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Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation


Traditionally, Afghanistani literature was considered a male-dominated field; women stayed in the shadows. Those few women who wrote, mainly poetry, had to conform to masculine literary traditions and see the world through the eyes of men. There were no outlets for women’s prose beyond the tradition of oral folktales. However, the emergence of women writers in the 1940s changed the literary landscape. From the mid-1960s, an increasing number of women writers of literary merit began to emerge, especially in the late 1970s as Afghanistani literature became more politicised. This period also saw literature being used by some as a means for exploring women’s causes. In poetry and prose, women writers began to portray the world of women: their miseries, struggles, hopes and achievements. In this way, they ended the monopoly men had in Afghanistani literature and the imposition of a male worldview on female writers’ work.

Since the 1978 coup, Afghanistan history has been marked by war. This had had a paradoxical impact on the lives of women. While it created more opportunities for education and employment for some women, it also contributed to the marginalisation of others, and it sparked the mass migration of a very large number to neighbouring countries. Needless to say most women lost loved ones and homes during the war, while others suffered the fate of rape and enslavement.

Maryam Mahboob is one of the forerunners in this emergence of female writers seen over the last four decades. Mahboob devoted most of her work to exploring the experiences of women in a diverse range of situations before and during the war. She herself had experienced or observed most of these situations firsthand. Her own life tells the story of how educated women in Afghanistan have dealt with oppressive socio-cultural pressures and war and how they have survived these to achieve individual agency and to struggle for progress.

Because of the involvement in the Afghanistan war of so many players—internal, regional and international—accounts of the conflict are often largely composed of myth. The truth about the war disappeared in the propaganda of the warring sides and their international supporters. Each side depicted itself as occupying the moral high ground and each claimed to have the support of the nation behind it. While this convinced some segments of society, locally and abroad, and still does, the reality remained largely misunderstood. Because the government and the opposition controlled the mass media, the third voice, which belonged to neither side, was virtually absent. Most of Mahboob’s work, particularly her later work, speaks with this voice. Her perspective is that of an insider, a woman who lived and experienced the war, and was an eyewitness to the experiences of others. In this way, Mahboob’s writing presents a completely different picture of the war, its protagonists and the misery of the ordinary people.

After the empowerment of the mujahideen and the Taliban, Afghanistani society underwent rapid radicalisation. The mujahideen groups’ influence on the country’s social politics was initially felt in Pakistan, where a large number of Afghanistani refugees had fled, and in the territories that they captured inside the country. During the chaos of civil war, many women became war booty in the hands of powerful men, who justified their actions through recourse to religious law and rhetoric. When the Taliban took power, sociocultural traditions were broken down and new codes of conduct, rooted in a radical interpretation of Islam, were enforced. This meant further suppression and marginalisation for women.

Mahboob’s writing portrays women’s plight during the war and how they lived, resisted, suffered, survived and died. Her stories portray women at home, on the frontline between warring groups, being treated as slaves or sexual objects by those who claim to be the defenders of the nation and liberators of the homeland, living in refugee camps, and resettled abroad. They explore women’s hopes, desires, anxieties and insecurities, and the impact that violence has inflicted on their minds and bodies. Her characters undergo tremendous hardship, but their weapon is their resistance. While some of them are forced to give up, others succeed in overcoming oppression.

Significantly, Mahboob is one the first Afghanistani authors to contribute to our understanding of the position of Afghanistani women in diaspora. Her own experience of exile brought a new dimension to her writing. Like her characters, she was transformed in exile; not only were her political views in relation to the Afghanistani conflict changed, so were her politics in a broader sense, especially with regard to gender politics and women’s rights. In diaspora she has adopted a feminist approach to her writing and much of her work began to focus on women’s suffering and their empowerment.

While Afghanistani women who fled to other Islamic countries struggle for basic rights, in the West they struggle to balance their cultural heritage with the new ways of life that open up for them. While in the East their rebellion seems doomed to failure because religious, political and economic structures act to maintain the status quo, in the West the obstacles they face seem less pernicious but more opaque. In the West they must face the realities of cultural loss, the pressures of family and community to uphold tradition, and a foreign way of life that is at times dangerous and difficult to navigate. For Afghanistani women, migration is shown to be not only a physical journey away from home, but also a psychological journey towards a new one.

Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

   by Faridullah Bezhan