Among the more common forms of violence inflicted on Afghan women, one is the discourse that focuses on gender exclusively with reference to the rise and fall of the Taliban regime, in ‘before and after’ scenarios. While there is no denying the brutal nature of the Taliban’s edicts on women, this somewhat easy equation speaks in part to the lack of historical insight many writers bring to this part of the world, and in part to Western agendas behind the war to ‘liberate’ Afghan women.
Land of the Unconquerable:
The lives of contemporary
edited by Jennifer Heath
& Ashraf Zahedi
University of California Press, 2011
Land of the Unconquerable aims at a broader historical context, including by addressing the violence and displacement of the brutal civil war (1992-96) that preceded the Taliban. It begins by pointing out that ‘many women report that this four year period – virtually ignored by the Western media – rivalled, often outdid, the subsequent Taliban era for barbarism and oppression, with rapes, kidnappings and forced marriages.’ The book seeks to question the way we see the lives of Afghan women, and draws from a range of voices – including journalists, aid workers, parliamentarians, anthropologists, midwives and educators – to achieve this.
For the most part, this variety works. But Land of the Unconquerable is a bit of a mixed bag, with some layered and insightful pieces alongside others that are superficial. The collection begins with Shireen Khan Burki’s exploration of the complex relationship between laws, reforms and women’s rights in Afghanistan. This includes a fascinating account of the short-lived and optimistic modernisation drive of King Amanullah during the 1920s, on the model of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey. Amanullah sent young, unmarried girls to study in Turkey, introduced laws regarding engagement and marriage and, in a controversial and theatrical gesture, had his wife unveil in front of an assembly of tribal elders who were forced to applaud (while themselves wearing European clothes). Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these reforms was the role played by Queen Soraya, the king’s only wife and a highly educated and controversial woman. Pictures of Queen Soraya in Europe, unveiled and wearing a gown, were part of the propaganda circulated to destabilise Amanullah’s rule. The backlash from these premature reforms, says Burki, led to a quick rollback, and was part of the factors that led to the king’s overthrow in 1929.
Nevertheless, the pattern repeated itself in 1959. During the reforms initiated by Daoud Khan, wives of military officials attended the parade to mark the Independence Day celebrations unveiled. ‘In places such as Pul-e-Khumri … the predominantly Pashtun population was incensed when the government pressured local taxi and horse-drawn carriage drivers to refuse to transport veiled women,’ Burki writes. Such policies, she argues, ‘once again reflected the whims and ideas of an educated urbanised elite at the expense of those outside of their social strata who struggled to make ends meet.’ Burki points to the fact that Afghan women are not a monolithic bloc, and argues for policies that do not just reflect the attitudes of the ruling elite (or Western donors) but are more sympathetic to the different needs of rural women and their families, for whom empowerment might stand for entirely different things.
The kind of nuanced interrogation indicated in the preceding example is evident in two absorbing pieces on the chadari, the light-blue or white burqa favoured in Afghanistan. In ‘Afghanistan blues’, Dinah Zeiger excavates the class and ideological underpinnings behind media representations of this ubiquitous image. Describing a documentary made by a woman filmmaker on the state of Afghan women shortly after the defeat of the Taliban, she writes, ‘With a cameraman in tow, toting her microphone, [filmmaker] Obaid-Chinoy advances … She confronts the woman [a beggar in a chadari], who sounds timid behind her coverings … Obaid-Chinoy’s primary interest seems to be getting a look at [her] face, which the camera exploits in a merciless close-up.’
A similar theme recurs in Linah Abirafeh’s perceptive ‘Chadari politics’, which looks at how aid and policy decisions are linked to women’s clothing choices in Afghanistan. In 2002, while working as head of an NGO in Afghanistan, Abirafeh was asked by journalists returning from short tours of the country to explain why the veil was still around. ‘The aid apparatus was the means by which liberation would occur. Therefore, the persistence of the chadari on Afghanistan’s streets indicated a failure of the aid apparatus,’ she writes. This insistent measuring of liberation against chadaris, both Abirafeh and Zeiger argue, is not only myopic but self-defeating, as it provokes a protective backlash from different sections of Afghan society.
Predictably, the best pieces come from writers who have spent considerable time in the country. Mary MacMakin, whose experience as a physical therapist began in the 1960s, presents a rare glimpse into the lives of disabled women and their families across Afghanistan’s remote villages. While hiking in Badakshan, she recalls being approached by the father of a bedridden young girl emaciated by rheumatoid arthritis. MacMakin is forced to leave without doing anything useful for the girl, but carries her image as a personal talisman.
In ‘Mending Afghanistan stitch by stitch’, Rachel Lehr, founder of the non-profit Rubia, recalls the challenges of moving the embroidery business from its base in the organic home space of a refugee community in Pakistan to the formal office dynamics of Kabul after 2001. ‘The fluid way that handwork would fit into a home schedule was lost in the office environment,’ Lehr writes. ‘At home, one of Hafiza’s daughters would cook, another would clean … In Kabul, she had to leave all this behind to go to an office, even taking her youngest child with her.’ In its short history, Rubia’s story traverses the themes of gender, space, tribal tensions and hierarchies, tradition and crafts passed down through generations of women – an indicator of the breathtaking complexity of contemporary life in Afghanistan.
On the downside, the more headline-friendly topics are the least absorbing. Lizette Potgieter’s foray into Badam Bagh women’s prison skims the surface of a fascinating landscape but fails to provide much depth. (This might have something to do with her endnote, which says, ‘I live in Kabul, Afghanistan, where there are no libraries for research.’ In fact, there are a few.) Similarly, ‘Selling sex in Afghanistan’ by Alisa Tang creates moving ‘portraits of Afghanistan’s sex workers’, including Chinese women who are virtually kidnapped to provide services to foreigners, but lacks the layering that comes with intimate access.
The book also suffers from some minor errors that nonetheless rankle, such as the consistent misspelling of ‘mehram’ (the male escort required by some women to leave the house) as ‘moharram’ (the first month of the Islamic calendar). Its most significant drawback for the lay reader is its lack of good, enjoyable, immersing writing. Most of the chapters have a workmanlike feel to them, with a few that read like internal reports for NGOs, specifically the ‘lessons learnt’ section. This might be linked to the marketing of the book as semi-academic or research-based, but is it really necessary that an academic book also be dull? It seems a pity that writers with this kind of expertise should leave the task of being enjoyable or accessible to a larger public in the hands of other writers churning out, say, soul-uplifting sagas of schools and cups of tea in hard-to-verify places.
The exceptions to this rather flat note are two arresting portraits of women as storytellers and poets. Margaret A Mills’s article, ‘Between covered and covert’, is an enchanting portrait of Afghan oral culture, and its representation of ‘trickster women’ who both challenge and restore the ‘order’ of the world around them. One of the passages she recounts describes an old woman trickster who is about to plot on the side of the villain: ‘An old woman, full of schemes, a prime piece, ancient in years, bent-backed, and skinny, who was seven steps ahead of the devil and always cooking sweet rice offerings for the demons.’ Her description of the setting where she heard some of the stories in the 1970s – ‘the domestic world of impoverished women in a mid twentieth century Herat agricultural village, where a hot cup of tea was valued hospitality, where women spun and wove local cotton and winter nights were the proper time for such work along with visits and storytelling’ – is both nostalgic and insightful, the kind of stuff that lingers after the headlines have faded.
Similar in rhythm and emotional depth is Zuzanna Olszewska’s examination of Afghanistan’s women poets, starting from the clever banter and capping of verses by the ladies of the 15th-century court of Queen Gowhar Shad in Herat. Some of them, Olszewska notes, were married to poets and composed teasing jibes to their husbands in verse, mocking them, for example, about their old age. She follows a fascinating path over traditions of folk poetry, to more contemporary voices speaking of war, sexuality and cleverly disguised protest. This includes Afghan women writing from exile, in Iran or countries in the West, with their works addressing the Taliban’s brutality and the subsequent war.
The writings sampled in the article are powerful and haunting, but a tragic trend is that there have been young women in Herat whose ‘writing career has been threatened or cut short by marriage.’ One of these was Nadia Anjoman, a precocious and talented young writer whose debut collection was praised for its fresh language and youthful viewpoint. She died at the age of 25 under mysterious circumstances, following restrictions by her in-laws and a final dispute with her husband, in 2005. ‘She left behind her first book of poetry and a baby boy,’ writes Olszewska.
The collection ends with voices of young Afghans – both men and women – talking about their dreams and future. These range from the heartbreaking to the heart-warming – a young woman debates leaving the country for security or staying back for love, a teenage girl agonises about whether she will be allowed to continue studying after her marriage to a man 15 years her senior, and another finds her feet after a devastating divorce from a drug addict. This last section, like much of the book, provides insights into the many-layered lives of Afghan women, with all their contradictions and pitfalls, as well as the moments of hope and laughter. Finally, the book manages to provide a glimpse of ordinariness, and of the rhythm of women’s routine lives, in all their complexity and simplicity – perhaps Land of the Unconquerable’s greatest achievement.
~ Taran N Khan is a journalist and writer based in Kabul.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)