Navigation – Plan du site

“Liberating the Women of Afghanistan”

An ethnographic journey through a humanitarian intervention
“Liberating the Women of Afghanistan”. Voyage ethnographique à travers le prisme d’une intervention humanitaire
Prof. Dr. Teresa Koloma Beck
p. 57-75


Cet article explore les luttes des femmes pour leur émancipation dans l’Afghanistan contemporain en tenant compte du contexte d’interventions humanitaires et militaires. Le combat par et pour les femmes est ici analysé non comme une question de politique intérieure, mais comme un enjeu global dans lequel chacune des expériences de femmes vient jouer un rôle dans les politiques mondiales. Fondé sur une recherche ethnographique menée à Kaboul en 2015, cet article montre que les luttes des femmes pour leur autonomisation et leurs droits en Afghanistan dépasse les frontières de l’État afghan et doivent être analysées sous des aspects très divers.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Among the many places in the world in which women struggle for recognition and the respect of their basic rights, the situation of women in Afghanistan has received by far the most continuous and extensive coverage since the early 2000s. With great regularity, news and campaigns feature women who symbolise the progress in a country torn by war, by political and social conflicts. They report about women’s rights activists like Malalai Joya, elected the youngest member of the Afghan parliament in 2005, athletes like the soccer player Khalida Popal, former captain of Afghanistan’s national women soccer team, artists like Shamsia Hassani, internationally famous for her graffiti art, or women who have made their way in professions which even in less conservative contexts are still considered a man’ s job like Jamila Bayaz, Afghanistan’s first female police district chief or the air force pilot Latifa Nabizada. With similar regularity we can read and hear about women whom the participation in struggles for their rights and empowerment has cost dearly. Some like the high ranking police woman Malalai Kakar, were killed in public, many more like the rapper Paradise Sorouri or the above mentioned soccer captain Khalida Popal now live in exile. And then, of course, there are the many enduring live in a country which has been repeatedly ranked among the “worst places in the world to be a woman” (TrustLaw, 2011; World Vision, 2016).

2According to the coverage which reaches us here, women in Afghanistan, hence, seem to be either victims or heroines—a kind of narrative that is never much convincing to a sociological observer. But, what can a more thorough social inquiry reveal? What does it mean to be a woman engaged in the struggle for women’s rights and women empowerment in Afghanistan?

3The difficulty in answering this question is that thinking about women in this country is impossible without also thinking about those who from the outside take an interest in their fate. Women in Afghanistan are part of a transnational social imaginary. Their situation and their struggles bind attention and fuel emotions not only inside the country, but also among observers and publics outside of it, most importantly in the so-called West. This persistent interest is explained less by the situation itself—there are other places in the world, in which life for women is similarly difficult—as by the symbolic position the country occupies in the social imaginary of world society since 2001, when a U.S.-led military and humanitarian intervention started out to transform the Afghan state and society. From the beginning, the “liberation of the women of Afghanistan” was one of the most fervently advertised goals of this project. Since then, the struggles of Afghan women for their rights and empowerment are inscribed into a transnational social imaginary shared by observers and activists around the globe—including Afghanistan itself. It is an imaginary which merges supposedly universal ideals of gender equality and women’s emancipation with a narrative about interventions as necessary measures by which the powerful in the world come to the rescue of and restore “normality” in places wrecked by natural or man-made disasters. This social imaginary is more than an epistemic frame by which “people in the West” make sense of life in a place far away from their own reality. Conditioning engagements and interactions, it is an ontological machine, which brings into being the world it describes. It is not just an instrument of sense-making, it is, even more importantly, an instrument of world-making (cf. Law and Urry, 2004). Therefore, engaging as a scholar, activist or politician from “the West” with the situation of women in Afghanistan is never only about “them”, but always also about “us”, belonging to the power centres of an asymmetrically structured world society.

4How is it possible, in research and academic writing, to render justice to this entanglement?

  • 1 Participant observation was the key method of data generation. Observations were documented in fie (...)

5In 2015, I spent two months for ethnographic research in the Afghan capital Kabul. Based on previous work on everyday life under the condition of war (Koloma Beck, 2012; 2014; 2016), I wanted to study the (re-)structuring of life worlds in a highly internationalised conflict (Koloma Beck, 2017). I was interested in the intervention society as a place of accelerated globalisation; a place shaped by the encounter-like confrontation of a particular “localised” context with political actors, who claim to represent global norms. Whereas much of intervention research focuses on the politics and problems of the intervention project itself, I wanted to understand more about the transformations of everyday life triggered by interventionist practices. To facilitate this research stay, I embedded myself with an Afghan civil society organisation which has been engaged for many years in grass-roots peacebuilding initiatives throughout the country; it enjoyed much street credibility even in the Pashtun-dominated Southern Provinces, because it strived to build bridges between human rights and democracy on the one hand, and Afghan traditions on the other. The organisation employed me part-time as an “international advisor”, appointed to a particular project. Instead of a salary, the organisation supported my research logistically, paying for my flight, providing office space, mobility and—most importantly—security. Having emerged out of chiefly pragmatic considerations, this arrangement quickly proved to be a most productive starting point for my research. Sharing day-to-day office life with my Afghan co-workers became a window and then a door to studying the logics of everyday life in more general terms. During the second half of my stay, a second role came to be added to my embedded research approach: that of the social scientist. I was invited for talks and discussions to Kabul University as well as to a non-state research institution. As with all ethnographic research, these modalities of access preconfigured my grasp on the field. I came to be positioned in the borderland between the life worlds of urban, educated middle-class Afghans, who belonged to the cultural elite of the country, although not to its political or economic one, and the life world of the foreign professionals of the intervention project, for which the social anthropologist Severine Autesserre recently coined the term “peaceland” (Autesserre, 2012). Working in the offices of an Afghan organisation made it necessary for me to adapt to certain rules regarding behaviour and appearance, while being European granted access to places and infrastructures reserved for so-called “internationals”. The border separating these two worlds became constitutive for the research, and moving between them a crucial heuristic practice.1

6Although women or women’s emancipation was no explicit focus of the project, it became an inescapable subject throughout the research process. I was brought into close contact with a particular group of urban, well-educated women to whom the question of women empowerment and women’s rights was a personal as well as a professional concern. They were professionals working for Afghan civil society organisations, journalists working for independent news media, academics or students. Unsurprisingly, many were still young, in their twenties and thirties, yet in different life situations, some still living at home, others married with children. Some of the older ones had seen the reforms introduced by Soviet rule. Quite a few had lived abroad for extended periods of time, mostly in neighbouring countries where their families had been in exile, but two had been abroad on their own, studying or receiving professional training. By engaging with these women, the research produced insights about the struggles for women’s rights and women empowerment in Afghanistan.

7Yet, this is not where the story ends, nor where it begins. “Women in Afghanistan” became an issue in this research long before I entered the country. The reason is that the topic was continuously evoked and problematised by people with whom I engaged in preparing this research stay intellectually and pragmatically. Driving these conversations was not so much my counterparts’ empirical interest in the place, but some kind of concern, an uneasiness, informed by the social imaginary described above, about me “as a woman” moving into such a context. Whether I would be wearing a headscarf during my stay, was the question most frequently asked—sometimes with curiosity, sometimes as an open challenge. And not always was my affirmative answer received with understanding. From the beginning, before even leaving for Afghanistan, I felt being forced into a battle over the female condition, in which West-European experiences and aspirations were promoted as a global norm.

8Hence, in the ethnographic perspective opening up during field research, the situation of women in Afghanistan appeared not as a domestic issue, but as a global concern, raising questions about the universality of supposedly universal norms and the right to enforce them. Therefore, I will in the following not only describe how the struggles for women empowerment and women’s rights were lived by the women I met (2); I will also discuss why their situation draws so much attention “here” (1), and explore the effects of this entanglement (3).

Women in Afghanistan as a global cause

9The military and humanitarian intervention which entered the country in 2001 advertised “liberating” the women of Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In a radio address to the nation in November 2001, the U.S. American first lady Laura Bush proudly declared:

Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women (Bush, 2001).

  • 2 This is not the first time, that in Afghanistan the status and role of women has been politicised (...)

10By this time, women in Afghanistan, who, during Taliban rule, had lived under severe restrictions, had become a cause célèbre in the United States and beyond. Not only women’s rights organisations, but also media and entertainment celebrities launched campaigns to draw attention to the conditions of the female population in a faraway Central-Asian country. Afghan women and their fate featured in news media as well as in society and people’s magazines like Glamour or The Oprah Winfrey Show. Even small, local women’s organisations put the issue on their agenda and were eager to host events or expositions featuring Afghan women. Although these developments quickly drew the attention of critical scholars, who denounced the exploitation of popular feminism for justifying a war (Abu-Lughod, 2002; Hirschkind and Mahmood, 2002), “women in Afghanistan” remains a key topic not only on the agendas of national, international, and non-governmental actors engaged in the state-building project, but to the media, to art and research as well as their respective publics.2

11This attention, however, has less to do with the issue as such as with the very logic of interventions, as they have been proliferating since end of the Cold War. Their growing number and importance point to a significant transformation of world politics, which for long had been structured by competition and conflict between the interests of nation states. The 20th century saw the rise of a new, rival paradigm: global governance based on universal values. Humanitarian interventions are the most pointed expression of this new paradigm as they claim to protect and defend—in situations of urgency—the most basic of all universal values: the integrity and dignity of human life.

12Most important for the topic at hand, interventions are multi-sited social phenomena, connecting the local contexts, in which they take place, not only to the power centres of world politics, but also to a potentially vast variety of publics, in which, drawn by the “spectacle of suffering” (Boltanski, 1999, 2007), institutional actors as well as “ordinary people” take an interest in the fate of people in faraway places. In this sense, they are truly global political projects, based, however, on a starkly asymmetric representation of world society. They describe a world divided into well-functioning, “modern” or “civilised” regions on the one hand and “problem zones” on the other (Calhoun, 2004), and there are few social contexts, in which the distinction between the West and the rest is more pronounced than there (Nayak and Selbin, 2010). The perspective of the West, i.e. of the power centres of world society, is presented as a neutral view from the nowhere of normality, whereas that which is observed appears as a deviation, which urgently needs to be corrected. As the sociologist Craig Calhoun observes, “the production of emergencies and the need to address them, has become one of the rationales for the assertion of global power” (Calhoun, 2004: 379). Despite its original intentions, humanitarianism, hence, lends legitimacy to interventionist acts of power and has normalised pity as a form of distanced engagement with the suffering of others (Boltanski, 2007; Calhoun, 2004). In this sense, interventions create a global political topography of here and there, which connects and divides at the same time.

13A constitutive element in the dynamics of interventions are, hence, global publics. Understood as an emanation of the very humanity in whose name they take place, these publics are needed to affirm the importance of the undertaking and to legitimise its pursuit. Yet, their attention is a double-edge sword, as it might also lead to scrutiny and provoke doubts or controversy, from which legitimacy suffers (cf. Koloma Beck and Werron, 2017). In the light of this, the protagonists of interventions can hope to stabilise and increase their legitimacy by promoting and advertising activities in policy fields relating to broadly accepted norms and values, which in the given local context are perceived to be fragile or endangered.

14Policies and campaigns around gender roles and relations are particularly suited for this purpose. Being linked to physical reproduction, gendered social and societal structures are to be found everywhere, and the idea that social peace depends among other things on a balanced relation between women and men appears across cultures. Concerns for gender equality, gender justice or women empowerment are as ubiquitous as is masculine domination. Therefore, in a very abstract sense, the topic speaks to experiences, sensibilities and emotions of people worldwide, and because of this, it can be very credibly framed as a universal concern. Against this background, initiatives and campaigns around women’s rights, women empowerment and women’s protection are particularly suited to bolster the legitimacy of an intervention and, accordingly, tend to be among the more prominently advertised and also more attentively observed fields of activity. The evocation and promotion of women’s issues is, hence, inseparably linked to the production of legitimacy of the intervention itself, connecting concerned actors in the local context with observers and publics outside of it.

15In the ongoing intervention in Afghanistan, however, these general dynamics have been intensified, as the former did not start out as just another project of emergency relief, but as a retaliatory military invasion to bring down an incumbent government. It responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001, which were perceived and later also advertised by its instigators as being directed not only against a government or nation, but against “the West” as the hegemonic force in world society. Therefore, in the Afghan case the logic and language of defence preceded the logic and languages of humanitarian relief, state-transformation and nation-building, which usually characterise interventions. Interveners here did not arrive as the ideal-typical “envoys of humanity” without self-interests only to rescue and relief, but from the beginning it was clear that they came as a concerned party to defend that which they felt to stand for. Because of this we find in Afghanistan a heightened sensibility for cultural differences on all sides as well as a tendency towards their politicisation. And much more than in other intervention scenarios we find the publics of the intervening countries interested in what goes on there. The continuous media coverage on “women in Afghanistan”, the multitude of campaigns and events testify to this interest. Yet, the reality of the Afghan women engaged in this struggle connects only partly to what we see on the news.

Among Afghans striving for women’s rights and women empowerment

16The urban, well-educated women I met during my research in Kabul contextualised their individual life as being part of a broader struggle towards greater liberty, recognition and influence for the women in Afghanistan. A typical example is Z., a young lawyer, who worked with a civil society organisation, representing in the legal system women who suffered from domestic violence and abuse. We met during a daylong workshop and she was passionate about her profession. As an adolescent she had successfully fought against being married to a cousin. Her grandfather had made this arrangement when she was still a child, and she had opposed it, insisting on her right to self-determination. She, hence, knew all too well the relations of force unfolding within families, but she had also made the experience of confronting them and prevailing. Working in one of the Southern provinces, she explained how difficult is was to treat cases of domestic abuse, because the women concerned did not want to expose themselves and their families to the public of a court. The civil society organisation she was working with offered mediation as an alternative approach, in which the perpetrator made a commitment to change and the organisation accompanied the family concerned for at least one year. In her professionalism and passion she seemed to represent the unchained, emancipated Afghan woman women’s rights activists in the West were dreaming about since the fall of the Taliban—if not for a tiny detail. A face-veil was attached to her beige-coloured headscarf. The light tissue moved gently with her breath and speech. She struggled to eat from the cookies offered during coffee breaks. And at lunchtime she sat with me in a corner, released one side of the veil, holding the loose end so as to shield her face from the room and using the free hand to put tiny bits of food into her mouth.

17Showing a passionate commitment to women’s emancipation, while at the same time wearing what is perceived by many as the very symbol of women’s oppression, Z. did not conform to the social imaginary of “women in Afghanistan” which dominates coverage in the “West”. Yet, she was typical for the group of urban, well-educated women whom I met during research, in at least four regards. First, as it was clear from the impetus of her speech, she had a definite sense of participating in a struggle which transcended her personal life story and was political in nature. Second, as her trajectory showed, engaging in this struggle touched her personal as well as her professional life. Third, as indicated by her wearing the face veil, participating in this struggle did not mean that she distanced herself radically from her context of origin. And fourth, as the account from her work suggested, there seemed to be an understanding that improving the situation of women in Afghanistan was impossible by working with women alone, but necessitated working on gender relations.

  • 3 Shortly before my arrival in Kabul, for example, the student Farkhunda Malikzada had been beaten t (...)

18To the women I met, participating in the struggle for women empowerment was not chiefly about public acts of heroism, at least not in the sense that prevails in media coverage that reaches us “here”. The urban centres of Afghanistan surely have seen audacious individual and collective activism—as well as violent resistance to it.3 But most of the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights takes place in everyday life, with the workplace and the family being its most important arenas. These are the places in which women empowerment and recognition are negotiated and achieved, but also questioned and put at risk.

19Whereas in rural areas traditionalist claims about women having to stay in the house continued to be highly influential, the female professionals I met during research by definition belonged to a more liberal urban elite. Nonetheless, their professional life was marked by tensions between modernity and tradition, which had to be negotiated continuously. Western media coverage about Afghan women fighting their way into traditionally male professions, for example in the police or the army, just describe the most spectacular aspect of this problem. Cultural norms weighed heavily also in less contested workplaces. Most challenging in the professional fields I got to know, i.e. civil society organisations and academic institutions, were the norms which limit hetero-social interactions to people belonging to the same household.

  • 4 Fieldnotes, May 5, 2015.

20To preserve her honour and the honour of her family, a woman had to guard against violations of her dignity (cf. Anderson, 1982). The women in my field, who, counter to traditionalist claims, participated in professional, and hence public life, seemed to be under particular pressure to prove that they were both—capable professionals and honourable women. They were careful in choosing their workplaces. A., a woman in her thirties who worked for a civil society organisation, for example, explained to me, why, after a number of unpleasant experiences in previous jobs, she had decided to work for her current employer. The reason was that the elderly project manager, who had conducted the job interview, had not looked at her once. He had just talked matter of factly with his eyes fixed on the papers at the table before him: “I called my father and said: They are good people. They only looked at the paper. They did not look at me.”4 To avoid the tensions and risks related to hetero-social interactions, many female professionals ended up working on women-related issues or, more general in fields and on topics which brought them into contact mostly with other women. Many then made it their cause to promote ideas of women empowerment among them. Yet, for all my informants, this professional engagement was rooted in strong personal experiences. These had created—as in Z.’s successful refusal to marry or A.’s persistent quest for a decent work environment—a sense that greater liberty and self-determination were not only deserved but also possible. Having lived abroad, having experienced oneself in a different social context, played a recurrent role in these narratives. A., for example, had lived from puberty to early adulthood in Pakistan, to where her family had been exiled; others had spent time in Iran for the same reasons or had received scholarships to study abroad.

21As hinted in A.’s narrative, however, the workplace was not only an arena in which ideals of women’s emancipation, empowerment and recognition were realised, but also one in which women were exposed and at risk. The household, to which traditionalists wanted to confine them, was not only a place of domination and control, but also a place of protection. Without that, they always risked being perceived as easy prey. For the women I met, their subjective and objective safety in the workplace depended very much on the willingness of elder, responsible men in the organisation to enforce a respecting organisational culture and most importantly to not to engage in predatory behaviour themselves.

  • 5 “Debating the future of Afghanistan”, debate with civil society activists from Kabul at Humboldt U (...)

22Embracing emancipatory ideals, the women I met, nonetheless, stayed connected to their social context of origin and made efforts to conform— like Z. wearing the face veil—to more traditional expectations. This should, however, not be mistaken for half-heartedness or betrayal; it is part of the logic of a society in which no one can survive alone, where men and women alike gain resources and meaning only within the framework of a family and a household. This is more than a cultural imperative. Although it is true that cultural traditions in the region conceive of human existence as social existence and have no concept of individual life outside of relationships of responsibility and respect (cf. Anderson, 1982), it is the war, which gives these cultural rules a pragmatic urgency. In a situation of persistent internal armed conflict and economic instability, family and similarly close social networks are essential in providing social security. Therefore, the women I met, as committed they were to their cause, modulated the verbal and bodily expressions of this commitment according to the situational context (see also Billaud, 2013). Different from the women’s movement in Europe of the 1970s, which happened at a height of the European welfare state, Afghans—be they women or men—cannot radically turn against the interests and/or values of their families, because the latter are the only social security network there is. “Youth compromises because of the insecurity of the future […] As we are not certain how things turn out, we make our little compromises”.5 These words of a male youth activist are even more true for the women in the focus of this article.

  • 6 Interview, April 21, 2015.
  • 7 It is important to note that it is not necessarily the husband who is opposed. Quite frequently, m (...)

23Recognising the social importance and practical indispensability of family ties has an important implication for the question at hand. It suggests that the emancipatory life stories of my informants would have been impossible without the support or at least some license of her male relations. Accordingly, these biographical narratives were populated by fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands, who had encouraged and protected them and of whom they spoke with great reverence. L., who worked as a high-ranking officer in one of the national ministries, for example, told how her brothers had urged her to fight for this position. When applying, she had passed the admission test as the best out of four applicants; nonetheless, the minister wanted to hire one of the male competitors. L.’s brothers persuaded and motivated her not to easily give in.6 Reversely, women working in responsible positions could tell about promising female colleagues to whose professional careers marriage had put a sudden end.7

  • 8 Focus group discussion, April 25, 2015.
  • 9 In Afghanistan, the term “youth” encompasses anyone who has transcended adolescence, but not yet a (...)

24Against this background, the widespread sense, that the improvement of the situation of women would not be achieved by focusing on women alone, but depended on a reconfiguration of gender relations, comes as no surprise. In the urban, educated milieu I was studying, younger people among themselves were usually open and relaxed in hetero-social interactions—provided they trusted each other and considered themselves to be in a safe environment. Interactions were animated, at times even flirtatious. In a focus group discussion with a gender-mixed group of young political activists, participants told how much they enjoyed and longed for this kind of carefree exchange among women and men, for which occasions were few.8 How peculiar these interactions were in the overall context became clear, when suddenly an elder appeared on the scene. Immediately, people fell silent, laughter subsided, gazes went to the floor and the women fingered for their headsscarves, pulling them tight. Interestingly, what is perceived in the “West” as a struggle between men and women, appeared from inside the country, at least to some extent, as a struggle between generations. And whereas the notion of a “women’s movement” was not very prominent among the women I engaged with, the idea of belonging to a “youth movement”9 had much more resonance.

  • 10 Interview, May 17, 2015.

25Beside these four aspects, which resonated in the encounter with Z., the lawyer from Afghanistan’s south, field research revealed one more important detail: the situation of women and the strife for its improvement is a major concern not for women alone, but also for men. The most important reason is that a central aspect in the traditional ordering of gender relations is that men are responsible for the women of their household. This sense of responsibility does not only produce practices of surveillance and control, which are emphasised in discussions in the “West”, but also practices of care. During research I met a number of men belonging to the same milieu of young, urban, well-educated and globally open Afghans, who were continuously worried for the security of their wife or sisters, whose more independent lifestyles they supported. By these anxieties pushed them, at times, towards decisions which appeared paradox not only to outside observers, but also to themselves. P., for example, who was responsible for four sisters and supported them in their studies, told me that he urged the girls to wear face veils on their way to the university. Politically, he was not at all supportive of the veil, but he was afraid that his sisters might become victims of one of the acid attacks, which were carried out repeatedly against loosely veiled female students in the university district of the city.10

26While the global imaginary of women in Afghanistan tells a straightforward tale about a battle of sexes, about male domination and repression of women, ethnographic encounters in the milieu I studied showed a much more complex constellation. But how does what has been described in this section relate to the intervention project explored before?

An uneasy alliance: Afghan women and the practice of intervention

27At first glance, it might seem that in their idiosyncratic, culturally rooted logic the struggles of Afghan women (and men) in the plains of everyday life are rather disconnected or “decoupled” (e.g. Meyer, 2000) from the grand scheme of humanitarian politics. But this is not the case. Not only because, as explained above, women play a key role in the interventionist project of social engineering and are, therefore, evoked and mobilised continuously. But also because for the women in question the intervention warrants the legitimacy of their claims. In a constellation of simultaneous but conflicting normative orders, it provides the normative framework in which their position is recognised, promoted and defended. Therefore, when women talked publicly or in formal settings about their struggles for greater liberties and recognition, they would frequently evoke two publics at once: the audience to which their activities and initiatives were directed, and the global public which represented “humanity” and lent legitimacy to their speech. In this sense, the intervention appeared not only as an important, but as an essential ally in the struggles for emancipation.

28Yet, this resonance in discourse did not necessarily translate into harmonious partnerships. Instead, cooperation was frequently marked by tensions and ambiguities. The latter were fuelled, on the one hand, by differing and conflicting ideas about womanhood, women emancipation and empowerment; and on the other hand, by the perception that in their daily practices, the foreign professionals of the intervention not infrequently acted contrary to the ideals of gender equality and women empowerment, which they ostensively promoted.

  • 11 It needs to be emphasised that a significant part of the people working for humanitarian organisat (...)

29Although the women in my field of research were outspoken advocates of women emancipation and empowerment, the concerns and ideas they associated with these terms were not the same as those of the foreign interveners. Already in the preceding section, I have shown that they tended to discuss these issues in the context of generational and household relations. Although they clearly identified traditional structures and practices in families and the society at large as the major source of unfreedom for women, there was no sense of a general opposition between emancipation and family, emancipation and motherhood or emancipation and religion. In conversations about how Afghan society would have to change in order to afford greater personal liberty for women, Iran and Pakistan were repeatedly brought up as examples. Such ideas were at odds not only with the discourses of the intervention, but also with the ideals and self-perception of its “Western” personnel.11 Due to the inescapably intimate dimension of all gender politics described in section one, this constellation was, hence, more than a difference of opinion which had to be explored and negotiated in rational debate, it was a confrontation of conflicting images of what it meant to be an emancipated woman, which took place in everyday interactions. There was, among the female professionals of the intervention, a tendency to parade attributes of “Western” femininity. Especially women working in the power centres of the intervention, i.e. for UN organisations or for governmental agencies related to major ISAF contributors, made a point of not adapting their attire and appearances to the cultural context they worked in. Staying true to what they considered to be expressions of emancipation, refusing to accept the rules imposed on women regarding appearance and behaviour in Afghan society, was not just routinised action, but understood as a contribution to the emancipation and empowerment of Afghan women. Yet, among the Afghan women in my field, the short sleeves and plunging necklines, the make-up and the shed headsscarves were not perceived as a political statement supporting their struggles, but as disrespect towards the life they were living. Foreign professionals who worked, like myself, less shielded from the local context for Afghan or smaller international aid organisations, tended to be more adapted in their attire and behaviour. This brought them closer to their Afghan co-workers, but also added to the distance that separated them from the women working in the fortified compounds of the large organisations. Contrary to what is suggested by the language of universalism, the intervention’s engagement for women’s emancipation did not unite women around a shared concern; instead it introduced a politicisation of womanhood. Female clothing styles being crucial symbols in this struggle, it is impossible to avoid these dynamics. Clothing as such remains a practical necessity, and in meeting the latter every woman in the country is forced to take a side.

30Yet, as explained above, tensions between interveners and Afghans around women-related issues resulted not only from these cultural struggles in everyday life, but also from perceived dissonances between the ideals promoted in the discourses of interventionist politics and some of the actual practices of humanitarian organisations. The problem here was not half-hearted commitment; as explained above, women empowerment was high on the international agenda as well as important to many of the female intervention staff. The problem was that ideals of gender equality frequently were at odds with other organisational goals and necessities in a social context organised around strong patriarchic principles. The authority of men in Afghan society, for example, created a tendency within foreign and international humanitarian organisations to favour men and not women as responsible contact persons when cooperating with Afghan organisations. The need for counterparts who could reliably speak on behalf of the organisation, hence, trumped ideals of gender equality.

  • 12 Fieldnotes, April 10, 2015.

31As a result of this conflict between operational objectives, humanitarian organisations did not only forego opportunities to practically promote gender equality; they sometimes even failed to protect basic rights of their female staff. As explained in the preceding section, sexual harassment at the workplace was an issue many of my female Afghan interlocutors were worried about. Twice, however, I was told about situations in which an Afghan woman had been molested by a higher-ranking Afghan man within an international humanitarian organisation. In both cases the women had reported the incident to a foreign superior—but to no avail.12 For Afghans, experiences like this put into question the honesty and truthfulness of intervention politics.

32In the relation between Afghan women and the protagonists of the intervention, alliance in discourse, hence, co-existed with practices of distinction and conflictive interactions. On a normative level these interactions revealed the particularity of the universalism promoted by the intervention. As emancipated Afghan women did not easily buy into the role model of “Western” womanhood, this role model was itself put into question—and intervention staff who identified with it felt compelled to defend it. Differing norms and ideas about female selfhood and the place of women in society were performed and confronted in situations of interaction between real women, pushed to defend not abstract norms but their way of life and being. In a context already marked by a hypersensitivity regarding gender difference, humanitarian engagement further politicised the category of gender and, hence, amplified its importance. Yet, as in other places of the world, it also served to perform and reproduce ideal-typical images of the Western Self.

Haut de page


Abu-Lughod, Lila, 2002, “Do muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others,” American Anthropologist, 104(3): 783-790.

Anderson, Jon W., 1982, “Social structure and the veil, comportment and the composition of interaction in Afghanistan,” Anthropos, 77(3/4): 397-420.

Autesserre, Severine, 2012, “Dangerous tales. Dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences,” African Affairs, 111(443): 202-222.

Billaud, Julie, 2013, “Visible under the veil. Dissimulation, performance and agency in an islamic public space,” Journal of International Women’s Studies, (1): 120.

Boltanski, Luc, 1999, Distant suffering. Morality, media and politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Boltanski, Luc, 2007, La souffrance à distance. Morale humanitaire, médias et politique, Paris, Gallimard.

Bush, Laura, 2001, “The weekly address delivered by the first lady,” online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project: <>.

Calhoun, Craig, 2004, “A world of emergencies. Fear, intervention, and the limits of cosmopolitan order,” Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue canadienne de sociologies, 41(4):373-395.

Hirschkind, Charles and Mahmood, Saba, 2002, “Feminism, the taliban, and politics of counter-insurgency,” Anthropological Quarterly, 75(2):339-354.

Koloma Beck, Teresa, 2012, The normality of civil war. Armed groups and everyday life in Angola, Frankfurt am Main and New York, Campus.

Koloma Beck, Teresa, 2014, “Forgetting the embodied past. Body memory in transitional justice,” in Susanne Buckley-Zistel, Christian Braun, Teresa Koloma Beck, and Friederike Mieth (eds), Transitional Justice Theories, London, Routledge: 184-200.

Koloma Beck, Teresa, 2016, “Krieg und Gewohnheit. Phänomenologische und pragmatistische Perspektiven auf verkörpertes Gedächtnis in Bürgerkriegen,” in Michael Heinlein, Oliver Dimbath, Larissa Schindler, and Peter Wehling (eds), Der Körper als soziales Gedächtnis, Wiesbaden, Springer: 153-169.

Koloma Beck, Teresa, 2017, “Räume der Sicherheit – Räume der Gewalt. Topologien des Alltags in der afghanischen Hauptstadt Kabul,” ZeFKo Zeitschrift für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, 6(l): 6-36.

Koloma Beck, Teresa and Werron, Tobias, 2018, “Violent conflictition. Armed conflicts and global competition for attention and legitimacy,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 31(3): 275-296.

Law, John and Urry, John, 2004, “Enacting the social,” Economy and Society, 33(3): 390-410.

Meyer, John W., 2000, “Globalisation. Sources and effects on national states and societies,” International Sociology, 15(2): 233-248.

Nayak Meghana and Selbin, Eric, 2010, Decentering International Relations, London and New York, Zed.

TrustLaw, 2011, “The world's most dangerous countries for women”: <>.

World Vision, 2016, “Behind the curtain. Best, worst places in the world to be a girl” : <>.

Haut de page


1 Participant observation was the key method of data generation. Observations were documented in field notes of about 200 printed pages. Furthermore, I conducted: six in-depth biographical interviews with women and men who came from the social milieu described but belonged to different generations and different ethnic groups; two real group discussions, one of which only with female students; five drive-along-interviews, two of which into neighbouring provinces; and five expert interviews regarding specific questions which had come up in the research process. Due to my own linguistic limitations, most of the interviews and conversations took place in English. Translators were present in the focus group discussions. In many day-to-day situations, for example in the office, Afghans with English skills volunteered as informal translators.

2 This is not the first time, that in Afghanistan the status and role of women has been politicised in projects of political and social reform. It also played a key role for the progressive government of Amanullah Khan (1919–29) as well as under Soviet rule (1978–92). Yet, as in this short article I am primarily interested in how the topic relates to the current political and normative order of world society, which has emerged after the end of the Cold War, these earlier constellations will not be discussed.

3 Shortly before my arrival in Kabul, for example, the student Farkhunda Malikzada had been beaten to death by an angry crowd in Kabul. Violence was incited by the allegation that she had burned the Quran, which later turned out to be untrue. Videos of the killing were spread widely on social media. In the early weeks of the research, the shock of this event was very much present in interviews and conversations relating to women politics and women empowerment.

4 Fieldnotes, May 5, 2015.

5 “Debating the future of Afghanistan”, debate with civil society activists from Kabul at Humboldt University Berlin, May, 2014.

6 Interview, April 21, 2015.

7 It is important to note that it is not necessarily the husband who is opposed. Quite frequently, more complex family dynamics revolving around powerful elders are at work.

8 Focus group discussion, April 25, 2015.

9 In Afghanistan, the term “youth” encompasses anyone who has transcended adolescence, but not yet an elder.

10 Interview, May 17, 2015.

11 It needs to be emphasised that a significant part of the people working for humanitarian organisations in Kabul came from non-OECD countries. Only rarely, however, did they work in higher-ranking positions. Their influence on organisational policies, accordingly, remained limited. During my stay, I shared a house with a humanitarian professional from South-East Asia and another from sub-Sahara Africa. Both frequently complained about what they perceived as a racist system. One of them sardonically stated: “In our organisation it is an unwritten rule that you cannot confront a blue-eyed person” (Fieldnotes, May 7, 2015).

12 Fieldnotes, April 10, 2015.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Prof. Dr. Teresa Koloma Beck, « “Liberating the Women of Afghanistan” », Socio, 11 | 2018, 57-75.

Référence électronique

Prof. Dr. Teresa Koloma Beck, « “Liberating the Women of Afghanistan” », Socio [En ligne], 11 | 2018, mis en ligne le 09 octobre 2018, consulté le 09 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/socio.3335

Haut de page


Prof. Dr. Teresa Koloma Beck

Teresa Koloma Beck est professeure en sociologie de la globalisation à la Bundeswehr University de Munich. Ses recherches mêlent sociologie politique et sociologie du quotidien pour explorer les logiques de la globalisation et des conflits armés. Elle est diplômée de Sciences Po Paris et de l’University of Witten/Herdecke, et titulaire d’un PhD de la Humboldt University de Berlin. Elle a mené un terrain de recherche ethnographique en Angola, au Mozambique et en Afghanistan. En 2016, elle a obtenu le prix Thomas A. Herz de l’Association de sociologie allemande (DGS).

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme

Haut de page
  • Logo Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l'homme
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals