Julie Billaud’s Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan

Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan by Julie Billaud (2015) is a breeze of fresh air. Reading this well argued ethnographic book on women’s gender politics in Afghanistan allows for a more sophisticated approach to how we view ‘the other’– the gendered other (Afghan women), as well as the religious other (Muslim Afghans). Despite her “fragile relationships” (p. 22), Billaud’s access to Afghan women’s spaces in the university dormitory, the home and segregated public spaces, and female politicians, allows her to give the reader insight into how Afghan women think, feel, negotiate, and constantly push boundaries of social norms and propriety with tremendous courage and determination (p. 205). She successfully portrays the struggles of women living in a war-torn country in the modern period where women are fully aware of modernity and also their Muslim identity.

After 9/11/2001, the US media and policy makers widely publicized the wretched plight of Afghan women, often depicted on screen in suffocating burkhas. This factor, Billaud argues, under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, was pictured as a humanitarian crisis that would justify US military intervention in the country. As a result, various regions of Afghanistan were bombed by the US military and thousands of ordinary Afghans lost their lives in targeted bombings and “collateral damage.” Millions were displaced, spilling into neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

Arguing with a good degree of reflexivity, Julie points out that this was not the first time that proxy wars were fought in Afghanistan by Western powers. Chronologically, British forces invaded Afghanistan in 1838-42 and installed King Shah Shujah who was assassinated in 1842. Under the British Raj, British and Indian troops were massacred during a retreat from Kabul reflecting how much the presence of foreign invaders was resented. In 1953, General Muhammad Daud, the Prime Minister of Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union formed links as a result of which the Soviets gained a foothold in Afghanistan, but, in 1973, US-backed Mujahideen groups fought them off. Thus the mighty powers of the world continued to play their proxy war in impoverished Afghanistan. In December 1979, the Soviet army invaded and imposed a Communist government, making Babrak Karmal their puppet ruler. In the early 1980s, opposition intensified with Mujahideens fighting Soviet forces causing violent infighting (US stinger missiles given to the Mujahideen shot down Soviet gunships). As a result of war, half of Afghanistan’s population was displaced. In 1986, Karmal was replaced by another Soviet puppet, Najibullah.

After the 1988 peace accord, the country was torn by civil war leading to the rise of warlords and the Taliban, practicing crude non-Islamic ways of imposing violent religion on men and, especially ,women in 1996. In 2001, following 9/11, the US took the lead on bombing Afghanistan. Between the civil wars, the Taliban, and the US bombings, Afghanistan and particularly Kabul, was “reduced to rubble” in Billaud’s words (p. 55). In 2002, NATO took control and assumed responsibility for security in Afghanistan. Between 2008-2009, President George W. Bush sent over 21,500 troops to Afghanistan. President Barack Obama sent more, and the number of troops shot up to 100,000 by December 2009 (as the numbers of foreign troops increased, tensions rose between Afghans and US soldiers – Billaud describes the resentment and lack of acceptance for the other). Suicide bombings continue to kill foreign personnel and local Afghans. All this has impacted ordinary rural and urban denizens, men, and especially women, in Afghan society. As a result self-harm has become part of women’s “poisonous knowledge,” which Billaud explains as having been “acquired during years of war marked by displacement and hardship. This embodied experience of violence [has] deeply transformed and shaped [women’s] subjectivity, forcing them to develop coping strategies in order to make their lives meaningful again” (p. 187).

Early in the book, it is uplifting to read about Afghan women who progressed in an open, peaceful society back in the 1960s and 1970s – they played a central role in the public eye – on radio, in education, in politics, in their homes, and elsewhere. Some wore traditional clothes, others modern Western fashions. Women were present in all major government departments and had a presence throughout Afghanistan (p. 44-47). Billaud describes a man from present-day Afghanistan watching on television a scene from the time when the country was calm, Kabul was not subject to everyday violence, and Afghan women were in miniskirts in public. He adamantly refused to believe that “this” was Afghanistan (p. 126). Foreign interference, war, and destruction have affected ordinary Afghans the most and disrupted their ability to maintain a sense of normalcy. In this atmosphere, Indian dramas and movies provided escapism from the harshness of the reality imposed upon them – although non-Muslim, Hindus shared the same everyday problems, such as fierce and dominating mothers- and sisters-in-law (ibid.).

Billaud reveals how the toll of war upon Afghanistan by local and foreign interests has caused the country’s destruction both literally and culturally. Worse still, it led a third of the country’s population to fall below the poverty line leading to the deterioration of order in society – here there was no ideal Islamic society, nor a democratic one: in this civil disorder, there was no free access to health or educational services. In this metaphorically man-made dried-out landscape, the international community came into the scene with a “neocolonial narrative” according to which Afghanistan is stuck in a feudal mentality and needs enlightened guidance from modern and rational Western forces in order to set itself free from the conditions of its chronic “backwardness” (p. 78).

Billaud describes how international aid agencies who control the strings of local NGOs by means of funding them, and “perform” certain rehearsed lines and workshops regarding Western democracy, human, and women’s rights in order to civilize “the other.” By doing this, she argues, they ignore local knowledge and opinion (p. 81). Billaud maintains, “…in a context of foreign occupation, where women’s bodies have become the symbolic markers of the broader social body, veiling represents the privileged medium of expression of one’s national endeavors and resistance against external influences. The veil ensures the cohesion of the collective and provides a sense of national continuity when society is threatened by fragmentation from the presence of an external enemy” (p. 166). In this “dangerous mixture of military-humanitarian operations” reconstructing Afghanistan leads to the population’s resentment towards the central government and its international supporters and donors (p. 83). In this context all that is local, including gender, purdah/veiling, male-female relations, Islam – everything – is seen by foreign observers through a simplistic black and white frame. This narrative is often reflected in the media, which, by being prone to sensationalism, labels the veil as oppressive or women’s roles in Muslim societies in general as marginal. Western feminists and neocolonial discourses tend to impose the ideas of Western liberalism and feminism on Muslim societies, particularly women, but the best analysis of these complex societies is not to impose a set of values of one culture on another, but rather to step into the other’s shoes and see from their perspective, to empathize and truly understand. This is what Billaud has succeeded at doing.

Billaud follows young women like Khadija. Having left Afghanistan after extreme hardships and difficulties, Khadija and her family experienced poverty as refugees. Her father struggled, in a patriarchal and impoverished society, to keep his daughter’s reputation, dignity, and honor, and to escape to the West. For Khadija’s father, the reputation of the women in her family – as central pillars of tradition – “was all that was left to preserve” in this context of extreme poverty (p. 196).

Arriving in London, Khadija perfectly fit in with the stereotypical “victim” role that granted her refugee status in the UK. In contrast, her brother, not fitting this stereotype in Paris as a Muslim male – against the backdrop of the media problematically labeling all terrorist acts as “Islamism” and “Islamist” – still roams the streets as an “illegal immigrant” living on the periphery of society barely being recognized as a person. Such are the dilemmas of the modern world – it has displaced members of families, accepting some, rejecting others. Kabul Carnival makes the reader realize the impact that the war has had on ordinary Afghan people and its society. This ethnography should inform policy makers and the international community to deal with Afghans in a more empathetic, respectful, and fair way.

Amineh Hoti, The Center for Dialogue and Action

Reviewed in this essay:

Billaud, Julie. Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 256 pages, $55.00.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at matthewwolfmeyer.com and somatosphere.net.

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