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Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

Chapter Five


As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world. (Virginia Woolf 1939:109)

Mass emigration is not unknown to the Afghanistani people. Due to the severe political turmoil that has afflicted the country, many of its people have been displaced, both internally and internationally. In the late 19th century, during Amir Abdul Rahman’s campaign to establish a strong central government (1880–1901), hundreds of thousands of Hazaras and Shiites fled from central and western Afghanistan to British India and Iran, where most settled permanently. In an effort to change the ethnic make-up of the northern part of the country, he forced hundreds of thousands of Pashtun families from the south and east into northern and western Afghanistan.1

However, the recent mass emigration of Afghanistani people to other countries only began in the late 1970s. In the past, Afghanistanis rarely migrated beyond neighbouring countries, but today, a considerable number are settled in Western countries. The recent mass migration began amid the turmoil that ensued after the leftist coup of 1978. Subsequent developments, such as the empowerment of the mujahideen, the civil war of 1992 to 1996 and the rise of the Taliban (1996–2001), caused further exoduses.

What became of these displaced Afghanistanis in their new environments and what became of Afghanistani women in particular? Pnina Werbner describes diasporic communities as ‘historical formations in process; changing and responsive to different political and social contexts; reconstructed and reinvented imaginatively in new places or as political circumstances change in their place of settlement’ (2010:74). As a group, diasporic Afghanistani communities have undergone transformation as a result of changes to the socio-political and cultural contexts in their host countries, as well as in their homeland. One of the ways that the impact of emigration on the lives of Afghanistani women can be discerned is through an examination of the literary works of female Afghanistani writers living in diaspora.

As discussed in chapter two, Mahboob was one of the first Afghanistani authors to leave Afghanistan and she has been living in exile since the early 1980s. Through investigating her life and her work, one may be able to discover answers to some of the above questions, and learn something of what it means to be an author— more precisely, a female author—who has moved from the East to the West. How has exile affected Mahboob’s creativity and has it provided her with new motives for writing?

Mahboob and exile

With the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Mahboob left for Pakistan in early 1981. However, Islamic extremist groups dominated the socio-political environment in Pakistan. There was no room for those who did not share their views to even live there, let alone to convey their views. They were particularly harsh towards female intellectuals. Accused of being spies for the Kabul regime, Mahboob and her two female friends were arrested and imprisoned by the Pakistani government. It was only after a continuous hunger strike and with the intercession of a moderate Afghanistani Muslim leader that they were released after a week.2 Realising that there was no place for her in Pakistan, Mahboob moved to Delhi a year later. She migrated to Canada in 1986.

Her decision to emigrate was unusual, in the sense that Mahboob comes from a conservative patriarchal society in which women are regarded as the embodiment of family and clan honour. Typically, women have to obey their family or their husband, and must be accompanied by them if they travel. However, Mahboob left her country without the accompaniment of any members of her family and as a single woman. She left Afghanistan with a group of colleagues from Kabul Radio, including Karima Vida, Zalmai Babakohi and Farida Anwari. In addition to their journalistic work, all of them were outstanding artists and writers in their own right.3

It was a brave move for a woman to leave her homeland by herself and move to a conservative society dominated by the mujahideen. In both the refugee camps and the urban areas of Peshawar, the mujahideen groups had a strong presence, including the most strongly fundamentalist Hizb-i Islami (or Islamic Party). The mujahideen ran their own security service and even maintained their own jails, ‘incarcerating and badly treating’ whomever they did not like (Weinbaum 1991:78).

How Mahboob and her colleagues survived in Peshawar remains a secret.4 Mahboob’s group were well known for their work and for their secular and liberal views, which did not make them welcome to the mujahideen. In Peshawar, Mahboob was a target not only because she was a female intellectual or unaffiliated with any mujahideen group, but because she was a single woman living with non-mahrams, or non-relative men.

As Mahboob’s experiences in Pakistan and India show, Afghanistani women underwent tremendous hardships in the neighbouring countries they emigrated to. They were subjected to more restrictions in their movement, appearance and employment than in the homeland they had fled. In Afghanistan, Mahboob had encountered no such restrictions and she had been able to publish literary and journalistic work; in Peshawar, and even in Delhi, she lost most of these rights. This situation provided her with firsthand experience of how women were struggling in these places.

From the East to the West

In Delhi, in the early 1980s, a group of Afghanistani intellectuals founded a journal, Gāhnāma (literally, ‘an irregular journal’).5 They regarded it as a form of cultural resistance against both the leftist regime and the mujahideen groups. But the journal published no more than three issues, a number that is suggestive of the difficulties the group faced both financially and politically. Delhi turned out to be not much different from Peshawar as far as the mujahideen’s influence was concerned. Despite the fact that the Indian government supported the leftist government in Kabul, the mujahideen had a strong presence among Afghan migrants in Delhi. While the majority of exiles in Delhi were not members of the mujahideen parties, those who were member were the most vocal. There was little room for independent voices, let alone for women. Mahboob decided to leave the East altogether and in 1986 she moved to Canada with her husband, Zalmai Babakohi, a fellow writer she had married the year before.6

In the 1980s Afghanistan’s politics were already internationalised and the mujahideen were at its centre. Those who did not share the mujahideen’s political views, even if they opposed the leftist regime, had no opportunity to raise their voices. Because the mujahideen were receiving enormous amounts of weapons, training, money, and moral and political support, they completely dominated the political scene. The international community, especially the West, put all its weight behind them in its effort to fight the leftist regime and the Russian occupation. There was no support for the third voice of the Afghanistani polity or the voice of the democrats and intellectuals. Only the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan and Islamic groups were active on the battleground, in international politics and in cultural activities inside and outside Afghanistan.

For Mahboob and other Afghanistanis who moved to the West, there were few avenues for cultural and political expression. Up until this point, the Afghanistani diaspora in the West was a small one. When Mahboob migrated to Canada there were no Afghanistanilanguage radio programs, newspapers, journals or publishers. The few newspapers that did exist were run by political groups and served mainly to propagate their own causes. So Mahboob, Babakohi and Nawzar Ilyas founded the newspaper Wāzha (The Word) in the early 1990s and in 1996 Mahboob and Babakohi established a bi-weekly newspaper, Zarnegār, which has also operated as a book publisher, and through which Mahboob has published two collections of her short stories.

With the outbreak of the civil war in the early 1990s and the fierce fighting that erupted in the cities between the mujahideen factions competing for supremacy, a new wave of emigration began. Most of these emigrants were members of the urban, educated class. This changed the cultural make-up of the diasporic Afghanistani communities abroad, which up until this point had been mostly made up of migrants from rural parts of Afghanistan. Some members of the migrant intelligentsia began to establish literary and artistic associations.

Afghanistan was no longer occupied by a foreign country, but was being ravaged by fighting between the mujahideen groups. The war had taken on an ethnic dimension that was fuelled by the regional powers. While ideologically all the groups wanted to establish an Islamic state to be governed by sharia, they fought over which group would hold power; so in order to mobilise supporters they played the ethnic card. The destiny of the country was now in the hands of the commanders and warlords who knew only the language of the gun. What Afghanistan had been was getting lost in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and ethno-religious conflict.

The establishment by Afghanistani migrants of newspapers, radio stations and literary and artistic associations was a response to this dilemma. While the mujahideen groups hid themselves behind ethno-religious discourse, members of the educated class established cultural outlets to express their dismay and frustration.

Diaspora and female writers

How do Afghanistani women who have lived their entire lives in a strongly patriarchal society deal with the relationship between men and women in Western societies? All women who live in patriarchal cultures experience what Shari Benstock characterises as internal exile: they are ‘expatriate in patria’ (1989:20). Women in such circumstances perceive their exclusion as ‘imposed from the outside and lived from the inside’, so that it is difficult to distinguish ‘the separation of outside from inside [and] patriarchal dicta from female decorum’ (1989:20). For the woman writer, exile can take forms other than physical exile or internalised exile: the act of writing itself symbolises resistance and it is a means of empowerment that provides a space within which the writer can locate and position her identity. A country with a less pronounced or less traditional patriarchal structure may also provide a sense of psychological space to an immigrant. This is described by Mahnaz Afkhami in Women in Exile:

Along with the loss of their culture and home comes the loss of the traditional patriarchal structures that limited their lives in their own land. Exile in its disruptiveness resembles a rebirth for the woman. The pain of breaking out of a cultural cocoon brings with it the possibility of an expanded universe and a freer, more independent self. (Afkhami 1994:45)

The emergence of Afghanistani diasporic literature began in the 1980s, but it was the 1990s that saw its real establishment. It was a new type of literature dealing with the lives of Afghanistanis who live in diaspora. While the majority of these works have been written by Afghanistani authors based in Iran and Pakistan, there are a growing number by authors living in the West. Mahboob is the first Afghanistan female author to write from diaspora and she also is the first to deal with the position of women living in diaspora.7 Diasporic literature acts as a bridge between the exiled writer’s host society and their country of origin; it is a space where home and host cultures converge, intersect and clash. This literature can express the pain of exile—characterised by loss, longing and a search for identity—but also the joy of achievement.

According to Edward Said, most ‘people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision give rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that, to borrow a phrase from music, is contrapuntal’ (2002:186). It is this contrapuntal consciousness that Mahboob writes about. In fact, much of her work reflects the transformation of Afghanistani women from exiles to émigrés, a result of continuous rethinking and changes in personal circumstances. Her work also reflects on how migrants lived in their homelands and how they live in their new countries, on the differences between the two worlds and the new opportunities their new world presents. Another layer to these stories, although it may not be explicitly spelled out, is what the protagonists went through in their homeland, which resulted in their emigration and prevents them from returning.

The transformation from exile to émigré is not a simple one, it happens as a result of multiple personal, social and cultural challenges and encounters. Mahboob’s short stories about exile show the diversity of Afghanistani women in diaspora who go through these processes. While for some, diaspora is marked by exclusion and loss, for others it is marked by new opportunities and achievements. Some immigrants exist temporally in the past, while others exist in the present or future.

Migration initially slowed Mahboob’s creativity, at least in terms of quantity of her output. Between 1982 and 1991, a period during which she moved from Pakistan to India and then to Canada, she did not write anything.8 However, during that period she underwent a tremendous transformation personally and politically, especially in relation to the war in Afghanistan. In an earlier collection of short stories, Darakht-hā kārtoos gul mekonand (The trees bear bullets), written in Pakistan and published in Peshawar in 1982, she shows a great deal of sympathy for the mujahideen and their cause. But living in Pakistan provided her with a different perspective. While her antagonistic views of the leftist regime were maintained, her later works of fiction draw different conclusions about the mujahideen.

In more qualitative terms, migration was a turning point in Mahboob’s creativity. As Carine Mardorossian observes, exiled writers are often ‘seen as better equipped to provide an “objective” view of the two worlds they are straddling by virtue of their alienation’ (2002:16). Looking at the relationship between Afghanistani men and women from a distance helped Mahboob gain a better understanding of it. Marrying Zalmai Babakohi placed her for the first time in close contact with an Afghanistani man to whom she was not related and this was an important factor in shaping her views of male-female relationships.9 No longer having to negotiate the social codes of conduct that made women second-class citizens in Afghanistan and enjoying her relative freedom in the West, Mahboob developed on increasingly feminist approach to writing fiction and acquired a better knowledge of the position of women in Western society.

Hélène Cixous argues that a female author in exile ‘writes herself’ and, in doing so, can ‘carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history’ (Cixous 1976:880). Mahboob has written her major works of fiction from diaspora. In some of her work, she concentrates on the position of women and their struggle in Afghanistan, while others are about the experiences of women who have left their home country behind. In all of these works, Mahboob is examining those ‘ruptures and transformations’ in her own life and, as Cixous would have it, is writing herself.

Diaspora and the transformation of women

Mahboob’s diaspora stories generally concentrate on the position of women in relation to gender issues. In these works, she depicts the suppression and marginalisation of women, not because of their class or family background, but simply because they are women. For Afghanistani women, generally, migration has had a complicating effect on this dynamic. As James Clifford observes that it can be difficult to say whether gender subordinarion is reinforced or loosened by the ‘diaspora experience’:

On the one hand, maintaining connections with homelands, with kinship networks, and with religious and cultural traditions may renew patriarchal structures. On the other, new roles and demands, new political spaces, are opened by diaspora interactions. (1994:313–14)

In diaspora, women are not only confronted with a new physical reality—they must also undergo a fundamental transformation, regardless of age and family background. In their new environment, women find the opportunity to review their status in the family and society, and to bring about lasting change. According to Mahboob, education is not the essential element for freeing women; rather, it is the environment they live in and, even more importantly, their understanding of their own conditions and rights. While Afghanistanis who relocated to neighbouring countries often struggled for survival and had to fight for basic rights, in the West women found new opportunities to improve their lives and status.

Exile in the region

In Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, which are geographically and culturally close to the homeland, Afghanistani women undergo tremendous hardships, harder even than those they faced in Afghanistan. Women lack any opportunity for employment, education or personal freedom. In Pakistan, women are deprived of most of their primary rights, including going outside their homes and choosing their husbands, as Mahboob shows in ‘Hājji wa Arab’ (‘Hajji and the Arab’), which is discussed at length in Chapter Four. In Pakistan women lost the basic rights and traditional protection mechanisms that they had once enjoyed in Afghanistan. The severely conservative environment, coupled with the intense radical political atmosphere within the Afghan communities, left little room for women to exercise their rights or demand any role in politics or society, or even to have a say in their own fate. Here men become synonymous with jihad, and women with confinement.

The situation of Afghanistani women in Iran is different, as seen in ‘Hawli sangi’ (‘Stoned courtyard’). Young non-Iranian women (and men) are not permitted to study in Iran unless they have a refugee identity card. Afghanistani refugees can cross the border and live in Iran but it takes years to obtain a refugee identity card. Without this card, they cannot work lawfully and can be sent back over the border at any time.10 Sima, the protagonist of ‘Hawli sangi’, has lived all her life in Iran. She is one of the more than two million Afghanistanis who have been living there since the late 1970s. In a passage that suggests she does not quite belong to either country, we are told that Sima was born during her parents’ journey to Iran ‘on a hilltop covered by sand in a place on the border belonging to neither side’ (Mahboob 2003:93).

Sima follows all the norms of her host country, including dress code:

She wears a black hijab that is tight above her eyebrows, under her cheeks and across her shoulders and covers her body. Apart from the hijab her clothes include a long black blouse, a long black skirt, tight black trousers and a pair of black socks. Black was the illustration of her destiny. (Mahboob 2003:94)

After adapting to Iranian norms, Sima wants to enjoy its advantages as well, including the right to education. Sima and her sister apply once again for a refugee identity card. Thousands of women have submitted their applications and have been awaiting a decision from the department for days. An old woman sitting on the ground clings to the legs of the soldier at the gate and begs him for help. The soldier responds to the old woman with a stick, but seeing Sima and her sister, Golalai, he lets them go inside. Even the director of the department welcomes them, but when he discovers that they are Afghanistani, he throws them out.

Confused, Sima and Golalai rushed out onto the street as if they were escaping from a horrifying crime … They were humiliated, and nothing more was left of them. Everything collapsed inside them, and a huge black hole opened in their minds. (Mahboob 2003:98)

From this time on, Sima does not leave the house. She has decided to ‘be without any identity’, as she was born without an identity’ (2003:101). Her family’s house with its stone courtyard becomes her world.

It was a small stone courtyard with high walls. On the opposite sides there were rooms. The curtains cover the windows all the time. In the corner of a wall, from a crevice in the stone, a thin rose has found its way out with a single flower. (2003:92)

The flower is the only interesting thing in the house and Sima, most of the time, finds herself looking at it or watering it. She is similar to the flower in appearance and existence. When her uncle tells her that the Iranian government has decided to register their family and provide them with identity cards, she thinks it is a trap and refuses to go back to the government office.

The Iranians do not consider us as human beings. They treat us with humiliation and beatings. They call us murderers, thieves and criminals. Even if they provide us with an identity card, what is the use of it? (Mahboob 2003:94–95)

Sima’s assumption turns out to be right. In fact, the government has accepted their applications only in order to round them up a week later and throw them out of Iran. Sima, who dreams of becoming an educated woman, must now concern herself with the bigger issue of avoiding deportation from Iran. Living in Iran since her childhood does not qualify her to stay in the country until her homeland is safe for return.

As represented in ‘Hawli sangi’ and ‘Hājji wa Arab’, women refugees to Iran and Pakistan undergo a double victimisation and disempowerment. Their experience fits that which is described by Rita Manchanda as follows:

The woman refugee represents the epitome of the marginalisation and the disenfranchisement of the dislocated. Her identity and her individuality are collapsed into the homogenous category of ‘victim’ and of her community. She is constructed as devoid of agency, unable and incapable of representing herself, powerless and superfluous. (2006:206)

Migration to the West

Migration to the West provides a different dimension to the life of Afghanistani women. Here opportunities such as education are widely available, and women are encouraged to take advantage of them. But the West’s relationship with Islam created other issues for the female Muslim immigrant, ‘urging her to silence her criticism, remain loyal, reconcile herself to, even find virtue in the central formulations of her culture that normally she would rebel against’ (Ahmed 1982a:162).

A number of Mahboob’s works look at how her female characters respond to this situation in accordance with their religion and the politics of community identity. As discussed in earlier chapters, in Muslim communities women and their conduct are routinely used as symbols of family honour and communal identity and as markers of tradition and culture (see Rajmi 2007). The preoccupucation with the properness of women’s roles in the family and community is strongly connected to a concern with preserving the integrity and purity of Islamic culture. For Muslim women there is continual pressure to be seen as loyal to Islamic culture, as well as to their own local culture.

However, not all Muslim women submit to this pressure. The majority of women take advantage of the opportunities they have in the West to improve their lives. In the case of Mahboob’s female characters, they rebel against this pressure in different ways, including by going to school and adopting Western values and new ways of dressing. They become intentionally disloyal. But, in doing so, they face resistance from the male members of their families. The resistance provokes confrontation, which changes the relationship between men and women in their families. Mahboob’s women, struggling between two cultures, make choices that begin to change the traditional view of women’s duty as being to look after home, husband and children.

The invisible becomes visible

Gum’ (‘The invisible’) is the story of an Afghanistani woman, Shereen, who lives in Canada with her hard-working husband (Mahboob 1999:117–35). In this environment Shereen, like other women of her generation, encounters ‘a way of thinking to be herself … to reorganise her life’. This ‘reorganisation’ results in a permanent shift in identity. Living in Canada, ‘a different land, full of colour and people from different backgrounds’, has altered the relationship between Shereen and her husband. Both Shereen and her husband realise that something is happening:

The man realised that the woman had changed. Canada’s climate made her happy and fresh. She had become interested in fashion … The man realised she was paying more attention to herself, and to the beauty of her skin and the dying of her hair.

—Why did you dye your hair? Don’t you feel ashamed of doing it? Did you ask my permission?

She replied from the other room:

—Does dying hair need permission?

—As long as you are my wife, everything needs permission. (Mahboob 1999:120)

This exchange represents a deeper change in the couple’s views of themselves and their relationship. For Shereen, life in Canada means bettering her life and status. For her husband, it means his authority is undermined:

Since the time they had come to this country, something was added to the woman and something was taken from the man. The status of the man was changed. He felt the arena for his actions was becoming limited. (Mahboob 1999:123)

The husband has lost his traditional authority. He no longer has the control over his family, over his wife’s body, which he was accustomed to. Shereen has been transformed, and the key to this transformation is her becoming aware of her opportunities and seizing them. For her husband to assert his authority, he would need to cut her off from the outside world, but Shereen won’t obey any attempt by her husband to do so.

—Where were you?

—I went to the language course.

—Which kind of course?

—I have taken an English course.

—Since when have you been interested in English?

—Since I’ve come to Canada.

—Stop it. Stop it. English is not of use for you and me.

The woman said calmly:

—If English is of no use to you, it is of use to me.

The husband said suspiciously:

—But you are not literate.

—I’ll learn. (Mahboob 1999:120–21)

Going to school and learning English is a significant step towards transforming Shereen into an autonomous individual. For her, individual achievement, not homemaking and motherhood, becomes the means of asserting her selfhood. In Afghanistan, women rarely seek education after marriage; even most educated women become housewives after they marry. But going to school provides Shereen with the opportunity to improve her status and is a significant step towards her freedom, autonomy and personal identity.

When it is clear that other reasons cannot convince Shereen to stop going to school, the husband brings up her responsibilities as a mother:

—What will happen to our son if you go to school?

—You are the father, you should know what is going to happen to him.

Powerless against his wife, her husband said softly:

—From dawn to dust I work very hard. You should be at home. He shouldn’t feel lonely.

—He is grown up now. He goes to school, and when he comes home I am here. These are just excuses. You create them to prevent me from going to school. (Mahboob 1999:122)

For Shereen to gain freedom, the first step is to break her silence. Cixous and Kuhn describe this as a vital step in women’s liberation: ‘first she would have to speak, start speaking, stop saying that she has nothing to say!’ (1981:50–51). Shereen starts speaking and she speaks about her body and her needs.

She did not like the house anymore. She could hardly breathe in it. In every corner of the house there was the shadow and rough voice of the man. Where could she escape from the man or hide herself? She did not want to become invisible. She wanted to stay at home with her husband, but not to be destroyed by his continued obscenities. (Mahboob 1999:125)

However, Shereen’s attempts to gain some measure of autonomy within a traditional relationship ultimately fail. The more she changes and becomes aware of her surroundings, the less interest she has in her marriage. Barbara Johnson argues that it is ‘impossible for the woman to protest, since she cannot do so with seeming ungrateful or at least without losing her centrality in her husband’s world’ (1980:28). Shereen, annoyed by her husband’s bad temper, ignores him and tries to stay out of his sight. By avoiding him, she begins to overcome those ‘ungrateful’ feelings, but she can’t avoid the gulf that has grown between them. When her husband finally forbids her from going out, she makes her decision. Determined to change her life, Shereen has no option but to refuse:

—I warn you, you are not allowed to leave home anymore.

She moved toward him and stared at him with a tired look. She stood up next to the man and said:

—I do not want to step into this house anymore.

Then she walked forward…With her shoes in her hands, she was running down the corridor. With fast firm steps, she was departing from the home and her husband. (Mahboob 1999:133–34)

It is a seemingly permanent departure from the home, which has become a symbol of the past. However, Shereen is still not sure of a positive outcome. She has the determination to free herself and takes practical steps in that direction, but can she really leave behind her home, her husband and her son? Is this the right choice? She has no idea what will happen to her when she leaves home:

It was a dark night and a fresh breeze was moving the leaves. She was frozen. Fear had occupied her whole body. She put on her shoes and walked in the empty street, nervously looking at her surroundings. (Mahboob 1999:133)

Under a streetlight Shereen sees a tall woman heavily made up and wearing a garish outfit. The woman jumps into a car, which has braked for her. Shereen imagines herself as that woman:

Suddenly Shereen was disturbed. The smell of the strange man and his hard breath was nauseating. She looked behind her. She hoped Payenda, her husband, regretted what had happened:

—I hope he regrets it and does something about it!

Doubtfully she asked herself:

—Should I go back home or not? (Mahboob 1999:134–35)

This doubt and uncertainty is so deep and complicated that it overshadows not only Shereen’s determination, but also her future. Her hesitation in going through with her decision hints that freedom is not just a matter of opportunity and perspective.

Diaspora and new power

Women in diaspora do not always need to escape from home to enjoy freedom. ‘Sadā’ (‘The voice’) is the story of an illiterate housewife, Deljan, who challenges the power dynamic between herself and her husband. She is also a support to her 16-year-old daughter, who is trying to find her place in society.

The hidden conflict between husband and wife comes to a head at the moment when Deljan’s husband, Aqashereen, is leaving on pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj). For some time, Aqashereen has been becoming increasingly concerned with religious observation. Deljan wants her daughter, Nelofar, and her son, Ihsan, to attend a wedding party. She feels it is necessary for Nelofar to fit in well with the Western code of dress and appearance, and feels she should be able to dye her hair and wearing make-up and a nice dress. But Aqashereen opposes his daughter’s desire and tries to stop her going to the wedding.

Months before going on the hajj, Aqashereen already saw himself as a Hajji. He asked his wife and children to call him Hajji … Now it took him longer to finish his prayers. He stopped wearing jeans and instead bought a white shalwar-kameez. And few months before his departure, he stopped shaving … (Mahboob 2003:69)

Aqashereen has recently asked his wife, Deljan, not to leave home without a hijāb. For Deljan this was strange. For 19 years he had not asked her to do so. The last time he asked her to wear hijāb was just two days ago. This time Deljan could not keep silent anymore:

—Whatever you say, I am not going to listen to you and wear the hijāb.

—How do you respond to God?

—Since when have you become God-fearing? Before intending to go on the hajj, was there a God, was there a Prophet and praying? My bare head did not matter to you. But now, because you are going on the hajj, you have become God-fearing. If you believe so firmly, you should look after your manners. The money you get from the welfare is not very clean. A person should go on the hajj by spending money that he has made through working hard. (Mahboob 2003:69–70)

This excerpt shows that all migrants undergo change, some embracing assimilation to varying degrees, while others actively resist it. While women often fall into the first category, men are more commonly in the second. It is the illiterate woman, Deljan, who is open to change because it improves the life of her children, and it is her husband who is resistant because it means losing his authority. In this situation something has to be done from the inside, because Aqashereen increasingly blocks change and tries to close the window onto the outside world. Unexpectedly, the internal rebellion comes not from his educated daughter, but from his seemingly docile wife. A voice that was ‘relatively inarticulate, even silent, in relation to men’ becomes louder and clearer (Ardener 1975:xii).11 Deljan is not much concerned about her own rights, but fights for the rights of her 16-year-old daughter in the context of a traditional family structure. The woman not only attains her goal but also inadvertently acquires more power. She ends up in control of the family.

Deljan tells Nelofar and Ihsan to go to the party. After closing the door behind them she rushes to Aqashereen and says:

—I send them with my own permission. What can you do now?

Anger is sparkling in Aqashereen’s eyes. His authority is lost. His wife is standing in front of him and dictating to him. Something is breaking inside him and is about to explode … With hatred he looks at Deljan and slaps her and then for the second time … With pride and a firm voice she says:

—What else can you do?

—Divorce you.

—I don’t want a divorce.

Her younger son rushes to the telephone to call the police. Deljan says:

—There is no need for the police. My voice is sufficient! (2003:75–76)

In this way, Deljan attains power at home and in the relationship. She becomes the decision-maker and she also keeps the right of rejecting divorce.

Diaspora as loss

Perhaps for many Afghanistani women, the most important loss experienced in diaspora is the loss of common ground with their children, especially with their daughters. This sense of loss is explored in Mahboob’s story ‘Chahār rāh-i Yonge wa Bloor’ (‘The Yonge and Bloor intersection’). In this story, Fauzya, the mother of a family, realises that one of the main means of male domination of women is financial. Traditionally the man is the breadwinner of the family, which gives him the right to control others. By contributing directly to the family economy in diaspora, women challenge men’s domination. This changes relationships between men and women. By taking an active role in the family’s economy, in order to fulfil the material needs of her three daughters, Fauzya moves from the margin to the centre, and her relationship with her husband, Hakim, changes.

Fauzya was tired of replying to Hakim’s phone calls. While she had to concentrate on driving she also had to listen to Hakim’s complaints. All the time he complained about working hard. She had to calm him all the time … what a man! Although he was fifty, when he was talking to her he was more like a child talking to his mother than to his wife. He was like a blind man who had lost his stick; whenever he had a problem he called Fauzya. (Mahboob 2003:17)

For Fauzya, working every day in the shop with Hakim is a means to improve the lives of their three daughters.

In her youth she had lost all her wishes and was still sighing for her unfulfilled dreams; she did not want her daughters to have to suffer the same way. She wanted all the wishes of her daughters to be fulfilled. (Mahboob 2003:19)

But is providing financial resources the core to raising successful children? As a result of working long hours, ‘Fauzya has not spent enough time talking to her daughters for a long time. Any kind of contact with them happened by telephone, or in short meetings’ (2003:18). The girls are either by themselves watching television or going to the cinema or spending time with their Canadian friends. There is a widening gap between Fauzya and her children. One day, hoping to spend the day with them, Fauzya takes her daughters shopping. But she loses them in the crowd. She searches all day but cannot find them.

The girls were lost. Fauzya did not know where they had gone. People were moving like waves, and crossing the waves made her tired. She was looking into the far distance, hoping to find a sign of them. Suddenly under the bright lights, over the shoulders of people who were crossing the intersection, she saw her two daughters waving to her. Fauzya rushed towards them, but realised that her daughters had moved away quickly and had disappeared. (Mahboob 2003:30)

This intersection between Yonge Street and Bloor Street metaphorically divides the two generations, which have grown up in different cultures with little understanding of each other. The intersection is also known as an area of prostitution, which suggests the loss of Fauzya’s daughters may also encompass a moral loss. Fauzya and her daughters live in two different worlds and, despite Fauzya’s attempts, she cannot close the gap that has grown between them.

No returning home

According to Edward Said, exile is an ‘unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home’ that results in a fundamentally ‘discontinuous state of being’ (2002:173–177). Existing in diaspora does not always bring good fortune for women migrants and not all women are happy in Western society. The home they leave behind represents their culture and a way of life and being. In ‘Khānom Jorj’ (‘Mrs George’) the title story of Mahboob’s 2003 collection, Shahla suffers a loss of identity after marrying a Canadian man and having two children.12 She has become Mrs George. After 18 years of marriage, she suddenly realises that she misses something terribly.13 She longs for the ‘good old days’ and the culture she belonged to. This nostalgia takes her mind back to the past.14

Shahla had been thinking about the past for a while. She did not know where the feeling was suddenly coming from, or why memories of the past were reviving in her. She decided to take leave from work and stay at home … The first thing she thought about was the celebration of the traditional Naw Roz (New Year). She began to think about khāna takāni (house cleaning), of making haft mewa (seven fruits), the special food samanak (wheat) and of dying her feet and hands with henna. (2003:79)

Shahla’s memories of Naw Roz spark her nostalgia because of its cultural and emotional significance. The celebration is all about starting a new year of life and forgetting the past. So for her it is the perfect event to begin a life that will allow her to regain the identity she lost during 18 years of living in a different world. She decides to carry out all the customs and rituals connected with the occasion, from cleaning and decorating the house to preparing special dishes and fruit and buying new clothes. The preparation provides her with a feeling that connects her with her past and her former identity.

When Shahla was done with the cooking, she put on a beautiful dress and make-up. She put the tablecloth on the floor under the chandelier, then decorated it with a bunch of flowers. She wiped dust from the mirror which had been given to her by her mother, and placed it on top of the tablecloth… When her husband and children came in, she shouted:

—Surprise! Surprise! (Mahboob 2003:88)

The preparation to celebrate Naw Roz takes time. Khāna takāni (house cleaning) is a signal to the ancestral spirits that their kin are ready and willing to entertain them. As Claudia Roden notes, food plays a special role in all cultures:

Behind every dish lies a world, a culture, a history. Dishes have social meaning, they have emotional and symbolic significance. Food is about power. It is an expression of identity and ideology. It touches on issues of class, gender, race and ethnicity. It is a clue to history. It is a language. (Quoted in Monsutti 2010:215)

The preparation of samanak and haft mewa and other Naw Rozi dishes provides Shahla with a different sense of herself. It gives her life meaning. Her preparations suggest how deeply she remembered Naw Roz in Afghanistan.15

For Shahla, this day not only reminds her of her cultural identity, it is also full of personal memories. ‘For an exile, habits of life, expression, or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment’, observes Said (2002:186). But for Shahla’s husband, a bank clerk who has little knowledge of his wife’s cultural background, celebrating the traditional New Year has no special meaning. When Shahla asks him to join her and their children for the special dinner she has prepared, he replies: ‘It is not interesting for me, darling. Let the boys go to bed’ (Mahboob 2003:88).

Despite Shahla’s nostalgia, she does not consider returning to her homeland. As Said argues, an ability to return is part of the condition of exile. Its pathos ‘is in the loss of contact with the solidity and the satisfaction of earth: homecoming is out of the question’ (2002:179). In Cartography of Diaspora, Avtar Brah offers a critical distinction between a desire for the homeland and the ‘homing desire’ (1996:180):

On the one hand, ‘home’ is a mythical place of desire in the diasporic imagination. In this sense it is a place of no return, even if it is possible to visit the geographical territory that is seen as the place of ‘origin’. On the other hand, home is also the lived experience of a locality. Its sounds and smells, its heat and dust … all this, as mediated by the historically specific everyday of social relations. In other words, the varying experiences of the pains and pleasures, the terrors and contentments, or the highs and humdrum of everyday culture … The concept of diaspora places the discourses of ‘home’ and ‘dispersion’ in creative tension, inscribing a homing desire while simultaneously critiquing discourses of fixed origins. (1996:192–93)

Shahla’s sense of belonging is problematised by this tension between the homing desire and lack of a fixed homeland. Her ‘homeland’ is in the past and has little to do with her present life. Shahla has only a few memories of it, which have surfaced after a long time. She is strongly linked to her present by her two sons and her marriage.

Shahla’s story suggests that with the passing of time an immigrant becomes more integrated, but this comes at a cost. Memories of the lost homeland become blurred and are based more in mythology than reality, even as the immigrant feels the homeland’s pull.

She could not separate her past from herself and just throw it away. Her past was part of her … While vague and distanced, the past had a hold on her memory and spirit … Nevertheless for Shahla the past was past, and was something that she could not have access to. (Mahboob 2003:78)

Jacqui Alexander argues that there is a need to differentiate between memory as nostalgic yearning and memory as intentional reflection—remembering critically to understand our relationship to the past:

Can we intentionally remember, all the time, as a way of never forgetting, all of us, building an archaeology of living memory which has less to do with living in the past, invoking a past, or excising it, and more to do with our relationship to time and its purpose. There is a difference between remembering when—the nostalgic yearning for some return—and a living memory that enables us to re-remember. (Alexander 2002:96)

As William Safran (1991:87) has put it, ‘diaspora consciousness is an intellectualisation of an existential condition’, an existential condition that becomes understood and reconciled through the myth of a homeland from which one is removed but to which one imagines one actually belongs.

Jocelyne Dakhlia claims that forgetting is part of the process of remembering, since memory erodes at the margins (2001). Forgetting can be conceptualised as a process of reconstruction in which elements that are less relevant for the present context are latent. Shahla, who has forgotten almost everything from her past because it is not relevant to her new circumstances, suddenly recalls the details that feel important to her.

She imagined that it could take her closer to something that was not accessible anymore. She observed that with this new feeling she can be herself; she can be reconnected with her past and liberate herself from assimilation. (Mahboob 2003:79)

This feeling shows that Shahla has been living in a condition of exile, but ignoring the identity politics inherent in this at her peril. Although her renewed interest in her homeland is at this stage only a feeling, her celebration of the traditional New Year is an affirmation, at least, that the connection to her past still exists deep in her heart and mind.

Women’s bodies and power struggles

In Mahboob’s work there are two types of power struggles for women: one is to do with general social and political issues, such as the position of women in the family and society; and the other is specifically related to women’s struggles for control over their own bodies. For Michel Foucault, power is a set of forces that establish hierarchies and patterns of behaviour that influence people in their everyday lives (Danaher, Schirato & Webb 2000:48). Power dynamics exist in all relationships, but power is unstable, moving from one side to the other as relationships evolve. Power is not absolute but is relative to any given relationship or situation.

In some of Mahboob’s works, women’s struggle to access education, say, or to choose a partner, is characterised by direct confrontation, as in ‘Khāna-i delgir’ (‘The confined home’), ‘Hājji wa Arab’ (‘Hajji and the Arab’), ‘Rajim’ (‘Stoned’) and ‘Telesmāt’ (‘Talisman’). In these stories, women are deprived of their essential rights and are treated as merely objects in the hands of men. They have no choice but to stand and fight.

In Mahboob’s stories about Afghanistani communities in the West, the power struggle takes a different form. It is often the bodies of women that serve as a site on which power struggles take place. Some of Mahboob’s female characters insist on doing what they want with their appearance in contrast to what they were previously able to do: they cut their hair short or dye it, wear make-up, dress the way they want to and so on. Does this change in appearance depict changes in identity too, or at least a conscious step towards them? According to Mary Douglas, ‘the body provides a basic theme for all symbolism’ (1966:163–64).

Traditionally, women’s subordinate position has been justified by a perception of their bodies and minds as inferior, or nāqis-i aqal (see Weitz 2013).16 Women are taught to believe in their own natural inferiority and to be ashamed of it. It should be no surprise, then, that the female body is often at the centre of struggles to improve women’s status. As Foucault argued, the body can often serve as the site of a ‘micro-physics of power’ (1979:28) through which ‘the larger social struggles over power are refracted’ (Afsaruddin 1999:16). This sort of informal, unorganised and often covert form of struggle is embedded in everyday life and may be contrasted with the forms of open political resistance that are far more rare (see Scott 1990). Judith Butler suggests that such actions play a more important role in social change than does overt political resistance (2006). Thus, we cannot understand the nature of power, accommodation and resistance in women’s lives without looking at the way women’s bodies are controlled and the way women resist that control. The body as the site of a power struggle is not rigid; it changes in the context of economic, political and historical exigencies.

In her early work, Mahboob focused almost entirely on political struggle and confrontation, but in her later work, stories that were mostly about women in diaspora, she connects women’s struggle for power with daily acts of resistance and assertions of authority over their bodies. All references to the body in her stories are significant and depict the nature of power, resistance and accommodation in women’s lives. This was a theme that was taboo and so almost totally absent from women’s fiction in Afghanistan before Mahboob and her contemporaries turned their attention to it.17 Living in diaspora has opened a window for women writers to discuss the body and its significance for women.

Dressing oneself is an act that Joanne B Eicher and M E Roach-Higgins define as both ‘body modification’ (such as hairstyle) and ‘body supplement’ (items displayed on the body) (1992:15). All aspects of dress are ‘imbued with meaning’ by the ‘wearer and viewer’. For Eicher, dress is ‘a coded sensory system of non-verbal communication that aids human interaction in space and time’ (1995:1).18 It ‘helps people establish an identity as individuals and as members of a group’ (Heinze 1990:90)19 and it ‘simultaneously differentiates the same individual from all others; it includes and excludes’ (Barnes & Eicher 1992:1).

Like language or culinary or religious traditions, dress marks what groups share and the boundaries around them (Eicher 1995:1). Dressing differently may result in challenging not only traditional cultural codes, but—in cases where women’s dress has previously been culturally or formally circumscribed—it may also challenge the authority of men and the traditional relationship between men and women.

In Mahboob’s stories, many of her women characters initially choose new modes of dress only to appear compatible with their new environment. However they soon confront resistance from their families and communities, as we see in the stories ‘Sadā’ and ‘Gum’.

Other characters consciously choose a new dress code as part of the process of developing a new identity; they have no intention of maintaining the traditions they left behind. The character Ghotai, in Mahboob’s short story ‘Shelter’, is one example of a woman who makes this choice. Ghotai associates her new style of dress with her increased freedom, but it also symbolises her individualism: ‘She wore the same colour underwear and bra, and on the top of it a red singlet, and a short black skirt which made her look tall’ (Mahboob 2003:10). The Western style of dress she adopts emphasises feminine flamboyance and sexual allure rather than traditional modesty. It is a dramatic challenge to the gendered presentation of self that she has been confined to. It is also a step towards defining herself as separate from her family, its history and expectations:

After dying her hair, she poured out all the items from the case and handbag onto the bed. She separated useful things. Other items, including some old clothes, a white dress sent by her mother … and a small mirror broken in the bottom of the handbag, a few letters and addresses, postcards and a few family photos, a torn map and calendar which did not appeal her anymore, were all left aside … And then she put them in the garbage. (Mahboob 2003:14)

The white dress was Ghotai’s wedding dress, and by throwing it away she seems to reject her inherited ideas of marriage. She also no longer wants to look at herself in a small, broken mirror, a metaphor for traditional world views and values. If ‘through symbolic devices the physical body exhibits the normative values of the social body’ (Arthur 2014), Ghotai is aligning herself with the values of the new culture she lives in.

Muslim women who are a part of minority community (as in Canada) find themselves facing the burden of expectation that they will be the carriers of culture, ensuring the continuity of the values of Islam and/or Afghanistan in their new country. The cost of an outright rejection of these values can be high, and as a result most women compromise to a greater or lesser degree. In ‘Shelter’, Ghotai chooses to reject them altogether.

[Ghotai] had left her brother’s home a while ago, moved to the house of one of her relatives but soon discovered that it was not the place for her. She was fed up with their attitudes and decided to live alone. (Mahboob 2003:12)

This departure from home provides Ghotai with the opportunity to live how she chooses. She has come to see her most reliable home as ‘the house of self … the place of her most private self’ (Davies 1994:36).

The 23-year-old Ghotai ends up in a shelter. 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. When a woman at the shelter named Miss Lobo asks Ghotai whether she has a family, she says ‘No’. This is a real denial of any sense of belonging or connection to her culture of origin. In order to find a job and take an active role in society, she approaches Miss Lobo who, according to Ghotai’s friend, Sue, ‘is a famous woman with good income’ who ‘has many contacts and … can easily find jobs for us’ (Mahboob 2003:12). To Ghotai, who has left her family behind and is cut off from her community, Miss Lobo is the means to a new life. Ghotai also attracts Miss Lobo’s interest from their first meeting: ‘Her long hair, her long neck, her charming smile and her innocent gaze deeply attracted Miss Lobo’s attention’ (Mahboob 2003:11).

Michel Foucault suggests that bodies are ‘dressed and managed through both self-discipline and surveillance and a general panoptic lens’ (Gupta 2015:94). The power of the panoptic is not only directed toward others, it is internalised and becomes part of an individual’s self-appraisal. In other words, people monitor their dress through ‘a disciplinary gaze that they direct upon themselves in order to gain a sense of self-empowerment’ (Danaher, Schirato & Webb 2000:57). When Ghotai embraces Western modes of dress, she experiences this not as oppression but as an achievement that is accompanied by rewards and freedom. Ghotai’s story suggests the importance of ‘positioning’ rather than ‘essence’ in the shaping of cultural identity (Hall 1990:222–37).

Andreas Pflitsch notes that there are three types of ‘hybrid’ identity: the multicultural, the intercultural and the transcultural. The multicultural and the intercultural are a mosaic-like identity of multiple components. By contrast, transcultural identity is ‘mobile, flexible, and has no fixed borders’ (quoted in Hout 2011:337). Ghotai, in her attempts to free herself from physical and emotional attachment to her culture and family of origin, perhaps sees the freedom of this completely new, transcultural identity as her goal. However, this change is not necessarily positive. By the end of the story, Ghotai is working in prostitution, suggesting that a complete destruction of the former self can only bring about the destruction of the present self.

It is significant that the story is called ‘Shelter’. There is an irony to this title which plays on the problematic assumption that Western culture is a safe haven for immigrant women, and itself is not supported by a patriarchal structure. By ending up in the “shelter”, Ghotai believes that she has found a place where she will have the support of other women in search of a better life. But it turns out to be simply another way of being exploited. By leaving her family and avoiding its influence, and by embracing Western dress codes, Ghotai is freeing herself from others’ attempts to control her body and individuality. However, the predatory way that Miss Lobo assesses Ghotai’s physicality suggests that women’s bodies and sexuality can be equally exploited in the West—there is just a different face to it. It seems that by migrating to a Western society, the exploitation of Ghotai’s body and mind has not ended. The “shelter” is not a place for a woman to be free, but rather to tie her to another method of exploitation. The shelter takes Ghotai to King Street, a place where prostitutes look for customers. ‘After styling her hair, wearing a sexy and revealing dress and perfume’, and hanging onto both Sue’s and Miss Lobo’s arms, Ghotai enters King Street where ‘everywhere, in front of shops, restaurants and clubs, half-naked women were standing or walking’ (2003:15).

1     Here I am not talking about the groups, families and individuals who were routinely exiled during the 19th and early 20th century as a result of a change of ruler or dynasty. Most of them were exiled to British India, though some ended up in Ottoman Turkey and others in Persia.

2     Personal communication with Mahboob, December 2014.

3     Zalmai Babakohi, another member of the group, and Mahboob’s future husband, published his anti-leftist regime poetry in Peshawar under the pseudonym Sangchele Sakhi (personal communication, September 2010).

4     Authors and politicians who did not associate with the mujahideen were risking their lives. Bahuddin Majrooh (1933–88), a scholar and writer, Meena Keshwar (1956–87), a female politician and the founder of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, and Keshwar’s sister, are among those assassinated by the mujahideen in Pakistan in the 1980s.

5     For the contents of Gāhnāma, see Ahmadi 2008.

6     Zalmai Babakohi (b. 1951) is an outstanding Afghanistani writer and journalist. He published two collections of short stories, Helāl eid az pase panjera (A Crescent from behind the window) (1988) and Parwāna-hā dar zemistān parwāz mekunand (Butterflies fly in winter) (2008).

7     Spozhmai Zaryab’s novel Dar keshwar-i digar (In another country), which covers her time living in France as a student in the early 1970s, does not fit into the category of diaspora literature (see Zaryab 1988).

8     Going by the date that Mahboob mentions at the end of ‘Hājji wa Arab’, it appears this story was written in 1991.

9     Mahboob is exceptional among Afghanistani women writers in that, after marriage, she retained her family name.

10   However, while only those families registered with a ‘blue card’ were entitled to do so, others were not. See Hoodfar 2004; Hoodfar 2010; Adelkha and Olszewska 2007; and Chatty 2010.

11   ‘What is it that makes a group muted?, asks Edwin Ardener. ‘It is muted simply because it does not form part of the dominant communicative system of society— expressed as it must be through the dominant ideology [… This] phenomenon of “mutedness” is a technically defined condition of structures—not some condition of linguistic silence’ (1975:22).

12   This is the only story by Mahboob in which an Afghanistani woman marries a Western man.

13   Christopher Bollas suggests that the passing of time itself is traumatic, involving as it does the ‘loss of the self, its continuous destruction through consignment to oblivion’ (quoted in King 2000:134).

14   The word ‘nostalgia’ is derived from the Greek root ‘nostos’ (homecoming) and the stem ‘algos’ (pain, grief, distress), and is defined by Svetlana Boym as ‘a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed’. Nostalgia, she continues, is ‘a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy’ (Boym 2001:xiii).

15   Traditionally, Afghanistani women celebrate Naw Roz with samanak, which is made of wheat germ. They cook it from late in the evening until daylight, during which women gather around the pot and sing Naw Rozi songs and dance. No men are allowed to take part in this ceremony.

16   See, for example, Tapper (1991:210). Tapper also notes that among the Pashtuns ‘men are said to be “authentic” and noble (asl) while women are imitations (badal) or imperfect (kam asl)’ (1991:52).

17   Spozhmai Zaryab is an exception. In one of her short stories, ‘Chapan-i siāhrang’ (‘The black cloak’), she presents the female body as the main site of power struggles between men and women. For detail, see Bezhan 2008a:263–64.

18   Eicher proposes that: ‘the codes of dress … set off either or both cognitive and affective processes that result in recognition or lack of recognition by the viewers. As a system, dressing the body by modifications and supplements often does facilitate or hinder consequent verbal or other communication’ (1995:1).

19   Turner (1996:122) notes: ‘we no longer define ourselves through blood or breeding … Consumerism and the mass market … liquidated or at least blurred, the exterior marks of social and personal difference.’ Turner believes consumer culture encourages the negotiation of ‘social relationships with a calculating frame of mind’ (1996:186). How the body is read and how the person is understood is determined by ‘the observing eye that reads it’ (229).

Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

   by Faridullah Bezhan