore ‘can be seen as reproducers of ethnic and cultural boundaries’ (Kudsieh 2003:202). The highly gendered nature of the concept of honour may be discerned from the common usage in Afghanistan of the word nāmus to denote a wife or any other woman belonging to a man, such as mother and sister or daughter (see Tapper 1991:16–22, 107).8

Since the family’s honour is vested in its female members, women’s activities are closely guarded. Any compromise of that honour by its female bearers is considered dangerous and punishable by families. In order to protect women from danger and strangers, gender segregation and female seclusion is imposed and women’s honour is understood and socially constructed largely through the concepts of veiling and modesty. However, the application of these restrictions is not rigid. They come into play in certain social situations and vary according to age, marital status, ethnic group, social class and family. Young women in particular are subject to strong pressure to remain modest, while for older women modesty is a less important condition of morality and they are not expected to be veiled as often. Veiling is situational and usually has to be observed in public areas or according to the status of the male relatives being met. It is more prevalent among traditional families in cities and towns and less observable in rural areas, where women are actively engaged in economic production and contribute substantially to the family economy. Veiling there is impractical and does not match their style of life. Nomadic women almost never cover their faces.

If the perception of honour is upheld through social behaviour that conforms to certain codes of conduct, and may be lost through an act that violates them, its recovery may be attempted by ‘returning the offensive act’ (Knudsen 2003:109). It is in this context that ‘honour killing’ takes place.9 If a woman’s honour is violated by her engagement (or alleged engagement) in relations with a member of the opposite sex outside of marriage, this may lead to the loss of her life, usually at the hands of the man of the family. She is killed because she has brought shame (dishonour) to the family: ‘the spilling of the blood of the victim is seen as necessary to erase the shame she has brought upon her family by her sexual misconduct’ (Abu-Odeh 2005:221).10

Although modesty is justified by religious texts, especially the Koran,11 it is also connected with cultural codes and social traditions. The code of modesty imposed on Afghanistani women is based on custom rather than the Koran. Tahire Kocturk argues that the ‘honour ethic’ predates Islam and is ‘is based on the belief that women cannot be trusted to protect their chastity in the best interest of the patriarchal system’ (1992:56).12 This system of enforced modesty functions to preserve patriarchal control by excluding women from decision-making in relation to marriage or ownership of property, controlling women’s sexuality, restricting their autonomy and maintaining men’s guardianship and dominance. The sociocultural effects of ‘imposed’ modesty are the result of its operation as an ideological social control mechanism.13 Hafizullah Emadi points to men’s common use of the term ‘woman’ as an insult to opponents as an indicator of the inferior position in which women are held in an honour-ethic society (1991:225).

The veil

Muslim women in general and Afghanistani women in particular are characterised by the veil. Nilüfer Göle calls veiling the ‘emblem’ that reconstructs the Otherness of Islam for the West (1996:1). The veiled woman is one of the universal images of the Third World woman in Western feminist discourse, which Chandra Talpade Mohanty refers to as existing ‘in universal ahistorical splendor, setting in motion a colonialist discourse which exercises a very specific power in defining, coding and maintaining existing first/third world connections’ (1991b:73). Ahmed notes that, to the West, veiling is ‘the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies’ and the symbol ‘of both the oppression of women … and backwardness of Islam’ (1992:151–52). The portrayal of the practice of veiling in the Western media, in the words of Catherine Daly, tends ‘to depersonalize, essentialize and even objectify Muslim women as no more than a head covering’ (2000:147). In this way, ‘Muslim female subjectivity is obscured by the mythology of the veil’ (Jarmakani 2011:229).

Parda or chādari or hijāb (usage depends upon region) are various styles of head and body coverings adopted in cultures where Islam is practised (see El Gunidi 1999:157).14 These words are often used, inaccurately, to refer specifically to women’s head coverings. Hijāb does not necessarily require the wearer’s face to be hidden, but ‘all of the hair, the neck and arms must be covered’ (Khattab 1994:17). Hanna Papanek, who conceptualises parda as a ‘separate world’ and a ‘provision of symbolic shelter’ (1973:292), notes that the ‘crucial characteristic of the purdah system is its limitation on interaction between women and males outside well-defined categories’ (1973:289). It is perceived as a protection against the outside world, particularly against men outside of the family. Historically, the concept of hijāb is a much broader concept; it refers to the act of covering and the covering practices of both women and men (El Guindi 1999).15 Because veiling is assumed to be a means to exert men’s power over women’s bodies, the practice of veiling is considered by some as the cause of the subordination of women and the backwardness of their treatment (Hekmat 1997:183).16 Veiling is the most visible symbol of modesty. The veil, then, is not only an item of dress that has evolved over time, but more specifically is an item of dress that defines women as female (Daly 2000).

Afghanistani women wear two different types of veiling, the chādar and chādari, and both are considered an expression of modesty.17 The chādar is a two-dimensional, square or rectangular-shaped garment, similar to the Western scarf or shawl. Though the style of wearing varies, typically a chādar covers the head, hair, neck and shoulders of the wearer and protects these parts of the body from view. It is worn in both private and public contexts and is subject to style variations and personal aesthetic preferences. The chādari, which is greatly favoured by the Taliban, is a three-dimensional, vertically panelled, seamed and pleated loose garment that encloses the entire body of the wearer in order to obscure her from view. It is considered a ‘full veil’ and is worn over a woman’s ordinary clothing, including a chādar. A rectangular area of open-work embroidery covers the eyes and provides limited vision for the wearer as well as minimal visibility to the observer. It is worn primarily in public outside the home (see Daly 2000). Contrary to Lila Abu-Lughod’s claims that the Taliban enforced the dress code most common to tribal areas (2002:785), chādari was and still is common only in urban areas and among non-Pashtun women. Women in tribal areas never cover themselves from head to toe.

The veil was officially lifted in Afghanistan in the early 1920s by the Young Afghan reformist government (1919–29).18 This provoked widespread rebellion and cost the government power. In 1959 the veil was lifted again, but this time unofficially and without any publicity.19 From the early 1960s, with the growth in women’s education and employment, women increasingly abandoned veiling, especially in the cities. With the ratification of the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan, women gained the right to vote for the first time.20 The same decade saw Afghanistani women serve as ministers and members of parliament for the first time. According to Muhammad Ali, ‘the most fundamental movement’ during this period was ‘freeing Afghan women from the veil’ (1969:82). Following the 1978 coup, a main priority of the leftist regime from the very outset was the emancipation of women through education and employment. For a regime determined to change Afghanistani society through radical reforms, veiling was the very symbol of backwardness.

Due to the radicalisation of society after the empowerment of the mujahideen in 1992, modesty was given an Islamic connotation and was forcefully implemented.21 When the mujahideen and the Taliban enforced the veiling and seclusion of women, whether in Afghanistan or in refugee camps in Pakistan, it was claimed as a proper reflection of the traditional modesty of women, as well as a requirement of sharia.22 According to them, veiling and seclusion were directly tied to the preservation of both Islamic morality and traditional culture.23 This was a distinction between state-imposed modesty discourses and family-based ones. Under these restrictions, Afghanistani women struggled to define themselves in their social, economic and political spheres. For the Taliban, unveiled women could not exist in public. To be a woman, a Muslim and Afghanistani is an identity that is frequently essentialised by wearing the veil and observing modest conduct.

Revolution, jihad and women

The war in Afghanistan is a stark reality for women. The war began in 1978 after the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) staged a coup and wrested power from Muhammad Daud, who himself had come to power through a coup five years earlier. In 1973, Daud, a member of the royal family, brother-in-law and first cousin to the king, had ended the decade of democratic experiment of 1964 to 1973. He had previously served in various capacities, including as prime minister from 1953 to 1963. Daud established a republic in which all power was accumulated in his own hands and ruled with a rod of iron. While his success in taking power was aided by young military officers, some of whom belonged to the PDPA, in order to cement his absolute power he suppressed all political groups in the country, from the Islamist to the social democrat to the pro-Maoist and to the PDPA. After Daud imprisoned almost all leaders of the PDPA, the military wing of the party staged a coup in April 1978 and Daud, his entire family and most of his cabinet ministers were killed.

The pro-Soviet PDPA established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (seen as a Communist regime in the West), which aimed to implement rapid socio-political, cultural and economic transformation through reforms announced in the form of decrees. Three decrees—Nos. 6, 7 and 8—were the main planks of the program of socio-economic transformation. Decree No. 6 was intended to put an end to land mortgage and indebtedness; Decree No. 7 concerned the status of women; Decree No. 8 controlled the distribution of land to the peasants. According to Decree No. 7, the mahr, or dowry (the mandatory amount of money or possessions, often a combination of both, which formed an essential part of the formal Islamic marriage contract), paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage for her exclusive use,24 was fixed at 300 AFN. The decree also forbade forced marriages and made sixteen the minimum age for engagement (the usual practice was for girls to be married immediately after puberty). At the same time, the PDPA created more opportunities for greater participation of women in government, education and the workforce. The intention was to bring about rapid social change and to unify a population that had diverse linguistic, ethnic and religious characteristics. These radical measures, difficult to implement in a predominately traditional Islamic society, caused immediate resistance because they touched culturally, socially and economically sensitive issues. Opposition came from different segments of society, particularly in the rural areas, where apparently the provision of literacy courses for women caused great concern.25 This opposition was fuelled and exploited by the mujahideen groups, now operating from outside the country, mainly from Pakistan.

The Afghan war that commenced in the late 1970s has mostly been fought in the name of revolution and jihad. The war has involved many players, but no winner, and so heroes and villains, revolution, jihad and democracy have become interchangeable. For example, the mujahideen, who fought against the leftist regime between 1978 and 1992, were considered freedom fighters and liberators, but are now called fundamentalists, warlords or terrorists. But it is not surprising that the heroes of the past have become the villains of today; the idea of jihad was a vehicle to mobilise the people to fight the pro-Soviet leftist government in the 1980s and it is now utilised by the Taliban to fight against the pro-American government. What has not changed is the central role of women’s issues to the warring sides. Although women themselves have not been main players, their causes have been at the centre of political and ideological discourse. The PDPA claimed that their revolution aimed to transform Afghanistan from a backward, feudal, peasant and tribal society into a modern one. Women’s causes had a central position in the process.26 On the other hand, the mujahideen wanted to preserve the position of women and standards of modesty and seclusion according to the teachings of Islam and traditional practices. In part, the USA invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to free Afghanistani women from the clutches of the Taliban and to end gender apartheid. In this way, women’s causes have been one of the driving forces of major political developments in Afghanistan in the last four decades.

As will be discussed later, the war had had a paradoxical impact on the lives and status of women. The political and ideological undertakings of the warring sides had different implications for women, depending on which side of the conflict women were caught on. Women who lived in urban areas during the 1980s found good opportunities for education and employment, whereas those who lived in refugee camps in Pakistan did not. Women who lived under Taliban rule were deprived of basic rights, they had no access to education or employment, they were obliged to cover themselves from head to toe and they were even forbidden to step outside their homes without the company of a close male relative.

The leftist government’s failure to implement reforms that would have changed the social fabric of Afghanistan (Rubin 2002:116–117) was due not only to the widespread resistance led by the mujahideen, but also to the government’s heavy-handed approach in the early stages. Most analysts argue that ‘the violence of the state rather than its reforms … lay at the root of the crisis’ (Dorronsoro 2005:96). The government’s repressive measures included the imprisonment and execution of tribal and religious leaders, urban intelligentsia and even pro-Marxists, and led to its increasing unpopularity.27 Two factors further deepened the crisis: the increase of covert support for the mujahideen by the USA and other countries, and the invasion of the country by the Soviet Army. The government that came to power in the late 1979 had softened most of its original measures. It avoided Marxist rhetoric and included some non-party members in the government. But in the face of the Soviet invasion, and the increasing military, financial and psychological aid to the mujahideen, it could not win the war. With the escalation of violence, the majority of the Afghanistani people were caught between two warring sides. Contrary to mujahideen publicity and the general view in the West, the majority of people, including women, favoured reforms and did not want to live under a fundamentalist Islamic government (Blum 2004:347). The majority of Afghanistani people have not resisted the pro-Western government’s socio-political reforms since the removal of the Taliban in 2001.

Despite its obstacles, the leftist regime achieved significant advancement of its aim to improve literacy, including that of women. According to Keshtmand, government reforms resulted in an increase in literacy of up to 30% by the end of the 1980s (2002:859). This was a substantial change in a country that prior to the 1978 coup had one of the highest rates of female illiteracy—98%.28 However, these changes occurred in the cities and did not really touch the rural areas where the majority of women lived. When the leftist regime collapsed in 1992, 50% of the students and 60% of the teachers at Kabul University were women. In addition, 70% of all schoolteachers, 50% of civilian government workers and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women (see Skaine 2002:27; Nawid 2007:65). According to the World Development Index, by 1990, 34% of the formal labour force in Afghanistan was female (see Amiri et al 2004: 287).

The mujahideen had a different view of the women’s issue and saw the government’s challenges to the status quo as one of the main reasons for their uprising. They maintained that defending Islam and the homeland meant first of all preserving the honour of women, whose rights and status should be regulated according to their interpretation of sharia law. What the leftist government framed as efforts to emancipate women were considered by the mujahideen as evidence of a conspiracy to corrupt women and the whole of the Afghan Muslim nation. When the mujahideen came to power in 1992, they imposed their views on women throughout the country by issuing fatwās. One fatwā via the Supreme Court on 27 August 1993—“Fatwā-i sharia satr wa hijāb” (A sharia fatwā on women’s covering and hijāb)—clearly drew the boundaries for women’s deportment:

Women are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive and colourful clothing and decorative accessories; are not to wear tight and revealing clothing; do not wear perfume; their jewellery must not make any noise; they are not to walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public (‘Fatwā-i shari satr wa hijab’).

This decree was the beginning of a new era in women’s appearance and status, a complete departure from official polices since the early 20th century. Now it was the state that imposed compulsory veiling on women and restricted their movement, education and employment.

Women in the refugee camps

Afghanistani women living in refugee camps represent one of the biggest groups of displaced people in modern history, and this remains a current issue, as many of them are still struggling in these camps. Two-thirds of Afghanistan’s 25-million population were displaced and around five million ended up in refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Migration started with the 1978 coup and with every significant political development in the last four decades new groups of people were displaced. The second wave began after the collapse of the leftist regime and the empowerment of the mujahideen in 1992. The third happened when the Taliban came to power in 1996. Women and children, who are described and defined as ‘vulnerable groups’ (El-Bushra 2000:13), have made up the largest number of displaced persons. In this way, migration and displacement have become the nucleus around which the history of Afghanistani women has revolved in the last four decades.

There is a general consensus among Western scholars that many women and their families left Afghanistan after the 1978 coup due to the government’s introduction of a universal literacy program for women (see, for example, Dupree 1984 and Centliveres-Demont 1994). While this might have been a motivation for some families in rural parts of the country’s south and east, it was not true for the majority of people in other areas, who had generally shown interest in the expansion of educational institutions for their children.

In the decades following 1978, access to education remained a strong concern of the Afghanistani diaspora. According to a 1998 study by the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran, the number one priority for Afghan families was educational opportunities for their children (Squire and Gerami 1998:21).29 In a 1996 study conducted by Peter Marsden among the Afghan communities in Iran, he found the main deterrent to returning to Afghanistan was its lack of good education opportunities, especially for girls (Marsden 1996:8). Despite severe restrictions by the mujahideen, some private schools were established in Peshawar, Pakistan, where Afghanistanis sent their children, both boys and girls in the 1980s and 1990s. In Iran, one of the demands displaced Afghanistani communities have made of the Iranian government is for it to allow their children to attend school and to facilitate literacy courses for women (see Hoodfar 2004; 2010). In an effort to encourage the repatriation of Afghanistani migrants and refugees, Iran has accommodated only a limited number of Afghanistani students (Chatty 2010:8). These restrictions have been met with various strategies, such as borrowing identity cards from Iranians or Afghanistanis with legal access to education, and the establishment of ‘informal, self-directed and self-funded schools for … children’ (Chatty 2010:8) These informal Afghan schools were established in a number of Iranian cities, but especially Mashhad, and were attended by both boys and girls.

Similarly, many Afghanistani women attended literacy courses after settling in Iran (Hoodfar 2004:158). While the creation of literacy courses for women in rural Afghanistan in the early stages may have been politically heavy-handed and resulted in some families opposing the program, the government did not have the means to establish literacy courses all over those areas, let alone force women to attend the courses, and in reality they had little impact on rural regions throughout the government’s time in power. Usually the courses operated only in semi-major towns around the country. It was there that some people may have resented allowing female members of their family to attend the courses.

The Soviet Union and the USA contributed equally to mass migration. When Russian soldiers came under rocket attack or were ambushed, they bombed the entire village, which caused mass migration among the villagers. By arming the warring sides, the violence spread. The USA ‘spent billions of dollars to recruit, pay, train, and equip large numbers of Afghan migrants [who became mujahideen] to sabotage public projects, civil sector infrastructure, and implement hit and run operations against Soviet and Afghan forces’ (Hanifi 2000:294). While the mujahideen operated almost freely in rural areas, and could easily push the population to leave, they adopted new strategies in urban areas. The guerilla attacks and sabotage operations were conducted by various squads that trained in Pakistan under the operations director for Pakistan intelligence, Brigadier General Muhammad Yousaf, whose strategy was ‘death by a thousand cuts’ (Yousaf and Adkin 1992:146). Their apparent mission was to bomb military posts and assassinate Russian and Afghan military and high-profile officials. Because these targets were well protected, civilians were the main casualties of their operations and these tactics created an environment of fear among the general population. The mujahideen’s main civilian targets were educational and cultural institutions. Urban and rural schools were burned down and their teachers were killed. Kabul University was a particular target, despite the fact that the majority of the university’s staff were not PDPA members. The mujahideen considered all professors fair game because they were ‘poisoning young minds with Marxist anti-Islamic dogma’ (Coll 2004:132).30 The cinema, the theatre and Afghanistani artists were considered un-Islamic as well and became targets. In this way, the spread of violence and the environment of fear pushed people to leave Afghanistan for neighbouring countries.

War and propaganda

The warring sides each made heavy use of propaganda to publicise their causes, highlighting their own successes and their opponents’ failures.31 They used radio, audiocassettes, documentary films, books, newspaper and night letters. Their propaganda had three targets: members of their own group, the Afghan population at large and the international audience. In addition, international supporters of both sides disseminated propaganda in their own media in favour of the side they supported. Russian and Eastern Bloc media, for instance, gave ample publicity to the leftist regime, depicting it as a just government that was fighting to modernise Afghanistan against fundamentalist groups backed by regional reactionary regimes and an imperialist West.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that ‘the Spanish war is a bad war … and nobody is right’ (1989:456). The same could be said of the Afghan war. An enormous number of Western publications exist on the atrocities committed by the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, but, during the war, little was known about the conduct of the mujahideen and the ways the West, especially the USA, supported them. ‘American policy went beyond supplying the resistance [mujahideen] groups with weapons’, David Gibbs argues. ‘For an extended period, US policy aimed at increasing the intensity of combat, while undercutting efforts to see a diplomatic solution to the Afghan war’ (2000:244). According to Gibbs, Afghanistan’s fate was not really a central issue for USA, ‘it was a pretext to elicit public support for rearmament’ (2004:308). The USA had begun supporting the mujahideen months before the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army. Indeed, the USA administration had decided the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should take ‘a leading role inside Afghanistan six months before the Soviets invaded’ (Tadman 2013:32). As the USA, and especially the CIA, saw it, Afghanistan would become the USSR’s Vietnam. In August 1979, three months before the Soviet intervention, a declassified State Department Report stated:

The United State’s larger interests … would be served by the demise of the Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever setback this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan … the overthrow of the D.R.A [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] would show the rest of the world, particularly the Third World, that the Soviet’s view of the socialist course of history as being inevitable is not accurate. (Quoted in Blum 2004:347)

The USA knew backing the mujahideen and supporting their activities would undermine progress and modernisation, facilitate the spread of radicalism in Afghanistan and alienate the most progressive sections of the elite. However, strategic considerations and potential damage to the pro-Soviet regime were more important factors than undermining modernisation in a country under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence since the Second World War. The invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops later ‘served to provide cover for the US intelligence agency’s actions’ and, if anything, offered the Carter administration an opportunity to arm more of the mujahideen once the war began (Tadman 2013:63).

USA support for the mujahideen was one of the key elements in the invasion (Gibbs 2004:312–13).32 Using the CIA’s ‘elaborate propaganda network’, the USA supported the mujahideen by running wide ranging publicity campaigns to encourage the ‘massive exodus of migrants from Afghanistan to embarrass the Soviet Union and the government it supported’ (Hanafi 2000:293). The push for the mass emigration of the Afghan population was one the strategies of the mujahideen in the 1980s. The refugees actively participated in the conflict as labourers and military recruits and their exodus provided political legitimacy for the guerrilla groups and created pressure on the PDPA government (Loescher 2001:41). In addition, because the refugee camps in Pakistan were directly controlled by the mujahideen groups (with the help of Pakistan and international aid agencies), international aid was distributed through them. The donor community, eager to support the politics of jihad, channeled its aid through the mujahideen groups. The mujahideen, in turn, used foreign aid as a tool to enlist the support of the refugees. In fact, refugees arriving from Afghanistan ‘were obliged, if they wanted to qualify for rations, to became affiliated’ with one of the mujahideen groups (Weinbaum 1991:77). This was a blatantly political use of aid that made the refugees ‘pawns in the larger geopolitical struggle’ (Loescher 1993:89) and, in this way, whole refugee camp populations came under the tight control of the radical Islamists.

The camps, which consisted of the families’ compound, military training section, weapons deposit and madrasas (or religious schools), served as a means of radicalising Afghanistani youth (see Turton and Marsden 2002; Tomsen 2011).33 Foreign fighters, mainly from the Middle East, brought a new brand of Islam—Wahhabism—and a new brand of political Islam into the camps, and it was from these camps that the Taliban emerged in the early 1990s.

The political and social structure of the camps supported religious and social conservatism and in this environment women were further subjected to seclusion and oppression, to the point of being prevented from leaving the camps.34 It is these conditions that Maryam Mahboob depicts in her narrative works. Mahboob’s writing challenges the myths and propaganda created by the warring sides in the Afghanistan conflict and demonstrates what Goodman terms the ‘misogynist underpinning of those myths’ (1998:278).

Women and the family economy

It is presumed that one of the reasons for women’s subordination is their lack of contribution to the family economy or the idea of the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the consumer. But in reality women both in the cities and rural areas contribute to the family economy, though their income belongs to their menfolk and they have little control over it.35 Since the early 1960s women increasingly found employment in the cities, especially in teaching, administration and manufacturing. In a sample of women from the early 1970s, 42% had formal education and 41% worked outside the house; 71% were teachers or students (Rubin 2002:79). This, however, was limited to the younger generation of the upper and middle classes in Kabul. In the 1980s women found greater opportunity for employment in almost every field, including the security forces. Even a considerable number of public transport drivers in Kabul were women. In some rural areas in the north and west, women contribute between 80% and 90% of the family income, whereas in the most conservative southern areas among the Pashtun population women’s share is only 15% (Maletta 2008:180; Rezaie 2011:247). Most of the rural economy is based on agriculture and pastoralism, where women are the main producers. Women also are the main producers in the fields of carpet weaving and handicrafts. Nevertheless in some rural areas women’s role in economic production makes a significant contribution to social, political and economic decision-making. For example, in the nomadic economy in which there is a division of labour, shepherding and marketing activities are typically carried out by men, while dairying and wool production are the responsibilities of women.

Women and traditional space

In order to present a true picture of the lives of Afghanistani women—not a stereotype—there are two questions that need to be discussed. Firstly, is there any dynamism in the lives of women in the context of the existing socio-cultural structure? In other words, is it true that modesty and segregation make Afghanistani women completely submissive and obedient? Secondly, if socio-cultural and political conditions are so tilted towards women’s subordination, what agency do women have?36 Can they only comply with the restrictions and accept their subordination, or can they (at least some of them) challenge these ‘norms’? These are the questions Mahboob asks in her short stories.

It is true that in Afghanistan the honour of a man is connected to the perceived behaviour of the women of his family. However, it is arguable that this perception allows space for women to develop what Nancy Tapper terms their ‘subversive’ power. There are ‘certain possibilities for women’s action which, while they are implicit in the dominant ideologies of gender espoused by both men and women, nonetheless are constructed in opposition to the ideals of male dominance which they contradict’, she argues (1991:21). This provides an alternative discourse and an informal agency for women based on a set of practices that publicly present as reinforcing male dominance.

Traditionally in Afghanistan, women are excluded from men’s gatherings, even in their own homes, but as Nancy Tapper’s fieldwork shows, this is not a blanket rule. Among Durrani Pashtuns, who are supposedly one of the more conservative groups in Afghanistan, households reflect little sexual segregation. Durrani women are less restricted in their environment and are able to entertain ‘male guests when no adult male is present or available’ (Tapper 1991:105).

Contrary to what is generally understood of gendered segregation in the Middle East, Leila Ahmed argues that women may also be the subjects who desire it. One of the meanings of the harem is harram, which translates as ‘forbidden’. Ahmed asserts that

it was women who were doing the forbidding, excluding men from their society … it was therefore women who developed the model of strict segregation in the first place. Here women share living time and living space, exchange experience and information, and critically analyse … the world of men. (1982b:529)

In these segregated spheres women use sexually explicit or ‘coarse’ language, and are anything but shy. They sing songs and recite oral poetry in which they can freely express a range of sentiments that cannot be regarded as modest in the public context.37 Most lyrics of women’s songs and folk poetry, for example, convey sexual references both in Persian and Pashto. And because the audience for these songs and poems are women, they do not provoke any resentment in the community, even in the tribal areas. Anthropological research, even among the most conservative groups (such as the Pashtuns in the east), show that women, through their own types of music and poetry, such as landay, express a female world.38 Inger Boesen found this to be the case with Pashtun women and their practice of storytelling and recitation of poetry in eastern Afghanistan:

women hold another divergent view of their situation which is expressed in the form of an oral poetry that exists as ‘folk ballads’ or is composed spontaneously for a specific occasion … Landays are always sung, accompanied by the women’s instrument, the taborin (tsamba), and the singing of landays is only performed when no men are near. (Boesen 1983:104)

In these landays women express their deepest feelings, fantasies, needs and ideas, especially in relation to their sexuality. According to Boesen, ‘women’s divergent consciousness, as expressed in the landays, in many ways rejects … male control of their persons, proposing instead a model of women’s management of their own bodies and their emotional life’ (1983:108). These landays show not only one aspect of women’s emotional lives, they also demonstrate what goes on in the sexual relationships of women outside marriage in a conservative society that ostensibly forbids such relationships (1983:108). This is equally true of the epigrammatic dobaiti (two lines) or chārbaiti (four lines) in the Persian-speaking territories in north, west and central Afghanistan, mainly among the Tajik and Hazara communities. The dobaiti or chārbaiti are commonly sung by women and accompanied by the dāria (a tambourine-like drum played by women) and they typically speak of the female world, expressing women’s emotions, needs and sentimental feelings.39 Tajik society is considered to be more open than that of the Pashtuns. However, the explicit references to the world of women and love affairs that are characteristic of the dobaiti and chārbaiti caused the religious establishment in the Hazara communities to forbid their performance (Khawari 2003:8). This has not stopped their widespread popularity among the population in general, and women in particular.40

Although Afghanistani women generally face marginalisation and oppression, the diverse customs within Afghanistani society and the alternative female discourses fostered in female spaces and expressed strongly in musical and poetic forms such as the landay and dobaiti suggest that there are spaces in the traditional way of life for women to challenge dominant gender ideologies and practices.

1     Pankhurt notes that ‘gender includes the way in which society differentiates appropriate behaviour and access to power for women and men. In practice, this has entailed the privileging of men over women’ (Pankhurt 2004:26). According to Yuval-Davis, ‘women’s oppression is endemic and integral to social relations with regard to the distribution of power and material resources’ (1997:7).

2     There are no words for female and male in Persian.

3     According to Audrey Shalinsky, the ‘use of the singular, zan (woman), connected to the lack of fidelity, emphasizes the innate or generic quality of women’s faithlessness’ (1986:327).

4     In discussing women’s sexuality, Muslim jurists use the word yuftinu (with the same root with fitna), which literally means ‘to charm or enamour someone’. Therefore these jurists intimately connect seduction with sedition (Pandolfo 1997: 156–62; see also Mernissi 1987:41–44).

5     ‘Women’s reproductive roles were more fetishized in the context of Afghanistan’s ethnic, tribal and kinship-based patriarchy in which women, labour and land are owned by men’ (Joseph & Naǧmābādī 2003:134).

6     The bridegroom pays a considerable amount of money to the bride’s family (toyāna), depending on the region, the social and economic reputation of the woman’s family, and even the skills she has. For example, in northern parts of the country where women work in the carpet weaving industry, their skills and the type of carpet they weave are significant factors in the amount of money demanded for their dowry. In some areas people pay the required sum in kind such as cows, bulls and blocks of land. As a result, the woman becomes the property of the man in the new household. The only difference between her and other commodities in the household is that the husband has exclusive sexual access to her.

7     ‘Several cultural theorists have pointed out that, in many cultures, women are believed to embody the essence of their culture and group identity, and are thought to be repositories of family honour’ (Mahalingam 2013: 123).

8     Tapper notes that a ‘man’s nāmus depends on the propriety first of his mother, unmarried sisters and daughters and occasionally more distant female agnates, and second, his wife’ (1991:107).

9     ‘Honour killings forms part of what has been termed “traditional justice” or “tribal justice”, a contested form of private retribution that many find unwarranted’ (Knudsen 2004:1). It is common both in Western and traditional societies (Baker, Gregware & Cassidy 1999:164–84; Dogan 2011:423). Honour killing is not specific to a certain society, but is ‘an integral part of the process of killing women by their families or intimates, regardless of where the woman lives’ (Baker, Gregware & Cassidy 1999:164; see also Abu-Odeh 1996; Dogan 2011).

10   According to Malti-Douglas there is a connection between a woman’s body and its commercial significance that brings honour into play. She asserts that a ‘woman’s body is seen as a commercial object, whose value is linked to its “honor” [… and] if absent, will surely lead to her death’ (1991:142–43).

11   ‘And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be modest, and display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornment save to their husbands or fathers or husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their brothers or their brothers sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness’. (Koran 31:24)

12   ‘The honour ethic, as it applies to women’s sexuality, is not specific to Islam; it is observed in other religions as well [and is] still deeply entrenched in most Christian Mediterranean societies’ (Kocturk 1992:56).

13   However, Nancy Tapper’s fieldwork with Durrani Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan shows that, in practice, gender relations are more complicated. Although both men and women ‘accept’ the superiority of men, and ‘in spite of Durrani statements that the control of women is the most important dimension of these ideologies [of responsibility and honour and shame], it is clear that claims to an honourable status depend far more on the economic and political resources a man controls than on the behaviour of the women of his household’ (Tapper 1991:238–39).

14   While increasingly Muslim women are veiling, there are a wide range of styles and multiple meanings attached to its practice (see MacLeod 1992; Abu-Odeh 1993; El Guindi 1999; Boullock 2002).

15   The word hijāb, according to anthropological and Islamic feminists, refers to space or dimension, which usually stands for ‘a sacred divide or separation between two worlds and two spaces: deity and mortals, good and evil, light and dark, believers and nonbelievers, aristocracy and commoners’ (El Guindi 1999:157).

16   However, Hekmat believes that while Muslim women acknowledge that veiling has operated within the network of the patriarchal system that regulates and controls women, they also use this institution to liberate themselves from male dominance and to gain freedom and agency (1997:183).

17   Kazem claims that the chādari was not part of Afghanistani women’s clothing, but was introduced from India in the 19th century. He argues that until the late 1830s women were not obliged to wear the chādari. It was brought by the Indian Muslim women who accompanied British troops in the First Anglo–Afghan War (1839–42). During the war, the Afghan ulama issued fatwās forbidding women from leaving home without covering themselves, so they wore the newly introduced chādari when leaving home (Kazem 2014). With the country further declining politically and economically, the chādari became compulsory, especially in the cities.

18   Queen Suraya was the first Afghanistani woman to discard the veil in 1928 (Poullada 1973:83–84) and an estimated 100 women, mainly wives of government officials, followed suit (Gregorian 1969:244).

19   Indeed the initiative and the campaign for lifting the veil at this time came from the students and teachers of the newly established collage of midwifery. The government agreed and quietly put it into practice (see Farhang 1992:689).

20   According to Dupree, ‘the emphasis on the legal equality of women is one of the more important aspects of the 1964 constitution’ (1973:532).

21   Radicalisation or Islamisation of a society takes place when political Islamic activists ‘advocate total adherence to the sharī‘ā … as formulated in the medieval period and see in Islam a monolithic religio-political to countervail competing Western ideology’ (Afsaruddin 1999:4).

22   Sharia, or Islamic law, was developed from the Koran and hadiths by four traditional law schools, each of which was regarded as authoritative in one or another part of the Islamic world. In Afghanistan the Hanafia School is considered the authoritative school.

23   As Charlotte Bunch argues, fundamentalists in every religion, including Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, ‘insist that women identify with the particular narrow identity of their group and disavow “the other”. Most demand that women be carriers of the cultural purity of their group’ (Bunch 2001:133).

24   Toyāna (bride price) is different from mahr (dowry), which is an essential part of the marriage contract in Islam; it is specified as a payment to the bride herself by the groom.

25   It happened that in Kandahar, ‘three literacy workers from the women’s organization were killed as symbols of the unwanted revolution’ (Moghadam 1994b:223).

26   ‘“The Main Outlines of the Revolutionary Tasks” proclaimed the eradication of illiteracy; equality for women; an end to ethnic discrimination; a larger role for the state in the national economy; and the abolition of “feudal and pre-feudal relationships”—code of the power of landowners, traditional leaders, and mullahs, especially in the countryside’ (Braithwaite 2011:42).

27   The party was also engaged in fighting within it own rank and file, which resulted in the ousting and murdering of its leader, Noor Muhammad Tarki, and the purging of many military officers from the army and the party. For more on the leftist government reforms and the internal and international response, see Braithwaite 2011.

28   Not surprisingly, in the words of Matsumoto, people look ‘at the Communist era as a “golden age” of literacy’ (2013:42).

29   Interestingly, this study among Afghan refugee women shows that ‘the top priority identified by almost all the groups was education: for the Hazaras it was education in general, but especially literacy; for the Pashtun women it was skills training’. These women believed that they could improve their lives if they had some education (Squire and Germi 1998:21).

30   All these methods have been used by the Taliban since their removal from power in 2001.

31   One of the effective ways the USA supported the mujahideen was by providing them with ‘psychological’ support. In 1983, for example, the USA formed the inter-agency Afghan Working Group, which met twice a month to discuss ways to increase media coverage of the war and generate sympathy and support for the mujahideen. To make the mujahideen themselves active on the propaganda front, the USA Information Agency subcontracted Boston University’s College of Communication to train the mujahideen to use television, radio and newspaper to advance their cause (Blum 2004). The American diplomatic mission in Pakistan became a centre of briefing about the war in Afghanistan. Foreign journalists, who had poured into Pakistan, but could not travel inside Afghanistan, relied heavily on these briefings.

32   In a 1998 interview with the French press, the former national security advisor Zbigniew Brezeninski spoke about the secret aid to the mujahideen and how it provoked Russia to invade the country:

According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahiddin began during 1980, this is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention … It had the effect of drawing the Russian into the Afghan trap … The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war’. (Quoted in Gibbs 2004:314)

33   According to Peter Tomsen, the American ambassador to the mujahideen in Pakistan in the late 1980s, ‘these madrasas turned young Afghan refugees…into fanatics trained to kill Muslims and non-Muslims alike on command’ (2011:377).

34   Note that the condition of Afghanistani women refugees in Iran was completely different, especially with regard to access to education and social interaction. They had the opportunity to receive formal education; particularly those women who arrived in Iran prior to 1990. Unlike in Pakistan, only a very small number of Afghanistani refugees in Iran (less than 2%) ended up in the camps. The majority were dispersed in urban areas (see Squire and Germi 1998:19; Chatty 2010:7).

35   Tapper notes that the segregation of men and women ‘is related to the division of labor by which women are confined to domestic activities, while economic and political decisions outside the domestic sphere are the prerogative of men’ (1991:105).

36   While generally women in Afghanistan have little say in social and political issues, there are some examples that contradict this rule. For example, Josiah Harlan, who visited Afghanistan in the early 19th century, writes this about Hazara women:

Hazara men display a remarkable deference of the opinions of their wives, especially on grave occasions, which impresses a stranger with surprise, when that deference is contested with the indifference and contempt usually prevailing amongst Mohammedans in their treatment and opinion of the sex. The sexes participate in the domestic responsibility and in the labours and pleasures of their conditions. Seclusion of the women is not practiced, less dependence being placed on bolts and bars for the preservation of female virtue than is allowed to sense of prudence and the influence of honour. They associated with them as equal companions, arrogate no superior pretensions of pre-eminence, consult with them on all occasions, and weighty matters, when they are not present, defer a conclusion until the opinions of their women can be heard. (Harlan 1939:121–22)

37   See Doubleday 2006, which is based on her memoirs in Afghanistan in the early 1970s.

38   A landay is made up of two couplets, the first shorter—nine syllables—and the second longer—twelve and thirteen syllables (Hewadmal 1987:177). Jon W Anderson notes that landays ‘are the preferred voice for speaking of vitality, passion, exuberance and other qualities’ (1985:207), and Majrouh asserts that they speak to ‘the themes of love, honor, and death’ (2010:xvi). Landays can be found among different Pashtun communities in south and east Afghanistan. For examples of landays translated into English, see Majrouh 2010.

39   For more information about the dobaiti or chārbaiti, see Doubleday 2011.

40   For a fine collection of Harazagi dobaities, see Khawari 2003.

Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

   by Faridullah Bezhan