Published: March 1, 2001 By

[1]   The continual recurrence of liberal visual and textual representations of Afghan women sensationalize their plight and conflate third world women “over there” with third world women “over here.” Such presentations compel me to reiterate critiques put forward by Chandra Mohanty (1991), Gayatri Spivak (1999), Umma Narayan (1997), and Lata Mani (1990) about the discursive construction of third world women’s lives in western accounts. Trinh Minh-ha reminds us that such accounts of the third world women’s pain and oppression have made them inmates in a private zoo (1989). Within such a zoo, the archetypal image of the veiled woman, even when accompanied by a speaking subject remains limited to the immediate sensory experience of what it is like to be confined. The political context and social systems are eliminated. In representing an Afghan’s woman’s narrative I face a dilemma familiar to many feminists who want to write about women “over there”, our accounts risk reinforcing them as victims. Yet women in Afghanistan are suffering. How then do we identify and support their struggles? Drawing on Joan Scott’s (1992) work, I argue for a methodology that historicizes narratives of experience by identifying how geopolitics, specifically the cold war, helped determine the current social formation in Afghanistan. Afghan women’s accounts need to be read against this history.

[2]   The shrouded image of Fatana, a woman living in Afghanistan (Armstrong 1997), presents, I argue, a spectacular textual event in North America. Furthermore, Gayatri Spivak’s notion of the native informant (1999) allows for a reading of Fatana’s body as struggling between identity and difference (both over “there” and “here”). I complicate this struggle and locate it in a particular history. Additionally, I disrupt a reading of the monolithic Afghan woman (read muslim woman) by identifying issues that Fatana faces as very different from issues that Naima, an Afghan refugee woman living in Canada, encounters. Naima’s hardships and invisibility expose the contradictions of the conservatism underneath the reductive images of veiled Afghan women and reconfirm a desire to see only the woman living in the third world as oppressed. There is another actor in this drama. In North America my voice, too, is conflated in the master discourse about the muslim woman with Naima’s voice. Yet Naima and I are positioned differently. She is underemployed in contingent work. I am an academic situated to perform the native informant. For who else would I research? Certainly conventional wisdom would deem my attempts to research regular (read white) women inappropriate. Sunera Thobani, former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, an immigrant to Canada, faced such questions in the mid-1990s about the appropriateness of her ability to speak for all Canadian women.

[3]   And I don’t claim to be neutral. Clearly the imagery surrounding the shrouded Afghan women is problematic for those of us who self-identify or are identified by others as muslim. A court case from Portsmouth, Virginia provides an example. The city agreed to pay two muslim women $1000,000 each after they were arrested and charged for wearing veils in public. This was seen interpreted by authorities as wearing masks in public (Globe and Mail 2000). Muslims living in the west may not relate to the images; nevertheless people respond to us through the filters they evoke. Hence, any unlearning which complicates the image of the shrouded muslim is beneficial to me not only politically but also personally.

[4]   Through this discussion I explore a political space through which Fatana’s account cannot be trivialized as a human interest story or serve as yet another tool of oppressive representational practices. Disrupting the duality of east and west, first world and third world, I examine the complexities and contradictions that arise out of what Edward Said, refers to as overlapping territories and intertwined histories (1993). And, as Spivak recommends in another context (1999: 409), I place the native informant’s narrative in a history of her own present. In so doing I work towards a methodology that promises praxis as well as promotes international solidarity among women.

Introducing Fatna

[5]   Let me begin with excerpts from an article entitled “Veiled Threat” by Sally Armstrong in the Summer 1997 issue ofHomemaker’s, a popular Canadian magazine directed to a middle-class female audience. I use this example not because ofHomemaker’s pre-eminent position among women’s magazines in Canada or indeed North America, but because the issues raised in the article are representative of many conventional accounts of Afghan women. The excerpt re-presents words spoken by Fatana, an Afghan woman caught within reactionary forces in Afghanistan.

It’s hot in here. Shrouded in this body bag, I feel claustrophobic. It’s smelly too. The cloth in front of my mouth is damp from my breathing. Dust from the filthy street swirls up under the billowing bursa and sticks to the moisture from my covered mouth. I feel like I’ am suffocating in stale air.

It also feels like I am invisible. No one can see me. No one knows whether I am smiling or crying. My view isn’t much better: The mesh opening in front of my eyes isn’t enough to see where I’m going. It’s like wearing horse blinders. I can see only straight in front of me. Not above or below or on either side of the path I take. Suddenly the road changes. I step on the front of the hideous bag that covers my body and tumble to the ground. No one helps me. It feels like no one in the world wants to help. (Fatana, 28, in Armstrong, 1997, p. 20)

Armstrong goes on to ask “who in the name of Allah” has decreed this wretched fate on the women of Afghanistan? And Armstrong answers her own question. “A ragtag band of bandits called the Taliban, who are mostly illiterate and mostly in their 20s, thundered into the capital city of Kabul on September 27 of last year, and overnight the lives of women and girls were catapulted back to the dark ages” (1997: 20).

[6]   Fatana’s testimony provides a powerful and necessary critique of a sectarian patriarchal state. Armstrong’s interpretation of Fatana’s account however, suggests a liberal individualist framework, which, as Chris Weedon has argued, reduces oppression to the subjective psychological state of feeling oppressed. Not investigated is what the subject takes for granted and what is left out of her account (1997: 84). Instead, Fatana’s experience of her positioning as subject is given all importance and her words place her oppression in the hands of the Taliban. Her narrative, as picked up by Armstrong, suggests the notion of west as best and non-west (read muslim) as the undesirable other, undesired by the west but also by the non-western woman herself. This from of knowledge production about the muslim Middle East, or Orientalism has been explored in the works of many theorists, including Edward Said (1979) and Leila Ahmed (1992). Armstrong refers to “a disturbing rise of extremism in Muslim countries” (1997: 20) and gives examples of women who are stoned to death and forcibly confined to their homes without employment opportunities and access to adequate health care. Such words strengthen images of forced veiling and of women as victims of uncivilized, irrational, women-hating terrorists — which, Edward Said (1981, 1993), among others, reminds us, are consistent with popular images of muslims.

[7]   Fatana’s difference is staged within a text embellished with photographs of veiled women who appear more like walking tents than women who have survived two decades of civil war. The photograph of Fatana in a veil without an understanding of her context denies her agency and supports Armstrong’s argument that she is a victim. Granted there are also pictures of women who are not veiled — whom Armstrong labels as “modern” — protesting the atrocities of the current Taliban government in Afghanistan. The text however does not emphasize their protest. Instead Armstrong’s account highlights the forced veiling and polygamy that women in Afghanistan face, but there is little analysis of the situation in which they find themselves. This dichotomy of the oppressed traditional/liberated modern is witnessed largely by North American consumers of the textual event who have already been influenced by western biases against Islam, the muslim (Said 1993), and its most visible symbol: the veil. And the veil, Leila Ahmed points out, is the discursive marker between the western and the muslim woman and the most significant symbol of muslim woman’s oppression (1992).

[8]   Drawing upon popular ideas, stereotypes of muslims and have material results. They helped the United States to construct its justification of the 40-day bombing of Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. And Sherene Razack (1998) has documented how stereotypes of muslims and other third world peoples have influenced and regulated encounters in courtrooms and classrooms. Razack, like myself, argues for a disruption of the hegemonic ways that particular subjects situate themselves as dominant while situating others as subordinate (1998: 10).

[9]   In documenting Fatana’s victimization at the hands of the Taliban, Armstrong’s article is not unique. Similar accounts of Afghan women have recently appeared in women’s magazines as well as in other forms of print media (Fields-Myer and Benet, 1998; Hebert, 1998). The Thomas Fields-Myer and Lorenzo Benet article in People magazine, in particular, shows Mavis Leno stepping out of the shadow of her celebrity husband, talk show host Jay Leno, to take up a crusade for what she regards as an “urgent and compelling cause: the plight of the women in Afghanistan” (1998: 232). “I firmly believe we are their last hope,” Mavis argues (1998: 234). The text is accompanied by photographs depicting Afghan women in Afghanistan wearing burqas (the form of veil most common in Afghanistan). Another photograph in the same article depicts a burqa-clad woman standing next to Mavis and Jay in October 1998 at a Los Angeles news conference on behalf of Afghan women. The photograph is quite spectacular in its juxtaposition of two women, one veiled the other unveiled, suggesting other binaries as well: east/west, liberated/oppressed, and forceful/passive. The photograph caption reads ” ‘I am proud of her,’ Jay says of Mavis (with him at an Oct. 22 L.A. news conference on behalf of Afghan women). There is no mention of the veiled woman at all. She is rendered a helpless victim with no agency. Certainly there is no presentation of her as a survivor of war and fragmentation of her country, a scattering of her people and possibly her family. Instead the photograph reinforces Mavis’s philanthropy towards the Afghan woman.

[10]   While well intentioned, such initiatives and their representations in popular magazines reveal little analysis of the Afghan woman as a historical subject. Instead highly sensationalized textualizations reinforce popular stereotypes, situating the body of the Afghan woman as totally contained by the veil of her oppressive culture/religion. Such representations suggest a moment of blending of the colonial woman, the third world woman, and the muslim woman as the other who is oppressed and needs to be liberated by the western woman. In this case the liberator appears in the form of Mavis Leno. Such presentations reinforce Fatana’s narrative of victimization and complete her picture. Nothing more needs to be said. Fatana in herburqa is the native informant par excellence.

[11]   Images of veiled women have other (mis)uses. They often provide silent testimony to the authority of religious patriarchs within state-sanctioned multicultural spaces in first world societies. Nira Yuval Davis (1992) has argued that multicultural policies have benefited patriarchal leadership, particularly male, religious leadership, in reinforcing their authority as leaders of “multicultural communities” while women have been deemed members. Within this paradigm, “modern” Afghan women, their struggles, and their survival are no longer the focal point. The spokespersons and leaders for various muslim groups are never women. In particular, muslim feminist activism (both in the first world and in the third) is denied and feminist concerns excluded and deemed marginal. Such assumptions point to influences of both feminist and multicultural liberal discourses. Do we then allow accounts such as Fatana’s to re-present us or do we, as Trinh Min Ha suggests, “try to keep on trying to unsay it, for if [we] don’t, they will not fail to fill in the blanks on [our] behalf, and [we] will be said” (1989: 90).

[12]   In constructing an alternative representation for Fatana, I don’t want to dismiss Fatana’s pain or discount her words. Yet I do not want to hold the Taliban solely responsible for her situation. Instead, I want to take Fatana’s narrative seriously and contextualize her re-telling of her oppression by setting up a frame for her words. Within this frame I identify Fatana as a woman who lives in Afghanistan. In her social and political context, superpower politics as well as regional power ambitions influence not only how the sacred is engaged, but also what political/economic effects Islam has on people’s lives. I also want to implicate Armstrong as the teller who works within a liberal frame. Her account, and others like it (Fields-Meyer & Benet, 1998; Herbert, 1998) sensationalize the Afghan woman as native informant. Privileged as whites (likely middle class), these authors do not question the unequal relations which have created and reinforced particular interpretations of Fatana’s story providing them with access to spaces to present their version and an audience who identifies with them and their biases.

[13]   It is not that analysis of the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan does not exist in North America. Indeed I have drawn on western investigative reporting as well as Amnesty International sources in my re-writing of Fatana’ history. But in conventional accounts it is the sensational reinforcing of stereotypes that holds sway. And Sally Armstrong’s sensational analysis is not unusual. It identifies recurring methods and terminologies consistent with the portrayal and production of the muslim, Islam, and other third world peoples for the North American diet. Such accounts, however, only draw upon Afghan women’s narrative of experience and identify a “truth” that is narrowly structured within a situation ruled by the dictates of the ruthless and fundamentalist Taliban. There is little discussion of the larger social and political context and no exploration of the contestations surrounding Taliban interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan. We are presented with a binary. In contrast to the Taliban dictates, Armstrong posits her own views in the section entitled “For Openers.” In words which evoke the timelessness of Islam, Armstrong situates Fatana as a victim yet also blames her for her victimization.

I have often wondered why a woman would cover her face with a veil, share her husband with a second, third or fourth wife, and accept brutal laws that endanger her life. Ancient tradition, culture and religion have a way of complicating matters. Politics have a way of confounding them. (Fatana, in Armstrong, 1997, p. 4)

Armstrong supports Fatana’s statements not with the specificities of events in Afghanistan but with generalizations about third world women who passively accept their oppressive culture. Armstrong’s words also reinforce commonly held assumptions in North America that conflate Islam and the fundamentalist groups — in this case, the Taliban. Scholars have linked popular stereotypes about muslims to similar de-contextualized statements about the fate of women in muslim societies (Ahmad, 1992; Lazreg, 1990). And Spivak reminds us that “generalized accounts of native informants sometimes appear in the Sunday supplements of national journals, mouthing for us the answers that we want to hear as confirmation of our view of the world” (1999: 342). Paradoxically, such views helped create an awareness of Fatana’s plight in the west, pressuring public and corporate interests to take her pain seriously. (I will expand on this later in the document.)

[14]   In Armstrong’s account, in the Feminist Majority campaign to “Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” (Feminist Majority [FM], 2000) and in briefs presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee (Senate Appropriations Committee [SAC], 1999, 2000a, 2000b), the role of the United States in creating the conditions of Fatana’s life is minimized. At the same time the plight of Afghan women, complete with testimonials, is vividly described. This micro focus does not allow for an examination of, as Cynthia Enloe (1989) argues, the ways in which internal politics affects not only how women’s lives are lived in particular locales but also how those locales are articulated within the larger global relations of inequality. Instead, these re-tellings produce “voyeuristic” exotica — print and visual — complete with photographs of shrouded women to be digested along with, in the case of Homemaker’s, other offerings: recipes and stay-fit diets.

[15]   To a lesser extent, Armstrong also promotes another possible allegiance for the reader, an allegiance of oppositionality to the fundamentalist Taliban, for in the background of Armstrong’s account hovers the possibility of solidarity with educated and activist Afghan women. This possibility is never fully explored. Nowhere in the text do we see a history or an account that leads to the event of Fatana being encased in a shroud not of her own making. How, then, do we take up Fatana’s narrative in ways that validate her experience but do not become a tool of oppressive representational practices? It is to this exploration that I now turn.

Disrupting Narratives of Experience

[16]   In recent years narratives or stories have placed at the center personal accounts of events and happenings often excluded from the European canon. Such alternative accounts have been used to create other histories that challenge conventional ways of knowing (Pierce et al., 1997). Yet the positioning of these narratives by liberal feminism, as Chandra Mohanty (1991) has brilliantly explored, denies not only the discursive construction of the first and the third world but also the unequal relations between them. Such accounts de-historicize and exclude from representation the global context, thus rendering the person represented victimized and powerless. Armstrong’s account of Fatana’s pain and oppression is one such alternative history. Fatana’s narrative as native informant helps sensationalize her as an exotic and helpless victim. And her retelling becomes a contradictory site for the reproduction of racist othering within a discourse evoking missionary zeal and suggests a need for liberation from her culture, religion, and men. Mohanty’s work critiques as well as seeks to uncover the power interests behind the discursive and materialist construction and positioning of the third world woman’s narrative by liberal accounts.

[17]   In contrast, Trinh Min Ha’s (1989) work supports the notion of alternative narrative accounts that include not only what the subject has said but also serve as a beginning for what has not been said and remains to be explored. Fatana’s story is about confinement and oppression by the Taliban. We are told that she is a psychiatrist and that she was fearful when the Taliban forces took over Kabul:

On September 26 [1994] we were at work. Everyone was anxious, the Taliban were near the city. We were waiting for something bad. At noon most people went home because we could hear the shelling. We’d heard about Taliban policies and we were afraid for our futures. I’d never owned aburqa in my life. Most women in Kabul had never even worn a scarf over their heads. (Fatana, in Armstrong, 1997, p. 21)

Trinh’s work helps us recreate the unsaid part of her story, for Fatana’s comments also hint at the many possible stories that Armstrong’s representation does not capture. For example, what were the other stories that made up her life? How did those at her home fare in the growing violence in Afghanistan? Where are her loved ones now? How did she survive the restrictions that entrap women in the home and prevent them from working outside? Was she able to practice her profession? How did she herself deal with the emotional fallout of working with women entrapped by growing restrictions? What stories did she hear? Did she want to leave the country? Did circumstances beyond her control make her stay, so that the Taliban-ordained shroud descended upon her? Her story floats without context and the gaps demand answers to questions such as these.

[18]   But while I believe Trinh’s work is crucial in engaging with Fatana’s life, I don’t want to leave Fatana’s account at the level of joy and pain. As I move beyond to generate accountability and strategies for collective political action, I am reminded by Joan Scott’s argument against relying solely on the evidence of experience: “It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation — as a foundation upon which analysis is based — that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference” (1992: 24). Scott points out that the rhetorical treatment of the evidence of experience renders it a reflection of the real, blurring the distinction between the experience and the narrative of experience. As well, the experience of those categorized as different or alternative, Scott notes, does not always examine invisible forms of experience (unconscious or structural) outside of the narrator’s field of vision.

[19]   Scott argues that projects of alternative, non-foundational histories serving to make experience visible incorporate historical analyses of social and political structures that identify those who are differentiated. Through historicizing, the writer’s agenda will not be about capturing the reality and authenticity of the object of analysis. Instead, the analysis will make visible the assignment of subject positions by examining how the subject is constituted through discourse and the complex interaction of power relations informing those discourses. So Fatana’s identity is not static in its essence, waiting there to be expressed and captured within the pages of Homemaker’s and other such accounts, but is something that we want to explore through analyzing its meaning. Hence, Fatana’s narrative of “experience is at once always already an integration and is in need of interpretation” (Scott, 1992, p. 37).

[20]   Scott’s comments on the epistemological complexities of experience lead me to the next part of my project. What is Fatana’s “real” story and can we textualize it? Contemporary feminist and cultural theory has argued persuasively that we cannot textualize the real. What we speak about and write about through language is interpretation which depends not only on selective remembering of the teller of the tale but also the agenda and the politics of the writer. The process does violence to women’s stories. Trinh has argued against the kind of violence that we would visit on Fatana when we re-tell her story, particularly when we use the linear narrative of history. And Fatana’s story must be told. Many have to take responsibility for not only her situation but also for that of others like her. One thing is clear, her story cannot be told unproblematically using theories incapable of accounting for contemporary global conditions. Here it is useful to draw upon Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s notion of transnational feminism, which broadens and deepens the “analysis of gender in relation to a multiplicity of issues that affect women’s lives” (1994: 1).

[21]   I am aware that by identifying the constitutedness of Fatana’s difference within a context of international politics, I risk naturalizing her as “the essentialized, oppressed, muslim woman.” However, my strategic use of Fatana’s account does not generate the truth of the matter but is a reminder of her historically constructed alterity. Writing in the history of Fatana’s location disrupts the human-interest story in a land where the war against women, we are told by Armstrong, rages on “[while] the world has clearly grown weary of Afghanistan and its 18 years of war” (1997: 25).

Writing a History of War and Fragmentation into Fatna’s Account

People in the West blame the Afghanis, the Mujahadeen, the Taliban for what is happening in Afghanistan, they do not see how they are implicated, they do not see that their political and economic interests and their politicians, as well as the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours, have created the Afghanistan of today. They [non-Afghanis] will not accept responsibility for how they are implicated in the plight of Afghanistan and the conditions of Afghan women. (Adeena Niazi, President of Afghan Women’s Association, personal communiqué, Toronto, August 1997)

[22]   A recent communication documenting some of the horrors perpetrated on women in Afghanistan has been doing the rounds on email. Through a one-dimensional rendition of prohibitions that women face and a complete silence on other social and political factors that have contributed to the Afghan situation, the email provides another example of the kind of blame that Niazi speaks of. Scholars and activists, myself included, are outraged by the conditions of women’s lives. It is not my intention to argue for a political petition to come with detailed contextualization and historicization. However given the generalizations that normally accompany popular accounts about muslims and in this case Afghanistan, an attachment might have helped many, who did not know the complexities of the situation, become more familiar with what they were petitioning for. Many people cannot bring themselves to add their name to the protest list — perhaps because within this communication, the Afghan woman as subject has no context and no history. And subject positions, as Stuart Hall (1997) reminds us, emerge out of a specific history, out of a specific set of power relationships. What, then, are the local and international histories and power relationships that Niazi’s comments gesture to and that help structure Afghan women’s lives in Afghanistan? And how might understanding them help us re-read Fatana’s life?

[23]   Sally Armstrong argues that timeless Islamic tradition is responsible for Fatana’s situation. A review of Afghan history on the other hand reveals that Afghan society is not static it continues to be contested. Absence of a strong central state has, for example, allowed tribal groups from the countryside, who compromise 90% of the population, to challenge (particularly in rural areas) whoever was in power in Kabul (Halliday, 1978; Weiner & Banuazizi, 1994). Interpretation of Islam, too, is contested along class, regional, and ethnic lines. Within a context of these competing interests, various regimes have attempted to implement social reforms that aimed to educate Afghan women and integrate them into the waged labour economy — so much so, that in the early part of this century, Afghan legislation on the status of women was considered among the most “progressive” in muslim states and became the model for reforms in Soviet Central Asia in 1926 (Massels 1974). In Afghanistan, however, the legislation had many opponents who successfully agitated for a return to more conservative gender policies and, by the end of the 1920s, many of the reforms had been cancelled. These included the closing of educational institutions for women and denying them the vote (Centlivres-Demont, 1994; Moghadam, 1993).

[24]   In April 1978 a coup brought an underground Marxist group, People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), into power. The Soviet Union, along with the traditional Afghan ally, India, were major supporters of the new regime. The PDPA rule evoked the hostility of neighbors China, Pakistan, and Iran and was weakened by internal divisions. Nevertheless, the PDPA government committed itself to changing the political and social structure of Afghan society and, in particular, to changing gender relations. It proclaimed a series of Decrees, of which six articles of Decree #7, focusing on the institution of marriage, were among the most controversial. Moreover, literacy for women was no longer an option (influenced by male guardians) but entrenched in law as well. By and large PDPA policies and programs were intended to

encourage income-generating projects and employment for women, provide health and legal services for women and eliminate those aspects of muslim family law that discriminate against women: unilaterally male repudiation, father’s exclusive rights to child custody, unequal inheritance, male guardianship over women. (Moghadam, 1993, p. 229)

A conservative conception of the role of women has traditionally opposed reforms proposed by whoever was in power in Kabul, particularly those changing gender relations. Particularly in the countryside there was significant resistance to PDPA reforms, as there had been resistance to the reforms of the 1920s (Anwar, 1988; Centlivres-Demont, 1994), suggesting that women would have to face greater social and familial obstacles to education and employment decisions, even if such were available to them. Fatana is a psychiatrist and likely training and employment opportunities were available to her because she lived in Kabul.

[25]   In the summer of 1978 many Afghanis began to flee as refugees to Pakistan. Land reforms and compulsory implementation of the literacy program among women were major reasons that many refugees gave for leaving their country (Moghadam, 1993). Resistance to the regime was organized in the camps in Pakistan and soon spread to parts of Afghanistan. Raja Anwar points to a link that appeared between the “defense” of Islam and the defense of the Afghan nation against Soviet aggression allowing Islam to crystallize as the major ideology of resistance groups — especially since the PDPA government was hostile to the religious establishment in the early years of its rule. However, by the early 1980s, the regime tried to neutralize resistance in the name of Islam, maintaining that the state would be run on Islamic principles. Reforms promised earlier, such as land distribution plans or those attempting changes in gender relations, were either slowed down or not enforced (Centlivres-Demont, 1994).

[26]   The situation that, in a sense, situates Fatana, wearing “horse blinders” walking down the street in Kabul, arises in part out of PDPA reforms as well as popular resistance to those reforms. But there is more. Superpower rivalry during the cold war is also an important element. The conflict in Afghanistan became a stage for this rivalry (Amnesty International [AI], 1994). The Soviets had intervened militarily in Afghanistan in 1979 and their advisors had considerable power in affairs of the government (Anwar, 1988). The resistance, on the other hand, was supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia (Burns 1997a, 1997b). A Toronto Starreport suggests that during the Afghan war the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funneled arms and cash, up to 3.3 billion dollars, to Mujahadeen resistance groups that killed the most Russians (Shogren & Frantz, 1993). The original U.S. goal in Afghanistan, however, was not so much to oust the Soviet forces as to make them pay a heavy price for the invasion. “The maximum achievement would be to make the cost of the Soviet presence extremely high so that they would learn a lesson and be discouraged from trying in other more important places,” said a former State Department official involved in Afghan policy. “That meant we did not pay attention to who got the arms because we did not think there would be a post-Soviet Afghanistan” (Globe and Mail, 1993a). Furthermore, as early as 1982, the CIA and the State Department knew that the bulk of their assistance was going to Islamic fundamentalist groups of the Mujahadeen that were anti-American or had ties to anti-American groups in Iran (Globe and Mail, 1993a, 1993b).

[27]   To be sure, the United States and the CIA are implicated in the Afghan tragedy. They poured a tremendous amount of arms and financial resources into the Mujahadeen jihad, against the so-called communist government in Kabul. But I do not want to minimize Pakistan’s role. American and Saudi funds and other resources were funneled largely through Pakistan. The United States needed Pakistan to police the region and the military regime in Islamabad needed the United States’ support to stay in power. And Pakistan has continued to support the Taliban long after the Clinton administration decided not to support them.

[28]   American involvement, which played an increasing role in Afghan politics, was directly connected to policies that attempted to counter Soviet expansion in the region and were a function of the superpower rivalry of the time. Afghan society was never very cohesive now, with the large-scale introduction of weapons and arms, it became even more fragmented. Rivalries fuelled the violence and further fractured Afghan society. The Taliban regime that has ordained that Fatana wear a burqa is the latest inheritor of this situation (Burns, 1997c).

[29]   The conditions that help to structure Fatana’s life have not been static nor a function of Islam’s oppression of women, as Sally Armstrong or Mavis Leno would have us believe. Rather they are connected to the social and political changes of the time. Valentine Moghadam (1993), who visited Afghanistan in 1989, claims that she saw women in prominent positions in urban areas and in the PDPA government as members of the National Assembly, members of Revolutionary Defense Group militias, chief surgeons in military hospitals, and construction workers and electrical engineers who often supervised male staff. Ariana Airlines employed female as well as male flight attendants. And the female announcers who read the news were neither veiled nor wore a headscarf. Women were members of trade unions and worked as printers, soldiers, parachutists, and veterinarians.

[30]   The situation was very different in the Mujahadeen resistance movement. The Hizb-e-Islami, led by Gulbeddin Hekmatyar and supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, had no public place for women as ideologues or as spokespersons nor in any other form. In effect they are contradictorily situated. On the one hand they are positioned into the role of the chaste pure woman whose mobility and sexuality is strictly controlled to serve the needs of the community through giving birth to future warriors. On the other hand even pure women often fall pray to rape and other forms of violence at the hands of the Mujahadeen (Ganon, 1996; Burns, 1996; AI, 1995).

[31]   The Taliban have controlled Afghanistan since1996 and their interpretation of Islam appears even more stringent than the Mujahadeen view. Similar to the Mujahadeen, there are no women among the Taliban who exercise power. While the Mujahadeen allowed veiled women on the street, women in areas under Taliban control were initially ordered to stay indoors. All kinds of employment were restricted (AI, 1996). These restrictions have been somewhat relaxed in recent years and permission given to a limited number of women to work in health care and with international agencies. Widows with no other means of support have been given permission to seek employment (Agency France Press [AFP], 2000b). Many widows however, are unaware of this change (USSD (1999). Moreover, Taliban restrictions are enforced most in urban areas, where women under previous regimes had enjoyed more social freedom and mobility (USSD, 2000, p. 22). Fatana’s life and mobility are likely under greater scrutiny now then ever before, possibly more than her sisters in the countryside; she tells us that she, like many women in Kabul, has never owned aburqa in her life. Forced to veil, Fatana, a psychiatrist, might be among a handful of women permitted by the Taliban to work in the health care system to service women. Likely she is in a state of shock as she “stumbles” under the confines of the burqa. It is not timeless tradition that is oppressing Fatana, as Armstrong claims, rather it is the complex confluence of events that created a situation that confines her.

[32]   Popular accounts appear to suggest that the Afghan man, like other muslim men, are responsible for the conditions in which women in his community live. However, all Afghan men are not responsible for creating and sustaining the conditions of Afghan women’s lives. Circumstances surrounding the 1997 two-month shutdown of a program feeding 8,000 children in Kabul provide an example. The Taliban guards arrested two Frenchmen working for Action Against Hunger, a Paris-based relief group. It was determined that the men had been in the same compound, through not in the same room, as a group of some sixty Afghan women who were not wearing burqas. The women had been invited to a lunchtime gathering to say farewell to two French women volunteers.

[33]   After a trial with the religious police acting as prosecutors, the two men were convicted and sentenced to the thirty days they had already served in prison and deported. Afghan men who were in the compound at the same time, including a driver, a cook, and a security guard, were sentenced to longer jail terms and to public floggings for not acting to stop the women’s gathering. Action Against Hunger has been allowed to resume its program but under the condition that they maintain an ironclad segregation of men and women (Burns, 1997b). In this situation Afghan men were disciplined for not regulating and enforcing Taliban decrees, suggesting that not all Afghan men support Taliban policies. Indeed many have been flogged for not having the right length of beard (USSD 2000).

[34]   Despite the horror that their regime is visiting upon the Afghan people, the Taliban are not without international supporters. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan (AFP, 2000a). Taliban victories are seen as brining a welcome peace to the region (Asia week, 1995). Pakistan sees the stability provided by Taliban victories as a means of opening up a secure trade route to Turkmenistan and the rest of Central Asia via the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar (AFP, 1995; Burns, 1996a; CSM, 1995). United States policy on Afghanistan remains fluid. A 1997 New York Times(Burns, 1997b) report suggests that the United States does not appear to have a clear policy regarding the Taliban. While deploring the Taliban policies on women and the adoption of a penal code that provides for the amputation of thieves hands and the stoning to death of adulterers, Burns argues that the United States has sometimes acted as though a Taliban government may serve its interests. American diplomats in Islamabad have made regular visits to Kandahar (Taliban headquarters) to see Taliban leaders. In briefings for reporters these diplomats cited what they saw as positive aspects of the Taliban, including the movement’s capacity to end the war in Afghanistan and to act as a counter weight to Iran, whose Shiite muslim leadership has been opposed to the Sunni muslims of the Taliban. United States officials have also been interested in Taliban promises to put an end to the uses of Afghanistan as a base for narcotics trafficking and international terrorism (Burns & LeVine, 1996b). It has been suggested that American interest in peace in the region through the Taliban may also have been sparked by a proposal by the UNOCAL Corporation of California for a $2.5 billion pipeline that could link the gas fields of Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan (GM, 1997). This project, supported by Washington, has also been endorsed by the Taliban leadership, who stood to gain $100 million a year from it. That this project has now been cancelled is one example of contradictory strategies that work towards women’s empowerment. Much of Feminist Majority literature suggests a missionary zeal that seeks to save Afghan women from Afghan men, not unlike the Armstrong article. Yet it was their lobbying and the resulting political pressure that helped increase an awareness of the situation in Afghanistan. So much so that UNOCAL cited pressure from the Feminist Majority and other feminist organizations protesting the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan in their decision to suspend the project in 1998 (FM, 2000).

[35]   Many American ideas about the potential positive aspects of Taliban rule have not materialized. The war in Afghanistan has not ended. And the year 1999 saw Afghanistan become the largest opium producer in the world (USSD, 2000) where almost all areas of poppy cultivation are under Taliban control (FM, 2000). Also, Osama bin Laden, suspected by the United States as connected to the bombing of American embassies in 1998, has found refugee and hospitality with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Indeed it might be argued that the criticism of the lack of human rights in Afghanistan and political isolation of the Taliban regime has made both of these situations worse. Indeed, comments made by Sima Wali, President of Refugee Women in Development, indicate that the Taliban regime appears more interested in religious themes than in addressing addressed economic and humanitarian issues that are of significance to many of their people (1995: 182).

[36]   There is growing opposition among many nongovernmental organizations and left-leaning intellectuals to Taliban policies within Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh (Barsamian, 1999). Pakistani women’s organizations such as Shirkat Gah and ASR have also been critical of their governments support of the Taliban, yet Pakistan continues to provide major support to the regime, supplying it with military aid and personnel, a role that the United States had in the 1980s (FM, 2000). This is the tragedy of the Afghan people.

[37]   While the Taliban appear to be enjoying some support abroad, their presence means something else for many Afghans. Indeed we are appalled with the severity of life under the Taliban when we listen to Fatana’s story. And it is crucial to have her voice heard and heard loudly for I do not argue that there is no value in Fatana’s narrative of experience. Only thorough her voice, and that of others like her, can we know the depths of the pain that women continue to suffer under conditions of war and deprivation. Reading Fatana’s narrative as a story of sexism and religious fundamentalism in the context of national, regional, and international rivalries allows us to unpack the structural conditions that constitute her as subject and that form the backdrop to her narrative of experience. Encased in a burqa, lacking voice and political power, Fatana may be powerless in the conventional western sense of the word. But she is a survivor. She has survived two decades of civil war. She has survived the brutality of Mujahadeen “liberators.” And since September 1996 she and other Afghan women have survived the horror of a Taliban regime. In the absence of state guarantees of her security, she must have drawn upon informal networks of power and resources to survive and live to tell “her” tale within the pages of Homemaker’s and other forums that present the third world woman as spectacle. Lila Abu-Loughod’s (1993) examination of women’s informal networks suggests that women draw upon such networks to resist and survive patriarchal domination as they submit to, as well as subvert, patriarchal codes of authority. Fatana’s location suggests a self that, as Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty argue, poses questions of identity and empowerment as she defies “western dominant understanding of identity construction” (1997: xviii).

[38]   Although an exhaustive examination of the networks of support and strength available to Fatana and other women in Afghanistan is beyond the scope of this paper, I want to identify a few. Armstrong gestures to these alternative networks when she introduces us to Dr. Sima Samar, a medical doctor. Despite constant death threats, Dr. Samar runs medical clinics in Kabul as well in Quetta for Afghan women. She also runs clandestine schools for Afghan girls. Although the activist Samar is presented to us, it is still within a liberal frame and she is posed as an exception in the text. She does not fit in with Armstrong’s stereotypes. But Dr. Samar, exceptional as she is, is not the only exception. Surely there are many, many others whose lives challenge conventional accounts about the oppressed Afghan woman and who have negotiated this fiercely contested space of war and genocide in Afghanistan and as refugees outside of their nation. Indeed several thousand marched together in protest in Peshawar, Pakistan in April of 1998. They had been organized by RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan). Its members opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and now speak out against the fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan. They demand the establishment of a democratic and secular state. Despite the assassination in 1987 of their founder, Meena, and threats of violence and imprisonment confronting other RAWA activists both by the Taliban active in Pakistan and Pakistani authorities themselves — RAWA members have been busy establishing hospitals and educational facilities. With meager financial resources RAWA provides support for Afghan women and children both within Afghanistan and for refugees in Pakistan.

[39]   Similarly, WAPHA (Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan) is a think-tank organization including advocacy and human rights research. WAPHA is involved in organizing demonstrations and rallies, sponsoring conferences, meetings, and seminars. Zeiba Shorish-Shamley, president and co-founder of WAPHA, has testified three times before the United States Senate and the House of Representatives on the situation of Afghan women. In May of 1999 she, together with the Feminist Majority Foundation, campaigned to end gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Mavis Leno, Peoplemagazine informs us, is the head of the Feminist Majority Afghanistan campaign and works with Afghan activists. Thus the Feminist Majority is a political ally not only in raising general awareness about women’s lives in Afghanistan but also in engaging in collaborative and proactive politics with Afghan women’s groups. Yet through the concluding sentence of the of People article — “I [Mavis] firmly believe we are their last hope” (Fields-Meyer & Benet, 1998, p. 234) the role of the Afghan activists is diminished. Once again we are lead to theburqa-clad bodies whose images leap at the reader from the pages of the article. It is theburqa-clad woman as disembodied spectacle that appears to capture our imagination. It is her image that reinforces stereotypes about muslims. And it is the sensationalized voice of the native informant that reigns supreme. Ironically Feminist Majority politics both sustain stereotypes about muslim women and challenge the United States government to ensure human rights for women in Afghanistan. Such interventions remind us that feminist collaborations are complex and contradictory. A desire among liberal feminists to save their brown sisters from brown men does allow them to successfully lobby UNOCAL into not doing business with Afghanistan. But at the same the condition of the Afghan woman is held up to remind the western woman how much better off she is. Such thinking deludes women here into believing that they no longer need to direct their feminist activism to women’s conditions in the west.

[40]   The average North American consumer of Homemaker’s and of similar digests is horrified when she reads about how the Taliban treat women in Afghanistan. The account conjures up and reinforces all the stereotypes that permeate North American culture about Islam and the muslim. The only option suggested by Armstrong’s account is that of writing letters of protest against the Taliban. But in understanding the broader picture, part of her horror might be directed at another target. She can protest not only what is happening over there but also speak out against what is happening over here. A letter to the editor in The New York Timeslinks the situation in Afghanistan to the politics in the United States and provides a second option. In speaking out against the Taliban, Melanie Quinn reminds us “that the United States has a special responsibility to the women of Afghanistan: We paid for many of the weapons held by their Taliban oppressors” (1998: A26). Quinn’s response suggests that the United States use their political, economic, and diplomatic means to take responsible action in Afghanistan. By examining and protesting how here and there are intertwined in complex ways, Quinn’s comments disrupt binary thinking and supports a feminist internationalist position.

[41]   Armstrong’s analysis denies Fatana’s agency and renders her a powerless victim of Islam and the Taliban. Historicizing her context suggests a third option to the North American reader. Fatana is oppressed by the Taliban, yes, but she is also an agent capable of making her own decisions and organizing her own fight. She has likely drawn upon both informal and formal networks such as WAPHA and RAWA, to survive years of war and fragmentation of her country. The North American consumer is well positioned to link up with Afghan women in international solidarity work. And I want to suggest yet another venue for solidarity work to the North American consumer, solidarity with the refugee woman at home. To this end, I introduce her to Naima.

The Afghan Woman in North America

[42]   While liberal accounts focus on the sensationalized representation of women in Afghanistan, I want to acknowledge another woman whose presence is largely invisible. This is the Afghan woman who has fled the horrors of her country and now lives in North America. Without hearing her voice, the master liberal narrative conflates her experience with that of Fatana’s so they both become victims of Afghan men and of Islam. Naima is one such woman. I interviewed her in Toronto in August 1997 where she lives and works as an English as a Second Language (ESL) Coordinator.

Naima (N): When the Communists came to my country they killed my brother. They walked on the streets. My brother was walking on the street and the Communists were in a car and they killed him. He was twenty-nine and he was married. I have another brother who lives in California. He was injured by Mujahadeen in another city (in Afghanistan) Ghazni, he was working there. The Mujahadeen injured him in his foot with a bullet. The bullet went through his leg. He was walking on the street and they shot him.

Shahnaz (S): So one was shot by the Communists and one by Mujahadeen.

N: I have a third brother, he died in Pakistan by heart attack. He had a house in Afghanistan, a beautiful house and they (Mujahadeen) bombarded his house there. He had a heart attack and he died because he was worried about his property.

S: So tell me about the Mujahadeen.

N: I have not had any experiences [with them] because by the time they came I was already out of the country. But I hear (silence, cries). I know it is important to speak of what they have done but I didn’t see with my eyes. What I have heard is that the Mujahadeen were bad but the Taliban are the worst.

Speaking of the women at the ESL group that she coordinates, Naima said:

When somebody starts to talk about the back home we start to cry. There is so much pain that I start to cry when I talk about home. Sometimes we have a party and somebody says something or sings a song, a Farsi song, and we start to cry.

[43]   I don’t want to leave Naima’s story at the level of pain and risk another letter-writing campaign similar to the one that Fatana’s narrative elicited. And I do not want to use Naima’s anguish to reproduce another de-contextualized reading similar to Fatana’s. And Naima’s tormented tale of violence and exile brought about by the situation in Afghanistan does not end when she leaves her country. It continues in Canada where she faces exclusion, underemployment, and racism.

N: When the communists came to my country I was a high school teacher and I was 28. I was a teacher and I teach grade 11, 12, and 10 … in Kabul. At that time all the king’s family studied in that school and I was coordinator in the teacher department. The communists took my job.

S: Who were these communists, the Russians?

N: No. It was Afghan communists. There was no election and they took the power from the people.

S: Did you want to be a high school teacher in Canada?

N: I wanted to, but I was not allowed to teach. They say I have no education, no Canadian education. I do not have the money to go to school to get [a] Canadian education, and I have to work. My children are in school and both my husband and I have to work. We need the money. So I worked in a restaurant, different restaurants. Then I got lucky. They needed an ESL teacher, a teacher who speaks Dari and Pushto and I got a job here.

[44]   Although women’s participation increased in the judiciary, in politics, and in educational administration in the 1970s and particularly under the PDPA regime (Malikyar, 1998; Moghadam, 1993), Naima’s comments suggest that she and her family suffered under the communist takeover in Afghanistan. And she continues to suffer in Canada where she is a diasporic refugee. But she has few champions. Peoplemagazine does not cover her story. Celebrities do not hold dinners on her behalf to raise funds so that she may get Canadian certification. Her life is spent in struggling with under-employment and unemployment, lack of affordable housing, and lack of settlement programs to help her heal from the trauma of war and fragmentation of her country. Naima’s words reinforce the necessity of identifying first-world complicity, which Sherene Razack’s argues we must talk about “if the lives of refugees are to make any sense to us” (1995: 48). It can be argued that her situation in Canada is hardly comparable to the dangers of rape and murder from reactionary forces in Afghanistan. Yet Naima’s pain is very real. In Canada she is positioned as an exploited immigrant woman; and her words evoke exile and exclusion, solitude and loneliness, which, along with her un-processed pain, become her psychic shrouds. These shrouds encase Naima and others like her in Canada, a country that promotes itself as multicultural and welcoming of immigrants.

[45]   Muslim woman living in their “home” countries and in the diaspora have some similar issues, but their current locations are different and generate different sets of needs and realities (Moghadam 1994; Bodman and Tohidi, 1998; Afkhami, 1995). Yet there is often a conflation of the two in conventional accounts so that the woman living here is responded to by the issues evoked by the sensational messages of the woman living there. Such homogenized accounts often present the reader with a series of women who in a sense have been ripped out of their contexts, resulting in a re-plastering of their narratives onto Afghan women and other muslim women in North America. In presenting Naima’s account I want to separate the two: Afghan women in Afghanistan from Afghan and other muslim women living in Canada. Yet I also want to point to what I perceive as the connecting links, the doubt, the uncertainty, and the pain of dislocation. Naima lives in Canada and in examining her narrative I want to identify the complexities of the narrative account of an Afghan refugee woman and reinforce a space where Naima’s struggle (and my own struggle) can be recognized. In this space the master narrative that conflates Fatana in Afghanistan with Naima and myself in Canada as “muslim and therefore oppressed by Islam” can be disrupted. In so doing my aim is not to give rise to another conflation. Naima and I, although viewed as the undifferentiated muslim woman are differently positioned — she is a refugee woman whose certification is not validated in Canada and who is underemployed and I am academic whose certification is North American.

[46]   Yet Fatana’s voice haunts me as I try to examine the complexities of re-telling Afghan women’s lives. Her pain is real and continues even today. Feminist responses, including those by Afghan activists in the diaspora and their collaborations with groups in North America, have had some impact on the Clinton administration and on corporate interests, precipitating a review of United States policies in their dealings with the Taliban. Particularly the Feminist Majority has produced literature that acknowledges the role of the United States and other foreign powers in producing the Afghan situation. Yet these acknowledgements often take second place to women’s narratives. As we read their documents, it is the conditions that structure women’s lives in Afghanistan that grip us not the extent of foreign funding of radical fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan nor the exclusion and marginalization that many diasporic Afghan woman face in North America. Moreover, focusing on Fatana’s life allows us to bypass Naima’s suffering. She is here and she also needs support.

[47]   How, then, might popular accounts re-tell Afghan women’s stories. Perhaps they might consider the following suggestions: a positioning of narratives such as Fatana’s and Naima’s so that the material and political forces that continue to construct the world they negotiate can be interrogated; an urgent need to identify Fatana and Naima’s reality as part of a continuous process of history; a continued examination of those interests that funded the radical groups in Afghanistan and a challenging of the brand of superpower politics that is responsible for the genocide in that country; an examination of the specific conditions that generate an exodus of refugees from Afghanistan and the policies and practices connected to refugee entry and settlement. In this discussion I have not attempted to answer all these questions. Rather, I have identified issues for possible future investigation.

[48]   In examining Fatana and Naima’s narratives I want to draw attention to a third native informant. This is the certain postcolonial subject that Spivak states has “been recoding the colonial subject and appropriating the Native Informant position” (1999: ix). I want to identify with that subject and I want to suggest a link with Fatana. Encased in her shroud, Fatana is a woman who is in exile in her own “home.” She is limited in her ability to be a politically empowered subject. Yet Fatana’s words are the filter through which people respond to both Naima and myself. Populist representations of muslim women draw many women and myself into a reactive defense of an identity that we might not have defended in our “home” countries. I already know how to speak to Naima. Both of us are immigrants in Canada. Both of us have felt the pain of exile and racist exclusion within the Canadian social and political terrain. Naima cannot go “home” to Afghanistan and faces exile in Canada. I cannot go “home” to Pakistan, the Afghan war is partly to blame for the recent violence and instability in my country. And like Naima, I face exile in Canada. Questioning the reproduction and reception of the native informant and tying her agency, as Spivak suggests, to “the globe girdling new social movements” (1999: 405) is not only important to me in my quest for politically empowering myself in my “home” in exile, but I believe such linkages are also crucial to placing Fatana and Naima in the history of their own present. This history links the east and west as well as the first and third world in a web of unequal relations and reinforces a space for what Marie-Amie Helie-Lucas (1999) calls feminist internationalism, which allows feminist solidarity work to take into account a broader and deeper understanding of issues through which gendered subjects are produced and re-reproduced in diverse locations.


Acknowledgements: This manuscript has benefited from conversations with and input from Arlene Shenke, Awad Ibrahim, Rory Crath, Kathleen Rockhill, Richard Green, Nandi Bhatia, Darlene Juscka, Maureen Moynagh, Ilan Kapoor and reviewers ofGenders. I also thank Social Science Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for funding that enabled me to complete the research for this essay.


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