Farkhunda did not die because of “Afghan culture”

Today we have a guest post from Julie Billaud, author of Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan, out now.

Kabul CarnivalThe recent killing by a mob of Farkhunda, a 20-year-old woman, which occurred in open daylight in Kabul last week, is a powerful reminder of the precarious situation of women 14 years after US-led forces claimed to have liberated the country from Muslim fundamentalists. On March 19, Farkhunda, was beaten to death by a group of men near Shah-do-Shamshera mosque, after she was accused of burning the Quran. Her body was crushed by a car and set alight, in the presence of policemen, in a public execution in many ways similar to the ones the Taliban used to carry out on Kabul Ghazi stadium. Farkhunda’s dramatic story was soon to make the headlines of the international press, her death often explained in essentializing cultural terms: Farkhunda died because of the “culture of violence” or “the culture of impunity” that reign in the country, we were told. Again, it was Afghan society that was to blame, not the past 14 years of foreign military occupation and the flawed development projects of the so-called “reconstruction,” which have reinforced social inequalities and created a lumpen youth in thrall to radical Islam and violence. As Lila Abu-Lughod explains in her famous essay published in the American Anthropologist in 2002, short after the invasion of Afghanistan:

“The question is why knowing about the ‘culture’ of the region, and particularly its religious beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history. Such cultural framing, it seemed to me, prevented the serious exploration of the roots and nature of human suffering in this part of the world.”

Indeed, since 9/11, representations of Afghanistan in the West have been shaped by images of women totally veiled under the full covering chadari (also called burka), a garment now broadly associated with their oppression, or fallen victims of domestic violence and “tribal justice.” These Orientalist narratives, instrumentalized to gather public support for the intervention, have often obscured the complex reality of Afghan women’s lives under foreign occupation. My book Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan is an attempt at bringing back history and politics at the center of the analysis of Afghan women’s current situation. One of my main arguments is that the global concern for the plight of Afghan women is part of a broader humanitarian carnival that promotes an impression of normalization for Western audiences and hides the continuity of violence and injustice triggered by the international project. Indeed, the reconstruction of Afghanistan has been presented as a return to normality after long years of war and authoritarian rule. Like in the context of the Medieval carnival Mikhaïl Bakhtin describes in Rabelais and His World where the powerful and the subalterns momentarily exchanged their roles, this discourse of reversal has fed the illusion of a radical shift from an old order characterized by brutality to a new one characterized by “democracy,” “the rule of law,” and “gender justice.” However, a closer look at the inconsistencies, paradoxes, and ambiguities that have accompanied the reconstruction, especially in the sensitive arena of gender, reveals that this rhetoric of reversals serves to bolster the idea of change and “progress” in the West while consolidating structural hierarchies at the local level.

My ethnographic work among various groups of women (women MPs, women’s rights activists, female university students) mostly based in Kabul (the reconstruction’s shop window) demonstrates that the international community’s concern with the visibility of women in public has ultimately created tensions and constrained women’s capacity to find a culturally legitimate voice. While the “reconstruction” has opened new possibilities for women and created new imaginaries pertaining to their role in society, the ideological framework on which it is grounded (i.e. liberal notions of equality and human rights, etc.), together with dire economic conditions, increased inequalities, and the strong military presence of foreign troops, have triggered moral panics around “identity.” Pressurized by their community to remain faithful to their “culture,” “religion,” and “tradition ”on the one hand, and encouraged to access the public and become “visible” by global forces on the other hand, women stand on the frontline of a symbolic battle between competing notions of “honor,” “modernity,” “democracy,” and the role of Islam in society.

There are various versions of Farkhunda’s story but one says she was a religious activist who fought superstition. She provoked the rage of the mullah and the mob by burning bits of paper the shrine mullah used as amulets for his treatments of women and men suffering from infertility or other psychosocial illnesses. These amulets, also called taweez, are part of a form of folk healing and popular religion. To Farkhunda, who studied in a madrasa, taweez were un-Islamic tricks that derailed people’s path toward God.  Ironically, it is her defense of a more orthodox version of Islam and the fact that a woman took it upon herself to define what true Islam is that triggered the anger of the mob and led Farkhunda to her horrifying death.

This event speaks loudly of the religious radicalization of Afghan youth (both men and women) over the past years as a result of the failure of the international community’s “state-building” and “rule of law” schemes. It also speaks loudly of the orthodoxy and violence that now dominates the public sphere and that targets women in specific, gendered ways. Indeed, with the occupation, women’s bodies have become a symbol of social connectedness that carries the power to display the nurturing of the larger community. Women’s bodies have become “sites of colonial contestation” (Jean Comaroff 1985) that women themselves use to assert both autonomy from and solidarity with the broader national community. My book focuses on these ambiguous female performances in an attempt to broaden Western understandings of female agency and to pay homage to the extreme resourcefulness of Afghan women whose lives have been marked by unmet promises of “liberation” and continuous war.

References cited:

Abu-Lughod, Leila. 1998. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton. Princeton University Press.

Comaroff, Jean. 1985. Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

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Julie Billaud is a Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan is available now.

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