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Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation


When in October 2001 American B-52s bombed Afghanistan to oust the Taliban from power, it was also a war of ‘women’s liberation’. Images of veiled Afghanistani women had become ubiquitous and unveiling was synonymous with liberation.1 But what did America and the Western world know about the status and suffering of Afghanistani women at the time? There had not then been any credible studies of the lives of Afghanistani women and this has remained the case up until the present. During the 1980s almost all studies, especially in the fields of politics and anthropology, were marked in one way or another by the Cold War. The oppression and suffering, as well as the achievements of Afghanistani women, were deeper and greater than most publications suggested. How did Afghanistani women, in all their diversity, live throughout modern Afghanistan, particularly over the past four decades? How were they treated in the private sphere and the public? And how did they resist wartime mistreatment in Afghanistan, refugee camps or diaspora? Who were the practitioners and sponsors of the violation of the rights and achievements of Afghanistani women? These questions have never been satisfactorily answered.

From 1978 to the removal of the Taliban in 2001, the USA directly and indirectly, explicitly or secretly, supported the fundamentalist Islamic organisations in Afghanistan. By financing, arming and supporting Islamic extremist groups, the USA became one of the main contributors to the violation of Afghanistani women’s rights and achievements.2 So how did the USA reach an understanding of itself as ‘liberating’ Afghanistani women from the tyrants it sponsored? And is the current war in Afghanistan—the post-Taliban period— instrumental in liberating women, or is it only creating misery of a different kind?

Prior to the 1980s there was little international interest in Afghanistan studies, but after this attention increased on the back of political motivations. Struggling in a bloody war for four decades and representing the internationalisation of the conflict from the very outset, Afghanistan became a ‘topic of study’. However, journalistic and research accounts published on the political, social and cultural aspects of Afghanistan in general, and the lives of women in particular, have been mostly stereotypical, with little merit. Mass media on both sides of the conflict, and even international human rights organisations, have provided a very partial picture of atrocities committed against Afghanistani women during the war. In Western academic circles, including the field of anthropology, studies have mostly been biased and misleading; as Jamil Hanifi notes, they have been ‘framed by passionate politicized discourse’ (2000:292). Official accounts of events by the parties involved (the leftist government, the mujahideen and Taliban) and their supporters, including international supporters, were not transparent but were the products of careful screening. In most cases, they were fabricated ‘realities’ intended to fulfil certain political agendas. Even most Western scholars pursued a specific aim in their studies of the Afghan war in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the case of Western anthropologists, H Sidky writes, ‘anthropologists specializing in Afghanistan who wrote about the war at the time reiterated the United States’s Cold War rhetoric rather than provide objective analyses. Others ignored the war altogether’ (2007:849).

While in the past very little literature existed concerning the suffering of women in the 1980s, in recent times more works have been written that shed light on the harsh experience of women during the war, particularly under the Taliban. Despite the valuable contribution of these works, they do not succeed in revealing the deep injuries that marked the lives of Afghanistani women during this long period and they reveal little of what really happened to women prior to the removal of the Taliban. Most scholars did not bother to report stories of women in refugee camps under the tight control of the mujahideen; because of their political agendas in the midst of the Cold War, they turned a blind eye.

Ironically women’s issues in Afghanistan have a strong link with the Taliban. Since the emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, and especially with their removal from power by the USA-led international intervention in late 2001, women’s issues have become a prominent topic in the Western media and scholarship. However, most of these reports and writings are stereotypical orientalist views that take little insight from the ground. Interestingly, while Western media and scholarship kept almost totally silent on how women’s basic rights to education, employment and healthcare were severely restricted by the pro-Western mujahideen groups during the 1980s and early 1990s, now they have found a new topic for wide discussion.

Another aspect missing in these works is an examination of how women coped with and/or resisted marginalisation, seclusion and gender discrimination. The general impression (derived primarily from media reports) is that Afghanistani women are passive victims of their traditions, customs and religion. Of the dynamism in their lives, there is little to show. Women’s struggles to create more space and gain greater agency are almost totally absent from these accounts.

How can one gain a better understanding of what happened to women before, during and after the war? One of the ways to explore the lives of women and the impact of war on their lives is to study the literary works written by Afghanistani women.

This book focuses on the narrative works of Maryam Mahboob: narrative works that represent Afghanistani women of different social positions expressing their oppression, suffering, rebellion, empowerment and need for change. Mahboob’s stories portray ordinary women who, under severe socio-political and cultural pressure, eventually rebel; some achieve freedom, while others do not. These narrative works represent an insider view of the various aspects of women’s lives.

Both sides of politics in the civil conflict of Afghanistan—the leftist regime and the mujahideen—used literary forms to propagate their causes. But writers and poets who did not share their political and ideological outlooks used literature in their own way, to reveal the injustices perpetrated by the warring sides and their impact on the lives of ordinary people. One of the first writers who responded in this way was Mahboob. She used literature as a weapon of the weak and her stories explore the paradoxical impact of war on the lives of women, and their subsequent transformation.

Chapter One deals with literature, politics and women in Afghanistan. Literature is one of the oldest types of art and was highly regarded by rulers, the elite and the ordinary people. Persian literature, also known as Dari, had a rich tradition in Afghanistan during the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras. With its variety of genres, themes and artistic merit, classical Persian literature in the Middle Ages was one of the finest in world literature. Moreover literature is one of the main sources for the study of not only creativity and the spiritual worlds of the people, but also as a source of political, social and cultural development, including in the relationships between people. In the absence of a variety of forms of mass communication and entertainment in Afghanistan, literature traditionally served as the most significant cultural medium. With the politicisation of all socio-cultural institutions in recent times, literature also became politicised. There is hardly a writer or poet who has not been touched by political developments in the last four decades. Writers such as Maryam Mahboob, who did not share the government’s or the opposition’s political and ideological outlooks, used literature to show not only the deeds of the warring sides, but also the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people. At the same time, in studying a closed society such as Afghanistan, and particularly in exploring a world of women when there are few means to access their everyday lives, literature is of great importance. The works written by women are not only significant as works of art, but also as the most authentic mirror of a living reality, incorporating women’s concerns, their dreams and hopes, their traditional values and their world views. According to Akbar and Muradi, these works express women’s ideas, desires and resistance and help other women ‘to feel energetic, to not be scared of the noise of guns, of flogging or stoning, and not to submit’ (2013:5). However, literature as a source for the study of war, women and the radicalisation of Afghanistani society is one of the most underresearched topics inside and outside the country.

Chapter Two looks at the status of women in Afghanistani society in general and during the war in particular. Since the Taliban came to power in the mid-1990s and were then removed from power by the USA-led intervention in late 2001, the women’s ‘issue’ has become a prominent topic in Western media and scholarship. However, most of these reports lack insight from the ground and do not acknowledge the severe restriction of women’s rights by pro-Western mujahideen groups and the Taliban during the 1980s and early 1990s, which were largely met with silence, and approval in some cases, from international observers. Women’s invisibility in the public world in ‘curious, unsuspected ways … does meet the physical and psychological need of the Afghan freedom movement’, argues the American anthropologist Kathleen Howard-Merriam in 1987:

The Mujahideen (holy warrior) leaders recognize women’s importance to the jihad (or holy war) with their exhortations to preserve women’s honor through the continued practice of seclusion. The reinforcement of this tradition … serves to strengthen the men’s will to resist [the leftist regime] (1987:104–105).

Portrayals of the war as a just conflict began soon after the leftist coup of 1978 and the emergence of the armed mujahideen forces. In literary works, such portrayals were dominated by the figures of male combatants and their heroic actions. They were almost always written by a supporter of one side or the other. The mourning of Afghanistani civilians and refugees was little dealt with.

Chapter Three looks at the life and work of Mahboob as a writer. It examines how a female author emerged in a male-dominated field and became one of the most outstanding literary figures of the last four decades. Like some of her female characters, Mahboob encountered hardship, both physically and mentally, in becoming an independent woman and an established writer. Not surprisingly, she dedicates most of her work to women’s issues.

Since the very early stage of the conflict, one of the direct impacts of war in Afghanistan was the radicalisation of society. With the rise of the Mujahideen and the Taliban to prominence on the socio-political scene, they introduced a different brand of Islam— mostly rooted in the Egyptian-Pakistani Muslim Brotherhood and Deobandi and Wahhabi doctrines. Even less examined was the radicalisation of Afghanistani society, the most important social development since the outbreak of the war. Radicalisation began in the refugee camps and areas under mujahideen control, but it spread throughout the country once the mujahideen became lords of the land and reached its peak during the Taliban rule.

Chapter Four looks at this radicalisation of Afghanistani society and, via Mahboob’s stories, what it meant for various Afghanistani women, be they young or married, elderly or widowed, educated or illiterate.

Another aspect of women’s lives missing from intellectual and literary accounts has been the war’s indirect impact on women, especially those who migrated to Western countries. In search of better lives, Afghanistani women found new spaces, but also faced new dilemmas.

Chapter Five explores the transformation of Afghanistani women in diaspora both in neighbouring countries and in the West, as expressed in Mahboob’s stories. Indeed, she is the first Afghanistani writer in diaspora to pay much attention to this theme. Through her narrative works, Mahboob depicts the lives, hopes, desires, struggles, failures and achievements of Afghanistani women in various situations in diaspora. The chapter also looks at how migration affected Mahboob’s own life, and argues that it changed her worldview, influenced her creativity and transformed her as a woman and as a writer.

1     Judith Butler questions this interpretation of unveiling as liberation. Taking as an example the well-known images of unveiled Afghanistani women that circulated in the media after the USA invasion of Kabul, Butler asks whether the face, which Emmanuel Levinas claims as ‘a condition for humanization’, can be represented in such a way that the result is dehumanisation (2004:141). According to the concept of the face as explored by Levinas, a face-to-face encounter allows the ‘Other’ to make an ethical claim or demand on the person seeing them (2004:131). However, in these photographs, Butler identifies the viewer as the party constructing a message:

According to the triumphalist photos that dominated the front page of the New York Times, these young women bared their faces as an act of liberation, an act of gratitude to the US military and an expression of a pleasure that had become suddenly and ecstatically permissible. The American viewer was ready, as it were, to see the face … It became bared to us, at that moment, and we were, as it were, in possession of the face; not only did our cameras capture it, but we arranged for the face to capture our triumph, and act as the rationale for our violence, the incursion on sovereignty, the death of civilians. Where is loss in that face? And where is the suffering over war? Indeed, the photographed face seemed to conceal or displace the face in the Levinasian sense, since we saw and heard through that face no vocalization of grief or agony, no sense of the precariousness of life. (Butler 2004:142)

2     According to most analysts, the USA/CIA funding of the mujahideen during the 1980s was the largest and most expensive covert operation in history. One scholar estimates that Saudi and USA funds allocated to the mujahideen may have amounted to as much as $5 billion (Rubin 2002:179–81).

Women, War and Islamic Radicalisation

   by Faridullah Bezhan