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Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

Chapter Three


Short biography of Maryam Mahboob

Maryam Mahboob was born in 1955 in Maimana in northern Afghanistan. Her mother, Belqis Mahboob, was a housewife and illiterate, her father was educated and worked as a public servant in various provinces of Afghanistan. Like many intellectual women in Afghanistan, Mahboob’s education was supported by her mother despite her mother’s own illiteracy. Mahboob received her primary education in Maimana and Herat, and her secondary education in Kabul. She later received a BA from Tehran University. This provided her with an opportunity to become deeply familiar with the condition of Afghanistani women in various areas of the country and abroad.

Mahboob was acquainted with literate and illiterate women, and urban and rural-based women. She worked as a journalist on two leading publications in the early 1970s, Zhwandoon (Life) and Anis (Companion), where she published most of her short stories before leaving Afghanistan. Mahboob went to Pakistan in the early 1980s because of her opposition to the leftist government. She emigrated with a peer group of writers and artists that included her future husband and in Pakistan she supported the mujahideen and their cause. However, the socio-political environment in Pakistan was such that, as a female writer, she had to live in hiding and publish under a pseudonym, despite the fact she had been the first author to write ‘jihadi’ fiction. This experience was a tough lesson on how the mujahideen treated ordinary people, and women in particular, and it led her to a different understanding of the true nature of the jihadists. In order to find sanctuary, Mahboob moved to India after just a year in Pakistan. Although the Indian government supported the leftist Kabul regime, the mujahideen groups were very influential, even in Delhi. In 1986, Mahboob emigrated to Canada, where she continues to live with her husband, Zalmai Babakohi, a writer and poet. In the early 1990s she contributed to the establishment of a short-lived newspaper, Wāzha (The Word) and since 1996 she and Babakohi have published a bi-weekly newspaper, Zarnegār, which is one of the major Afghanistani newspapers published outside the country. Since its inception, Mahboob and Babakohi have expanded Zarnegār to publish books and the press has so far published two collections of Mahboob’s short stories.1

Despite being a political writer, Mahboob was not a member of any political party or organisation. Her early works were strongly concerned with class struggle—a Marxist theme—yet she did not support the leftist regime, which advocated such ideas in its official policy. After the emergence of the new regime and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, she became disillusioned with the government. Mahboob not only abandoned class struggle as the focal point of her short stories, she began to write works in support of the mujahideen, a change of philosophy and approach that was perhaps due to her nationalist sentiments. But, as discussed above, her support for the mujahideen was short-lived. After residing in areas under their control, including Peshawar, Mahboob became one of the most vocal opponents of the mujahideen and the atrocities they committed.

Mahboob’s approach to writing fiction sheds light on the cultural conditions of a country that lacked formal opportunities to learn the art of writing and had a limited capacity to publish its writers. The school curriculum lacked any subject on contemporary literature, let alone creative writing or even composition. Thus, no guide to the art of fiction was available to Mahboob. Yet she had to find a way to learn. She started writing fiction when she was a student at Aysha Durrani High School in the 1960s. According to her own account, she was a member of a group of five girls who were committed to reading contemporary literature and to writing. They regularly read novels published in Iran, watched movies (mostly Indian and Iranian) and produced synopses of them (encompassing their subjective responses) to read to their peers. They also tried their own hand at writing stories. However, they had no one but each other to read their stories, nor did they contemplate seeking publication in magazines or newspapers, neither of which were available in the school library.2 Interestingly, Mahboob published her stories in a children’s weekly, Kamkyāno Anis (Little Companion), after graduating from school.3 This shows the difficulties young people in general, and women in particular, had in becoming published writers in Afghanistan in those days. Mahboob’s destiny changed after she joined the publications Anis and later Zhwandoon. She published her works in Anis, Pashtun Zhagh (The Voice of Pashtun) and Zhwandoon, and was broadcast on Kabul Radio. In the absence of any literary journals, the weekly magazine Zhwandoon was the most significant publication in Afghanistan4, not only because it published the major literary works of Afghanistani writers and poets, but because some distinguished writers of the time served on its staff.5 Indeed, working on Zhwandoon provided Mahboob with the opportunity to come into direct contact with some of the country’s most outstanding contemporary writers and to benefit from their advice and encouragement. According to her own statements, Najib Rahiq (the journal’s editor-in-chief) and the leading Afghanistani author Rahnaward Zaryab were among those writers from whom she received great encouragement.6 Some of the works that Mahboob published in Zhwandoon later appeared in the collection Khāna-i Delgir (The confined house), which was published in Kabul by Afghanistan’s Writers’ Association in 1990 while she was living in Canada.7

Another factor that changed her life and career was her travel outside Afghanistan for higher education. At the age of nineteen she went to Iran to study Persian literature at Tehran University. This opened up an opportunity to learn about classical and modern Persian literature and to focus more on studying and writing fiction. It also came with the prospect of developing a sense of independence. In those days it was not common for girls of her age from an ordinary family to go outside alone, including in the pursuit of further studies; only women from the upper class were privileged to do so. It encouraged her to leave Afghanistan for good and she left only a year after returning from Iran in 1980. For a young and unmarried woman to leave her homeland and search for sanctuary with a group of male colleagues stood in total contrast to the cultural norms of the time, and doing so showed the extent of her determination and desire for autonomy. Her decision was also rooted in the changes and developments that took place in the era and, in some ways, Mahboob and her writing can be seen to be very much a product of the socio-political and cultural developments in Afghanistan since the early 1960s.

The 1960s and the emergence of new voices

Mahboob belongs to the generation of authors who emerged in the late 1960s, a decade that is located between two distinctive periods: first, the period during which a nation-state was established, beginning in the late 19th century and concluding with the establishment of the constitutional monarchy in 1964; and second, the year 1978, which saw the emergence of the leftist regime and the outbreak of a war that still continues.8 A common feature of both of these periods is dictatorship. Mahboob’s generation of writers often looked to Western cultural models rather than indigenous ones. As writers, they were the product of a familiarity with Western literature rather than an education in the indigenous literary tradition. (Some of them had a comparatively deep understanding of classical Persian literature.) Literature of this period became an experiment with new and essentially Western literary genres. It also became a means for exploring and analysing social, political and cultural realities, most of the time through the lenses of various foreign ideologies. The ground for such an approach was laid by at least two developments. The first was the ratification of the new constitution (1964), which resulted in, among other things, the establishment of political parties and new dynamics in political and cultural activities. The second was a growing familiarity with Western culture. This included an increasing familiarity with its literature, as it became more accessible, particularly as translation of such works made in Iran or Afghanistan became available (see Bezhan 2005).

While in the past most Afghanistani writers belonged to upper-class families, the majority of the writers of Mahboob’s generation belonged to lower middle-class families. They positioned themselves and their work in opposition to the government, were critical of current socio-political and cultural conditions and demanded change, although they did not necessarily agree on the nature of the change they were looking for. They seized on the publishing opportunities presented by new cultural platforms, which included a number of emerging state and privately owned newspapers and magazines. Although the scale of opportunity became much greater in the 1980s (both inside and outside Afghanistan), the cultural expansion of the 1960s offered sufficient encouragement for this tiny group of writers to experiment with conventions of new literary genres and to express their political and ideological viewpoints. While these authors made their voice heard to the literary establishment and the media, to a great extent they remained outsiders. Edward Said might have referred to them as ‘armature intellectuals’; they were individuals who never fully belonged to social authorities such as the media, the government or corporations, but rather developed and maintained themselves as the authors ‘of a language that tries to speak the truth to power’ (Said 1994:xiv).

Prior to the 1960s, realist works of fiction made up a considerable portion of modern Afghanistani literature, but during this decade ‘reality’ began to be read through class. Writers who were politically oriented toward the Left began to produce work that shows the influence of the method of socialist realism of the former Soviet Union and the realism of 19th-century Europe.9 Maryam Mahboob belonged to this group of left-leaning writers.

The 1960s is one of the most significant periods in the history of modern Afghanistan in terms of the new ideologies and politics that were introduced during this time. It was also the last decade of monarchy in Afghanistan. Until the ratification of the 1964 Afghanistan Constitution and the subsequent ‘constitutional decade’ (1964–73), Afghanistan was ruled by an absolute monarch. After the proclamation of the constitution, diverse political groups began to emerge, with ideological and political dispositions that ranged from liberal to social democrat to ultra-nationalist to Islamist to leftist. They organised themselves in opposition to the government or in response to one another.10 Many of them operated on an ad hoc basis, without much organisational structure, while some modelled themselves on political parties. They did not pose a threat to the status quo at the time. However, during the constitutional decade, Hezb-i Demokratik Khalq-i Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA) and Jamyat-i Islami (The Islamic Association) emerged from this group of parties to play an important role in Afghanistani politics,11 and they have remained active and influential.12

During the 1960s and early 1970s Afghanistan’s engagement with the outside world reached a peak. Foreign feature films, books, magazines and journals, music and other cultural influences flooded into the country; some were in their original form while others were translations from Iran. A large number of students were sent overseas for higher education and many foreign experts were employed. Foreign tourism to Afghanistan also thrived. Cultural activities, such as conferences, seminars, exhibitions, concerts, theatre and language courses, were frequently arranged by foreign embassies (many of them Western). Richard Newell and Nancy Newell argue that the promise of this era of exchange and competition was ‘most evident in the sudden freedom of the intellectuals and professionals to associate openly with each other and with foreigners’ (Newell & Newell 1981:44).

The emergence of active political parties and an independent media sparked heated debates on social, political and cultural issues that were carried out in parliament, via public demonstrations and through the press.13 One of the main themes debated was women’s issues. Some parties established women’s associations, especially the leftist parties such as the PDPA and Sazman-i Jawanan-i Mutaraqi (Progressive Youth Organisation or PYO).14 But it was not only on the political level that women’s rights were debated and achieved. Rapid changes also occurred on the social level and these were especially evident in the alterations to women’s appearances and the dress code among the educated classes that were occurring. Afghanistani historian Mohammed Ali observed the situation thus:

[The] Afghan girl is experiencing a new freedom in living and in new ways of dressing. Instead of dressing in the ways her mother did at her age, an educated Afghan girl slips quickly into exactly the kind of costume worn by her counterpart in London, Paris or New York. Instead of plaiting her hair, she bobs it in European fashion, pulls on some fine nylon stockings, pushes her feet into moccasins, and dabs her smiling lips with bright red lipstick. (Ali 1969:77–78)

Although this adaptation of Western dress codes predominantly took place in the cities and among the educated and upper classes, it was symptomatic of the rapid change, and the emancipation of women in particular, that Afghanistani society was experiencing in the 1960s. While at the political level the initiative for women’s emancipation was in the hands of the leftist parties and left-minded intellectuals, at the social level, especially with regard to the appearance of women, change was led by women of the upper class. The members of the first group believed that, through increased political awareness and participation, women could achieve their rights; it was the leftist parties that organised mass strikes in which women actively participated. The members of the second group had little interest in political activities and were more interested in pursuing a modern lifestyle. They managed to organise activities such as ‘Miss Beauty’, which was called Dokhtar-i Sāl (Girl of the Year). The project was run by Zhwandoon magazine; women from the upper classes actively supported it. Despite their different aims, the activities of both groups were met with opposition from conservative elements and Islamist activists. Unveiled women who wore Western fashion, and especially those who participated in women’s rallies, were consistently threatened by Islamist activists. At a women’s rally in Kabul in April 1970, supporters of Islamic parties threw acid on female students, severely injuring many of the protesters.15

During this period, a relatively large number of people turned to writing fiction, not purely for its aesthetic value but also for its possibilities as a medium for expressing their political and ideological viewpoints. Throughout her career Mahboob has been a political thinker. Her early works deal with explicitly political issues, especially class struggle, which was a popular theme in Afghanistani literature at the time. In subsequent works, a developing interest in the subtler politics of gender issues is evident in her exploration of women’s issues.

Diaspora and social restrictions

Severe restrictions on women’s mobility and their modesty were not confined to the refugee camps in Pakistan or other areas under mujahideen control. Afghanistani migrants in the West had also been struggling with these issues. In the 1980s when the campaign for jihad and Western support for the mujahideen were at their strongest, the mujahideen exerted great control over migrants in Western countries.

The migrants’ social patterns were largely connected to the nature of the different phases of war in Afghanistan. In the 1980s the war was mainly concentrated in rural areas and the majority of migrants during this period were villagers. In the 1990s the war was fought in the towns, primarily in Kabul, and it was mainly people from urban areas, especially the educated class, who migrated. This phase of migration caused a dramatic change in the dynamics that existed within these migrant communities in the West. While extremists could no longer openly campaign or force Muslim women to act ‘modestly’ in the West, especially as Western support for the mujahideen waned, the new migrants’ rejection of Islamic radicalisation came into tension with the existing Afghanistani communities in the West who had been responsive to it. Afghanistani author and journalist Sana Mateen Nekpay, who migrated to Canada in the mid 1990s, describes the control of the mujahideen groups or tanzims over the Afghanistani community in Toronto during the 1980s and the tensions it created:

Religion had an extreme influence. The situation was maintained by official support for the jihad and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. While one cannot ignore the struggle and cultural resistance of some migrants, the dominating view in the community was based on jihad and war and the tanzims’ ideologies. In this situation any different approach was harshly suppressed. In the 1990s new Afghan migrants came to Canada who, as a result of the mujahideen’s suppression, killing and looting, had left their homeland. The new migrants who had escaped from Afghanistan because of religious radicalisation and extremism and imposing unnecessary restrictions, were faced with similar restrictions in Toronto. As a result ideological and personal conflict emerged within the community. Because the mass media as well as religious and cultural institutions were under the monopoly of the tanzims, they easily succeeded in defaming and accusing people of heresy and suppressed [the voice] of the vocal new migrants. I was one of the victims of this period who have been targeted by the leaders of these tanzims. (Nekpay 2009)

This explains why most Afghanistani authors living in diaspora kept silent and produced no literary work in the 1980s and it explains the gap of more than ten years in Mahboob’s writing. It also demonstrates how significant her work is in dealing with issues that were not popular among the mujahideen groups. Another important aspect of her work is that its subject matter deals with the sensitive issues of Afghanistani women and Western culture, and how they intersect inside and outside Afghanistan. Mahboob’s main female characters are born in Afghanistani society, are bound by its sociocultural codes of conduct and try to challenge them, regardless of whether they succeed or fail.16 There is not a single story in which a female character does not try to change her ‘inevitable’ fate in one way or another, even if some pay a heavy price for doing so.

Mahboob and feminism

What does it mean to be a woman according to Mahboob’s short stories? Her stories portray women who are overwhelmed by oppression, but are nonetheless characterised by their attempts to overcome it. Is Mahboob a feminist author, then? She herself denies being a ‘feminist’.17 However, a close study of her works reveals her approach as feminist in nature. According to Chandra Mohanty, women from a non-Western background may see the term ‘feminism’ with particular scepticism

Feminist movements have been challenged on the grounds of cultural imperialism, and of short-sightedness in defining the meaning of gender in terms of middle-class, white experiences, and in terms of internal racism, classism, and homophobia … [these perceptions] have led to a very real suspicion of ‘feminism’ as a productive ground for struggle. (Mohanty 1991a:7)

Kumari Jaywardena goes further, arguing that in Third World societies, most people see feminism as a ‘product of “decadent” Western capitalism’ [… that] alienates women from their culture, religion and family responsibilities’ (1982:1). Geraldine Heng concurs, and notes that because feminism has often been viewed as a Western import, it is seen as being at odds with nationalist commitments. The feminist archetype presents a ‘subversive figure, at once of a destabilising modernity and of a presumptuous Western imperialism’ (1997:34). Feminist agendas have attracted even more resentment in the Islamic world, although as Muslim feminist Leila Ahmed (1982a:162) argues, ‘feminism is irreconcilably in conflict with the dominant ideologies in the West to more or less the same extent that it is with the Islamic’.18 Therefore, it can not be too great a surprise if most Afghanistani women do not identify their interests and their struggle for gender equality belonging to a feminist movement.19

The different responses of Muslim women to feminism, for which there is no equivalent term in Persian or Pashtu, are integrally linked to the politics of communal identity.20 In Afghanistan feminism is strongly associated with notions of Western culture, sexual orientation and social disruption. While some women activists, including .equality and empowerment, publicly they deny being ‘feminist’. To identify as such would cause widespread criticism and further political marginalisation, which would have a disruptive impact on the task of raising the issues affecting Afghanistani women’s lives. Addressing these issues is the priority, and if an association with ‘foreign ideologies’ might result in that woman being perceived as a disseminator of corrupting Western ideas, the avoidance of this association may be considered a practical decision as much as an ideological one. Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian-born writer, articulates her response to feminist identification with her writing as follows:

I don’t deal with great ideological issues. I write about the little happenings of everyday life. Being a woman, and African born, I see things through an African woman’s eyes. I chronicle the little happenings in the lives of the African women I know. I did not know that by doing so I was going to be called a feminist. But if I am now a feminist then I am an African feminist with a small ‘f’! (Emecheta 1988:175).

Not all works by women writers can be considered ‘feminist’. Gayle Greene argues that ‘feminist fiction’ is not the same as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘fiction by women’. A literary work ‘may be termed “feminist” for its analysis of gender as socially constructed and for its enlistment of narrative in the process of change’ (Greene 1991:292). Margaret Drabble (1983:159) claims that women write and read ‘in order to find patterns or images for a possible future’, to create ‘a new pattern, a new blueprint’. Mahboob observes and articulates the experience of gender discrimination and voices the need for change. This gives her works a feminist outlook. In the introduction to Gum, Mahboob writes:

The stories in this collection, which are mostly images of affliction of my gender, cannot discard the social contract values, but they challenge them and question them in order to reach a better understanding of the deeds of our metamorphosed [condition], and learn about the invisibility of our gender and our generation and to contemplate the reasons. (Mahboob 1999:1)

Mahboob and political struggle

Mahboob was not a member of any political party, but she belongs to the generation of leftist writers in Afghanistan who shared a commitment to literature and hostility toward the socio-political establishment. This was at a time when a commitment to creating a national literature became popular among writers in the mid-1960s. The emergence of political parties and an independent press as a result of the ratification of the 1964 Afghanistan Constitution led to a boom in literature as a means of both political expression and political propaganda. In these works, the main focus was a so-called reflection of reality, especially class struggle and the suffering (economic, social and emotional) of the lower class at the hands of the upper class. The majority of young writers, including Mahboob, began their careers writing this type of literature.21 Thus, Mahboob’s early work shows her to be a committed writer for whom class struggle overshadowed all other aspects of life. In these works, as the outcome of class division, the rich become richer, through their exploitation of the poor, and the poor become poorer and suffer more as a result. A typical short story of this type is ‘Chāgh-hā wa lāghar-hā’ (‘The fats and the thins’)22 in which a group of working men earn so little that every day is a struggle for survival (Mahboob 1990:1–36). The mega-building where they work

had only one metal gate which in the morning opened to swallow a big number of labourers, then it was shut until sunset when it regurgitated them. (Mahboob 1990:1)

Instead of increasing the labourers’ wages, the owner of the building gradually decreases their pay. One day the labours do not receive their payment and they set the building on fire.

In these works, Mahboob does not identify gender discrimination as the cause of women’s misery, but poverty. This can be seen in ‘Yak zan wa yak mazdour’ (‘A woman and a servant’) and ‘Do rāh’ (‘Two paths’). In the first story, a tubercular peasant woman, Sakina, is a servant in the house of a rich man whose wife abuses Sakina continuously. ‘Sakina realised how distanced she was from that woman’ (Mahboob 1990:41) The origin of Sakina’s ostracisation is class and the division between her and the landlord’s wife exists in spite of the commonality they might have had as women:

The landlord’s wife with her fat body and big breasts, who did nothing but eat and sleep, stood in front of her and gave her commands. She commanded, summoned her and shouted at her and criticised her for everything she did. (Mahboob 1990:39)

In ‘Do rāh’, a young, poor widow has to choose between her future and that of her adolescent son, Akbar. After the death of her husband the family struggles for survival, unable to even pay the rent. When she leaves their home the neighbourhood women whisper about her behind her back and she must wear the chādari, which she finds oppressive:

She could hardly move her body ahead. Her heart was beating fast under the chādari. Occasionally she thought to herself to throw away the chādari, to claw her hair, to open her mouth and shout the loudest she could. But she did none of them. For her relief, she only moaned a bit under the chādari. (Mahboob 1990:77)

As a result, she leaves the house as little as possible. Despite encouraging Akbar to stay in school, he leaves to take up a job with a blacksmith. The blacksmith indirectly shows his desire to marry Akbar’s mother and she also shows some feeling for him (1990:84). However Akbar hates his master talking about his mother and one day, after a fight, Akbar leaves his job. His mother, who has never outwardly indicated any feelings for the blacksmith—so as not to hurt her son—supports Akbar’s action and even seems happy to sacrifice any further contact with the blacksmith (1990:95). The widow finally convinces her son to return to school and she in turn works in the houses of others to earn a living. This story shows how class and gender inequality make a woman’s life miserable. The widow cannot show her feelings towards the blacksmith, because tradition demands that she spend her life looking after her son. Society expects her to sacrifice and suppress her personal interests in order to bring up son who is not ashamed of his family. However, if the widow had an independent means of living, she would not be treated as a sexual object or be the subject of gossip and innuendo.

Mahboob and the war story

The leftist coup of 1978 had a tremendous impact on the literature of Afghanistan. While a new generation of writers emerged on both sides of politics, the elite authors who were already established had to respond to the new situation. While some decided to abandon writing, at least for the time being, others sided with the new regime. Mahboob chose to side with the mujahideen and promote their cause in her narrative works. She published a collection of short stories, Darakht-hā kārtoos gul mekonand (The trees bear bullets), in Pakistan in 1982.23

In Darakht-hā kārtoos gul mekonand, the main characters have all lost someone at the hands of the Russian soldiers and are fighting for revenge. The enemy is not a specific personality or an individual, but Russians in general. Her characters succeed by undertaking extraordinary feats. However, Darakht-hā kārtoos gul mekonand is a work of propaganda and has little literary merit. There is no depiction of Russian’s cruelty, except in ‘Yā Ali madad!’ (‘Ali, help me!’),24 which describes the nightly executions of Afghanistani prisoners. Instead, most of these stories concentrate on the importance of jihad. The main characters are the mujahideen, who all have good manners, behave well and are considered liberators. Amazingly, the settings of all these stories are rural Afghanistan and the people fighting against the Russians are all villagers. In none of the stories in this collection do we encounter people from the cities fighting against the leftist regime and the Russian soldiers.

Of the five short works that make up this collection, only one, ‘Yak gur barāy hama’ (‘One grave for all’) is devoted to the story of a woman, Gauhar. In this story, Gauhar’s village has been deserted after its destruction by Russian bombardment, and she is burying dead bodies in a single grave all by herself. Instead of leaving the village, she takes cover in a tower and shoots at the enemy. Her husband, Haidar, who has left the village to fight the Russians in the nearby mountains, once fired at the enemy from the same tower with the same rifle Gauhar uses. Gauhar does not want the rifle to be seized by the enemy. She dies dressed in Haidar’s clothes. The story makes little reference to the gender-related issues Gauhar might have faced, but the main idea behind the story’s plot may have been to acknowledge women’s participation in the national struggle and to present the idea that women have the same strong patriotic feelings as men. Anne Simpson notes that there is a history of representing women’s engagement in warfare as evidence of their equality with men:

Women are acknowledged when they engage in actions that have become noteworthy and significant in the male scheme of social [and political] happening. The obstacles to them doing so are carefully kept a separate issue. Taking up arms is therefore given a lot of attention. It has become the touchstone of any discussion of women in liberation struggles, as if it proves that they are doing something fully equal with men, and therefore shows that they have left the bad old days behind. (Simpson 1983:895)

The occupation of Afghanistan by the USSR in late 1979 was an event that overshadowed everything else going on in the country. In ‘Yak gur barāy hama’, Gauhar faces no other problem than the presence of the Russian soldiers. Before their arrival, she lived in love and harmony with her husband and the community. But suddenly the Russian troops come and upset everything. Everybody is overwhelmed by the occupation. Here, the struggle of a woman is represented as the liberation of her homeland, which can be achieved through avenging the death of her menfolk. In this story, Mahboob unsuccessfully attempts to portray Gauhar as the symbol of the watan or homeland.25 While Gauhar succeeds in her two main goals, burying the dead and killing several enemy soldiers, she eventually is killed. But the significance of her actions lies in the fact that even her dead body does not fall into the hands of the enemy. Her body represents the honour of the community.

The stories in Darakht-hā kārtoos gul mekonand suffer from shortcomings that include characters and incidents based on stereotypes, a general lack of verisimilitude, predictable endings and even poor use of language. But the significance of the collection lies in the fact that it is the first attempt by a writer to introduce the subject of the war and its impact on Afghanistani women. Here Mahboob turns her fictional works into a battleground for the political confrontation between different ideologies and politics raging in her home country. After the collection’s publication, Mahboob soon discovered that writing short stories with an explicit political agenda no longer satisfied her. As we will see later, she skilfully turned her pen to depicting fundamental issues faced by Afghanistani women at home and abroad.26

Women and trauma

One of the main elements that mark the lives of Mahboob’s female characters is trauma. Trauma is defined as ‘a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind’, and is experienced in ‘response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena’ (Caruth 1996:3, 91). According to Kalí Tal, the significance of trauma literature lies in ‘the need to tell and retell the story of the traumatic experience, to make it “real” both to the victim and to the community’ and to tell ‘a reality or truth that is not otherwise available’ (1996:21). In these works, authors deal with trauma as a ‘collective experience, an instrument of oppression, or as a means to explore and understand gender identity formation’. They ‘enact the directing outward of an inward, silent process to other witnesses, both within and outside the texts’ (Vickroy 2002:3).

Mahboob is one of the first Afghanistani authors to deal with trauma in narrative fiction. Two types of trauma can be recognised in her works: one is connected with the persistent social condition of women and the other is the result of an acute event experienced in the war. Often these types of trauma are experienced as one. As a subordinated group, Afghanistani women endure the trauma of oppression and this is a trauma that war often exacerbates.

It has been difficult for Afghanistani women to tell these trauma stories, some of which are beyond the limits of communication. The majority of Afghanistani women are illiterate and cannot express their feelings in written form. But above all, socio-cultural codes of conduct prohibit their telling; not only should women’s bodies be covered, so too should their voices. It would be shameful for women and their families to talk about their traumatic experiences, especially if rape was involved, or for women to show their grief to outsiders. As a result, despite their severe traumatic experiences, there is little information about the experiences of these women, including in the field of academia. The way Mahboob’s fiction addresses these experiences is of considerable importance. Not only does she show how Afghanistani women have been traumatised, she shows how they felt about it, endured it, reacted against it and yet kept silent.

Mahboob’s writing shows that the trauma of war not only affects individuals, but can affect entire communities, giving rise to a collective trauma that may ‘come to supply its prevailing mood and temper, dominate its imagery and its sense of self, [and] govern the way its members relate to one another’ (Erikson 1995:190).

During the war hundreds of thousands of women were widowed, disabled, or raped by armed groups, especially during the civil war between 1992 and 1996. Millions of women ended up in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, where they were also deprived of basic rights such as education and employment. For these women, trauma was experienced not only as ‘delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearances of hallucinations and other instructive phenomena’ (Caruth 1996:11), but also as an acute and intensely painful experience in the present. Some of Mahboob’s characters are struggling with the ramifications of events involving themselves or members of their family that occurred in the past, while others are struggling with wounds to their bodies and minds in the present. ‘Khāk-i Yusof’ (‘Yusof’s grave’) is an example of the former, and ‘Rajim’ and ‘Telesmāt’ belong to the latter group.

In ‘Khāk-i Yusof’, two of Bibijan’s sons have been killed, one after the other. When she tries to visit the mosque to see the body of one of her sons for the final time, she gets lost on the way. A neighbouring woman subtly holds her arm so as not to be seen by the Taliban and tries to persuade her not to go through with the visit:

—Where are you going, the path is this way?

Bibijan’s breath was short and hot sweat was dripping from her forehead. Bibijan lost her mind. She was talking to herself:

—I’ve lost my way. I am lost. Yusof’s death has ruined me and made me lost.

The woman neighbour once again said sympathetically:

—Bibijan they will not let you inside the mosque, where are you going?

—I am going to see his body. If I do not touch a tuft of his hair, if I do not see his eyes, my restless heart will never rest.

—Among hundreds of men you are not allowed to enter the mosque. Women are not allowed to enter a mosque, don’t you know?

Bibijan who was impatient, became even more impatient:

—Whether it is permitted or not I will go in. It is the funeral procession of my son. (Mahboob 1999:105–106)

However, at the mosque Bibijan is stopped from entering by a young Talib:

—Where are you going old woman?

Without paying any attention to the voice, Bibijan kept going.

—Where are you going?

With a tired body and melancholy spirit Bibijan turned towards the man with the domineering voice. A skinny young hairy man had stopped her, and impudently moved his hand to pull down the front of her chādari to cover her face.

—I asked you, where are you going?

Upset and glowering, Bibijan lifted the front of her chādari and uncovered her face once again. She stared at the young man. His cold look and evil eyes, and his strong hand with a whip wrapping around his fingers froze Bibijan and she replied:

—Where do you want me to go? I have come to the mosque to see my son’s body. (Mahboob 1999:107–108)

Bibijan is not allowed to enter the mosque and fulfil her simple wish of seeing and touching her dead son for the last time; instead, she is beaten by the man. The man does not have the least respect or sympathy for her as an old woman, or as a mother grieving for her son. For the young Talib the death of another young man means nothing. He fulfils his duty as an aloof creature. Bibijan has no option but to sit down:

She was staring at the faded gate of the mosque which was disappearing in a crowd of men. The blows of the whip of the young man did not make her move.

—No matter how many times you hit me with your whip, I am not going to move from here. (Mahboob 1999:108)

Bibijan has lost all the male members of her family except a son, Abdullah, who lives in Canada. Despite her unwillingness to leave Afghanistan, Abdullah brings her to Canada. In the new country she is cut off from all familiar things and is totally lost. For Bibijan, her homeland is synonymous with her sons’ graves, which she longs desperately to be near. In Canada she has no one to talk or listen to. She blames Abdullah:

—I told you hundreds of times that I was not going to come to Canada. What am I going to do here? … I told you so many times that I do not want to leave the graveyard of your brothers, which was a comfort for my sad heart. You’ve confined me in a tiny flat which has no rooftop, no dais or backyard. It is squeezed between the sky and the earth. From its windows only the sky can be seen. I cannot see the ground or people walking around. When I look down out of the window I feel dizzy. Walking up twenty floors will destroy my lungs … The firing of rockets and bullets did not kill me. The death of your brothers did not cause my death. But Canada will kill me. (Mahboob 1999:112–13)

Bibijan’s life is marked with the trauma of loss, and nothing can heal it, including her migration to Canada. As Dominick LaCapra explains,

certain wounds … cannot simply heal without leaving scars or residues in the present; there may even be a sense in which they have to remain as open wounds even if one strives to counteract their tendency to swallow all existence and incapacitate one as an agent in the present. (2001:144)

Bibijan never tries to counteract this tendency and migration to Canada only exacerbates her wounds. She carries her trauma all the time and everywhere. It remains what Kirby Farrell calls a ‘psychocultural’ matter, an injury that ‘demands to be interpreted [… and] integrated into character’ (Farrell 1998:6). The trauma of losing her children in the war follows her, subjecting her to continuous remembrance. This remembrance is not a choice but it requires ‘a learning to live with loss, a learning to live with a return of a memory that inevitably instantiates loss and thus bears no ultimate consolation’ (Didur 2006:130). The losses are so overwhelming that life itself has become a challenge for Bibijan. She loses the sense of herself and the meaning of life. Her trauma is a ‘wound of the mind—the breach in the mind’s experience of time, self and the world’ (Caruth 1996:3–4). What can Bibijan do in Canada? She knows no one and has little connection with her surroundings. Her only connection to the outside world is her son who works ‘during the days and sleeps in the nights’. Bibijan’s soul and memory is in another place. She eventually dies in despair in Canada.

Women and rebellion

Revolt is one of the main themes of Mahboob’s work. Her main characters all eventually rebel, though the kind of rebellion differs from one character to another. Her female characters not only dream of change in their lives, they actively work to bring it about. There are three types of rebellion in Mahboob’s works: firstly, the rebellions that occur in pre-war Afghanistan; secondly, those that occur during the war, when society was becoming radicalised; and finally, those rebellions carried out in diaspora. In these three contexts Mahboob’s characters respond to the treatment of women, adopting different forms of rebellion.

Traditionally, Afghanistani women are defined through their family. The self is rooted in the religious and familial traditions of the community rather than in the individualism of the West. This is the basis of the differences between what may be called feminism in Afghanistan and feminism in the West. The oppression faced by Afghanistani women has its own character and so does the revolt against it; Afghanistani women’s liberation does not end in a complete break from the family and the community. But when these women move to another type of society—a Western society—their cause changes along with their circumstances.

Mahboob’s short stories express a revolt against many of the norms and attitudes relating to women and their place in family and society. In some of her works, the revolt remains strictly within the indigenous framework, as is the case in ‘Khāna-i delgir’ (‘A confined house’) (Mahboob 1990:54–75). The main character in this story is conscious of her gender and of the problems associated with it. She loves school, but is prevented from attending, while her bad-mannered and violent brother continues with his education.27 At first her rebellion is directed at the deep-rooted traditions that value male over female. Her father, who dominates her life, believes that ‘a decent girl does not go to school’. She is outraged: ‘Why does my father let him go to school? Why should I stay home within these narrow walls?’ (1990:57). And so her world is ‘reduced to small room with a single window’ from which she watches ‘the outside world.’ In her home, ‘there are no bars on the windows, no barbed wire fences … the barriers to escape are generally invisible. They are nonetheless extremely powerful’ (Herman 1992:74). The girl rebels against her father by going to school secretly, but she does not run away from home. Culturally and economically a girl cannot leave her parents’ house because outside of it she has no place in society. Society would consider her ‘dishonoured’.28 In a society where women’s ‘primary obligation is to uphold family honour by conforming to accepted behavioural norms’ (Dupree 1998:63), the act of secretly going to school is a direct confrontation of the system by disregarding its barriers. It also challenges the very core of the patriarchal system, ‘the law of Father’ (Millard 1989:156). Despite the opposition of all members of her family and even the headmaster, the girl goes to school and manages to arrange everything from her books to her uniform by herself.

After that day I read and read. I found many books and confined myself to the room, and until late at night I was reading them. Gradually I learned writing … I had stepped into a new world, the wonderful world of the book and never separated from them again. (Mahboob 1990:69)

However, her father discovers her actions and locks her in a ‘confined room’ for a week. In the story’s highly moralistic ending, the girl is freed to go to school, while her brother commits murder and her father goes to jail as punishment for the crime.

It should be pointed out here that although ‘Khāna-i delgir’ was one of the first short stories Mahboob published, the two key themes of the story, the confinement of women and their rebellion, have continued to be the backbone of her later fiction. Rebellion is not an abstract idea for Mahboob. In ‘Khāna-i delgir’ the conflict is domestic, between father and daughter.

With the escalation of war and the spread of Islamic extremism, social change was accompanied by changes in the circumstances of women and in their strategies of rebellion. In war zones, kinship and family relationships were weakened and in some cases disintegrated. Everybody had to fight for survival. Women were deliberately targeted: for the sexual gratification of their assailants, as a means of humiliating rival ethnic groups, and as objects of a harshly implemented political and ideological authority. Under the severe conditions in the war zones and the refugee camps that were dominated by Islamic extremists and warlords, women were further oppressed. In these conditions, women’s rebellion centred on basic survival and the defence of their families, as ‘Hājji wa Arab’, ‘Rajim’ and ‘Telesmāt’ show.

Afghanistani women who migrated to Western countries turned their focus in other directions, as the stories ‘Shelter’, ‘Gum’ and ‘Sadā’ show. Once these women step into Western society, Afghanistani traditions and notions of individualism change according to the socio-political and cultural norms of the new society. In this new environment, a woman’s experiences, rather than her relations, define her and her quest for change. This is the milieu that the female character in ‘Shelter’ grapples with. In doing so, she realises her potential for happiness and finds her own values, rather than meekly accepting her traditional role.

Women’s struggle for liberation should be examined in the specific socio-political and cultural contexts in which they live and understand the dilemmas they are confronted by. These dilemmas are connected, on one level, to their loyalty to tradition—community, religious or national—and, on another, to their desire for gender equality. This conflict takes different forms in Islamic societies and Western countries. Muslim communities are preoccupied with the position of women and their role in the family and community. Concerns about preserving the integrity and purity of Islamic culture are linked to gender roles and to the family. In Muslim communities, women and their proper conduct are routinely used as ‘symbols of communal identity and markers of “tradition” and culture’ (Chhachhi 1991:162). Throughout much of the Muslim world, the Muslim identity of a community hinges on the regulation of family and personal matters (Shaheed 1994:1002). Muslim women, especially those who belong to a minority community in a non-Muslim society, are expected to be loyal to Islam and Islamic culture. Here Muslim women are considered the carriers of their culture and are expected to suppress their own needs and rights in favour of the interests of Islamic culture and the local community. But how do Muslim women themselves perceive these ideas and expectations? Many of Mahboob’s female characters are living in diaspora, shouldering the burden of representing the minority community of which they are a part. While initially reconciled to the notions described above, they eventually reject them. The rejection does not come all at once, but develops from seemingly unimportant actions that end up as significant decisions.

Mahboob’s female characters use different forms of agency. According to Saba Mahmood, agency is ‘the capacity to realise one’s own interest against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will, or other obstacles’ (2005:8).29 For Talal Asad, locating one’s ‘agency’ does not primarily mean locating the moments in which one can act, but rather examining the structure of possibilities that exist, enabling one to act (2003:78). Social actors operate within constraints that exist for them and they choose their strategies accordingly. ‘The experience of violent conflict and migration … is not built upon a single discourse’ and neither are the individuals’ responses to it: ‘as social actors, they face alternative ways of formulating their objectives, however restricted their sources’ (Moser & Clark 2001:4–5). In search of greater agency, Mahboob’s female characters act to the furthest extent of their potential according to the situation they find themselves in. Most of the time they achieve their goals.

Mother-father-daughter relationships

In almost all of Mahboob’s work dealing with the lives of women, especially young women, there is a mother alongside her daughter. Some of the stories that depict this relationship are ‘Khāna-i delgir’, ‘Hājji wa Arab’, ‘Sadā’, ‘Rajim’, ‘Maleka khwāb medeed’ and ‘Chahār rāh-i Yonge wa Bloor’ (‘The Yonge and Bloor intersection’). In all of these stories, mothers help their daughters in their struggle against oppression and inequality. This is a characteristic of Mahboob’s work that sets it apart from some other Afghanistani women writers, including Maga Rahmani and Spozhmai Zaryab.

What is the significance of mothers occupying this supporting role for their daughters in Mahboob’s fiction? Are they there because, individually, they are unable to change their own lives for the better? Having known oppression themselves, without the same opportunity for resistance, are they thus driven to assist their daughters to overcome it? Or perhaps the author intends to convey that all generations of women experience and resist oppression. Does the oppression of women in one generation lay the ground for the next generation’s rebellion? Perhaps all of these meanings are involved.

The figure of the supportive mother, while a recurrent one, is neither a consistent nor one-dimensional character in Mahboob’s work. The figure of the mother changes according to her individual character and personal history, as well as the temporal and geographical setting of the story. In ‘Khāna-i delgir’ a mother secretly sends her daughter to school and in ‘Sadā’, a mother sends her daughter unveiled to a wedding party against her stubborn husband’s wishes. However in ‘Hājji wa Arab’ and ‘Rajim’, the mothers fail to rescue their daughters despite their best efforts. The failure is due to the force behind the oppressive influences affecting them, namely their religion. These two stories are set in socially conservative places, one in Peshawar, where the Islamic extremists dominate, and the other in a district of Kandahar not far from the birthplace of the Taliban. Both stories take place during the time when the extremists controlled society tightly.

The father is another recurrent figure in Mahboob’s work and he typically symbolises the power of patriarchal domination both in Afghanistan and in diasporic communities. As Hartmut Fahndrich argues, the father is the spokesman for a ‘whole social order, the embodiment of power, force, ruthlessness and ignorance’ (1995:109). In Afghanistan a father’s power is supported by social and political structures, but it may still be challenged in one way or another; in diasporic communities, he may face resistance from a number of quarters. In both spaces, the father tries his best to maintain the status quo. He represents a link to the past that lends fixity to his family’s identity so that the present and future are shaped by the past and by tradition. In Mahboob’s work, the best example of a father embodying this role in an Afghanistani context is ‘Khāna-i delgir’, while the best example in a diasporic context can be seen is ‘Sadā’ (‘The voice’).

It should be noted here that in Afghanistan the enforcing role of the father is generally a product of patriarchal tradition; in diaspora it is more informed by religious imperatives. In Mahboob’s stories set in Afghanistan, there is little reference to men controlling women in accordance with Islam, especially prior to the war. However, in the stories set in diasporic communities, Mahboob gives the religiosity of Afghanistani men greater emphasis and seems to imply that the degree of their religious feeling and observance increases in exile. This change could be a result of the time they spend in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran, where the dominant and official ideological discourse is political Islamism, or it may be due to a crisis of identity brought on by life in Western society. In order for men to maintain the status quo in their relationships with women and children, they need an ideological structure to support its existence. Religion can serve as the necessary recourse where culture will not. When Afghanistani men in diaspora become zealous Muslims, praying regularly and performing everyday religious rituals in ways they had not done earlier in their lives, Mahboob suggests that any or all of these factors may be at play.

Women and the home

The home is a very significant element of Mahboob’s works that focus on women. The home has long been constructed as a woman’s place and, for a society, as its symbolic centre, ‘a source of stability, reliability and authenticity’ (Massey 1994:180). According to Afghanistani cultural values, the great majority of women stay at home as wives and mothers and Mahboob’s use of the home as the main spatial setting for her stories corresponds with this. The home is considered a feminine place, in part because women have historically been considered part of the home and its property: women physically belong to their fathers and husbands. They also embody their honour and the honour of the home. So in a significant way, it is the home that best symbolises the relationship between men and women, and women’s subordinate position. In ‘Rajim’, Mahtab is dishonoured when the men remove her from her home. Accused of adultery, she is stoned on public ground. She cannot be punished inside her home because that would symbolically dishonour the home, which itself represents society.

Home is not always a ‘prison’ and it does not always represent disempowerment and segregation. It is in the home that Afghanistani women gather, entertain and perform many of the rituals associated with women. Home is the site of women’s socialisation. The female quarter provides women with the opportunity to share their experiences, seek help from other women for their problems, and express their emotions and feelings. The lyrics of women’s songs and folk poetry, which are performed in the home, often convey sexual references in Persian and Pashto. Because the audience for these songs is other women, they can be enjoyed without provoking disapproval in the community, even in tribal areas.

In Mahboob’s works the home has a contradictory nature. As Juhani Pallasmaa notes, ‘as well as being a symbol of protection and order, home can, in negative life situations, become a concretization of human misery: of loneliness, rejection, exploitation and violence’ (1995:134). For Mahboob, the home is a symbol of identity. In ‘Do rāh’ which has been discussed earlier in this chapter, the protagonist, a widow, has no home and while she searches for a new house, she moves from one short-term living situation to another. She belongs nowhere and thus she is felt to be no-one. Men in the neighbourhood approach her, seeking an affair, and the women regard her without respect (Mahboob 1990:76–102). In ‘Hājji wa Arab’, the character Zulaykha also has no permanent home and, again, no identity as a result (Mahboob 1999:7–32). This leaves her open to every kind of exploitation at the hands of every member of the Hajji’s family. As can be seen in the short story ‘Diwār’ (‘The wall’), home can also be a space of confinement that symbolises the imprisonment of women (Mahboob 1990:45–53).

But home also can be a place of comfort even if it has been previously experienced, or will be experienced later, as a space of confinement. In ‘Khāna-i delgir’ (1990:54–75), the main character is happy in her room because she is free to look down on to the street below through the window. The room is above the street and it is the space (the home) from which she can view the outside world. However, once the window is covered and she is confined to the room in all senses, it becomes a prison and the primary site of her oppression. Freeing herself from the home means gaining other rights, including the right to an education.

In Mahboob’s recent works, such as ‘Gum’ and ‘Shelter’, she pays more attention to how the element of the home impacts upon the status of women. While in her early works women rarely try to leave the home, in these works the women attempt to liberate themselves by stepping outside of the domestic realm. Some actually do leave, as is the case in ‘Shelter’, while others do not, but seriously consider it, as in ‘Gum’.

Traditionally a woman cannot leave her house without the permission of her husband or father. So, what does it mean when a woman decides to leave her home? Leaving home is not a simple act of changing one’s place of residence. It is a substantial change in the mind and behaviour of the woman. It represents a new way of life. In ‘Shelter’, the main character, Ghotai, first leaves the home of her brother, and then the home of the relatives she subsequently lives with: ‘She was fed up with their attitudes and decided to live alone’ (Mahboob 2003:12). Leaving home and ending up in a shelter is a permanent departure from the house in all senses. Here the home has a different meaning. It is a personal space. As Pallasmaa argues, it ‘is frustrating to live in a space which one cannot mark as one’s personal territory’ (1995:137). The twenty-three-year-old Ghotai ends up in a shelter, where women from different backgrounds share the same fate. Here one is not identified as a member of a family, but as an individual. For Ghotai, moving to the shelter provides her with the opportunity to look to other women for support rather than to her family and community.

Women and sexuality

The control of women’s sexuality is a central aspect of public life in Afghanistan and has long been at the centre of the country’s cultural, social and political configurations. Women’s sexuality is subject to the control of everyone and every institution, but particularly the control of the male members of a woman’s family, to whom her body and sexuality belongs. Its protection ensures the honour of her family. Having sex outside marriage is one of the biggest crimes that can be committed by a woman because in doing so she dishonours not only herself; she dishonours her husband, her family, her clan and the whole community. Thus, little has been written about women’s sexuality in Afghanistani literature and any reference to sexuality is a taboo topic for both male and female writers. Mahboob is among the few whose work refers to female sexuality.30 If she did not write from outside Afghanistan, it seems doubtful that she would still be able to address the topic in her short stories. ‘Sag-i sihāh-i sharqi’ (‘The black Oriental dog’) is one of her more explicitly sexual works. It tells the story of a tabletop dancer and her dog. The dog enjoys watching the woman dance and touching different parts of the woman’s body and vice versa.

Mahboob has published four collections of short stories so far. The publication of these collections reveals not only her transformation as a writer, but also the stages of her growth and empowerment. Darakht-hā kārtoos gul mekonand (The trees bear bullets) was published in Peshawar in 1982 under such severe political conditions that she published it under a pseudonym. The Afghanistan Writers’ Association in Kabul published Khāna-i delgir without her approval, while she was living in exile in Canada in 1990. Most recently, Gum and Khānum Jorj were published in Canada by Mahboob’s own publishing house. The nature of the stories in these last two collections were such that she would have had little hope of publishing them at the beginning of her career in Afghanistan.


Afghan kochi (nomad) family, in the late 1950s in eastern Afghanistan. In search of access to pastures with their livestock they move across the country and even beyond the borders. Nomadic women do not cover their faces and play a significant role in the family economy. They often trade livestock, skin, manure and dairy products.

Source: Afghanistan National Archive photo


The caption reads: ‘Yesterday, today and tomorrow’. The cartoon depicts the transformation of women’s dress code. It starts with the old code, women dressed from head to toe, and through different phases until it reaches the modern mini skirt. At this point, the woman reaches a stop sign under which is the word ‘Metamorphosis’ with the letter ‘F’, which may indicate female.

Source: Rahim Nawin, published in Tarjomān on 22 April 1971


Dressed in traditional dress, Afghanistani women attend a rally demanding the liberation of Pashtunistan, in Kabul, August 1967. During the 1960s women participated publicly in political activities, including mass demonstrations.

Source: Gharzay Laeq private collection


Kabul University Library, 1970. The university was co-educational. Wearing Western clothes and choosing their favourite area to study, young women sit side by side with young men. There were no restrictions on their studies, appearance, movements, and meetings with men.

Source: Afghanistan National Archive photo


Outsie Kabul Airport, 1974. Maryam Mahboob (left) and a friend leaving Afghanistan for higher education in Iran.

Source: Mahboob private collection



Maryam Mahboob, Toronto 2015.

Source: Mahboob private collection


Students from the College of Midwifery rallying in Kabul’s National Stadium on Afghanistan’s Independence Day in August 1974. There was no restriction on women’s appearance.

Source: Afghanistan National Archive


Female students studying music in the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, June 2013. They come from the provinces and from disadvantaged families: Nazira from Nuristan (left), Negin from Kunar (centre) and Homa from Takhar (right). After the fall of the Taliban, new opportunities have been presented to young women, including studying music which had been deemed as un-Islamic by the fundamentalists.

Source: Bezhan private collection


Two Afghanistani female intellectuals, Homaira Qaderi (left), an outstanding author, and Zakya Mirzai (right), a successful private publisher, with the author in the centre, Kabul, July 2013. While they are feminist in their outlook, and active in promoting women’s rights, due to the pressures from the radical groups inside and outside the government in the post-Taliban era, they have to conform to the new dress code and wear the hijāb when appearing in public.

Source: Bezhan private collection

1     The press also published Zalmai Babakohi’s Pawrāna-hā dar zemistān parwāz mekunand (Butterflies fly in the winter) in 2008.

2     Personal communication, October 2013.

3     The weekly Kamkyano Anis was the only children’s publication in Afghanistan between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

4     Zhwandoon emerged after the Second World War (in 1948) as the first general magazine in Afghanistan. Its foundation coincided with the acceptance of Afghanistan as a member of the United Nations, as well as a relative and short-lived relaxation of its political conditions (1947–1952) (for a fine account of the period, see Ghubar 1999:210–271). In 1980, Zhwandoon was transformed and became a publication of Afghanistan’s Writers’ Association.

5     These writers included Rosta Bakhtary, Rahnaward Zaryab and Jalal Noorani.

6     Personal communication, 10 February 2006.

7     Mahboob did not have a say in the selection of stories for the collection. However, her two recent books were self-published.

8     For more information on the constitutional decade, see Bezhan 2013a:635–36; 2013b:921–22.

9     For more information, see Bezhan 2006–2007:187–89.

10   These parties emerged when the law for founding political parties had been approved by the parliament but not yet ratified by the king. For more detail, see Bezhan 2013b:923–27.

11   These two parties split into different factions shortly after their establishment. All the major political parties and organisations today can trace their roots back to these two parties.

12   One of the other influential political parties to emerge in the mid-1960s was the pro-Maoist Sazman-i Jawanan-i Motaraqi (Progressive Youth Organisation), also known by its publication, Shola-e jawed (Eternal flame). This party soon split into smaller parties and organisations. One of the most vocal and active of these, especially during the mujahideen period (1992–96) and the Taliban period (1996–2001), was the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan or RAWA. This was the women’s organisation of the Sazman Rehai Afghanistan or Afghanistan’s Liberation Organisation. For more information, see Ibrahimi 2012; Emadi 2001; Bezhan 2013b:933–34.

13   In this decade the first female satirist, Masuda Kamal, emerged. She published her work in Tarjoman (see Bezhan 2014b).

14   These two rival parties were founded in 1965. While the PDPA was pro-Soviet, the DOA was a pro-Maoist group.

15   It was not an isolated incident. For more detail, see Dupree 1971:17 and Kestmand 2002:200–201.

16   Abu-Lughod (1990:47), in her study of Bedouin society, comments that ‘most people’s ordinary public responses are framed in terms of the code of honor and modesty … since the moral code is one of the most important means of perpetuating the unequal structures of power, then violations of the code must be understood as way of resisting the system and challenging the authority of those who represent and benefit from it’.

17   Mir-Hosseini notes: ‘the general acceptance in Middle Eastern studies of a modernization paradigm, with its implicit progressive and activist approach, combined with an uncritical adaptation of theories of women’s movements in the West, continue to blur the actual experience of women and politics of gender in the contemporary Muslim world’ (1999:8–9).

18   There is a rich literature on the debates between Islam and feminism, see for example Hegland (1999); Mahmood (2005) and Bardan (1995).

19   However, Miriam Cooke argues that there is no better word to capture women’s social and political activism in the Islamic world than that very word, ‘feminism’ (2001: ix–x).

20   Cagatay, Grown and Santiago maintain that:

Feminism … constitutes the political expression of the concerns and interests of women from different regions, classes, nationalities, and ethnic backgrounds. There is and must be a diversity of feminism, responsive to the different needs and concerns of different women, and defined by them for themselves (quoted in Johnson-Odim 1991:325).

21   For more detail, see Bezhan 2006–2007:187–88.

22   ‘Fats’ and ‘thins’ in Afghanistan culture symbolise, respectively, the rich and the poor.

23   I am grateful to Saburallah Siasang, a poet, writer and Afghanistani literary critic, for providing me with a copy of this book.

24   Ali was the Fourth Caliph of Islam and also the founder of the Shiite sect of Islam. This name is very common among Afghans, especially Shiites.

25   According to Afsaneh Najmabadi, the notions of homeland or watan, and nation or milat, are gendered as female and male, respectively:

Closely linked to the maleness of millat and femaleness of vaṭan is the concept of the nāmūs [honor]. Rooted in Islamic thought, nāmūs was delinked from its religious affiliation [nāmūs-i Islām] and reclaimed as a national concern, as milat itself changed from a religious to national community. Slipping between the idea of purity of woman [‘ismat] and integrity of Iran, nāmūs constituted purity of woman and Iran as subjects both of male possession and protection. (Najmabadi 1997:444)

26   In recent years Mahboob has published a few short stories in which she concentrates on the impact of migration on Afghanistani men in the West. One of her most successful short stories, ‘Zakh’ (Wart), is the story of an Afghanistani man who loses members of his family in the war and migrates to Canada to join his only surviving son only to die in despair and loneliness (Mahboob 2003:122–35).

27   This short story first appeared in 1975 in the weekly Zhwandoon, and later in an anthology of Mahboob’s short stories with the same title published in Kabul (1990:54–75).

28   A woman who runs away is traditionally subjected to severe punishment, including being murdered.

29   For Talal Asad, agency is ‘a complex term whose senses emerge within semantic and institutional networks that define and make possible particular ways of relating to people, things and oneself’ (Asad 2003:78). Drawing the connection between agency and intention Asad notes, ‘Yet, “intention”, which is variously glossed as “plan”, “awareness”, “wilfulness”, “directedness”, or “desire” … is often made central to the attribution of agency’ (2003:78–79).

30   The only author before Mahboob to include sexual references in his fictional work was Rosta Bakhtary.

Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

   by Faridullah Bezhan