Reviewed by Shahrzad Mojab (Department ofÃ‚Â Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, University of Toronto)
Published on H-Gender-MidEast (January, 2003)
Displace Liberal Eurocentic Politics that Shape the Literature
Displace Liberal Eurocentic Politics that Shape the Literature
The "Women of Afghanistan" are popular objects of query. Increasingly, their personal lives, struggle, history, culture, religion, and future are being interrogated. I have doubts about the purpose of this increasing interest, fascination, and fixation, although I can offer a few hypotheses. For now, I shall assume, though, that some of these efforts constitute a genuine search for understanding and being able to explain why the women of Afghanistan have to be treated as less human than others. What are the sources of their unbearable conditions? Who is/are responsible? What should be done to make sure that no women, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, will be the subject of such cruelty? I shall admit to my dismay with most of the current studies on the situation of women in Afghanistan. They mostly lack elements of exemplary scholarly undertakings. These elements include theoretical seriousness, rigorous methodology, high degree of sensibility, ethics of research, and political commitment to change. The book under review is among these explorations with inadequacy in some of these areas.
Rosmarie Skaine has two purposes in writing this book: "to demonstrate the politicization of Afghan women, and to preserve their voices" (p. 2). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of this project, Skaine's historical account of Afghan women's participation in public life is sketchy. Chapter 1, "Modern Political and Social Roles of Afghan Women" (pp. 13-34), is based on a limited literature review of secondary sources where some important insight from critical feminist theory is ignored. Three decades ago Kumari Jayawardena in her remarkable book, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1986, London, Zed Press), stated that the assumption of power by exceptional women under the condition of traditional patriarchal relations is an exception. These women occupy a public space not on their own merit, but rather on the culpability or the blood of their patriarchs. Skaine makes a theoretical error by claiming that the coming to power of Queen Gawhar Shad in the fifteenth century provides historical evidence that "the Afghan have held women in high esteem" (p. 13). Furthermore, the struggle for legal and political reforms of the status of women during the entire last century should have been foreshadowed by a deeper analysis of the modernization process. In Afghanistan, like the rest of the Middle East, the liberation of women became a symbol of the modernization project. The role of women became a focus of nation-and-state building projects and the reform of gender relations turned into a site of struggle among reformist, conservative, revolutionary, and retrogressive religious-feudal forces (see pages 13-33).
My other concern with the book is the discussion on women and Islam, which is the topic of chapter 2 ("Women^Òs Role in Islam"). This has been an intensely researched topic in recent decades, to be exact since 1979 and the coming to power of the Islamic regime in Iran. It is also a highly contested subject area. Some authors, including Skaine, try to separate the doctrine of Islam as a religion from its political practice. As such, Skaine concludes that "historically, Islam has honored women and included them in all aspects of life. Clearly the Taliban are at odds with Islam" (p. 44). I would argue that the Islamic regimes in countries such as Iran or the Taliban are theocracies rooted in Islam, or a particular brand of it. It is irrelevant to debate whether they do or do not faithfully implement real or good Islam. What needs to be mentioned is the demand of women for democratization of gender relations, and this has often required the separation of religion and the state. Unfortunately, researchers with a variety of political persuasions have not seriously examined the ways in which religion strongly contributes to the reproduction of oppressive gender relations.
The second goal of the book, that is "preserving" the voices of Afghan women, is mainly presented in chapter 5 ("Profile of Afghan Women"). Beyond the poor analysis of these heartbreaking testimonies (p. 122), I have a methodological concern. The thirty interviews for this chapter were conducted by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) a couple of years ago, among Afghan refugee women (p. 86). These women were asked five questions. Each story is retold based on the responses to each question. The storylines are divided and numbered according to each of the five questions. This presentation depersonalizes the storyteller and detaches the reader from the lives of these women. Furthermore, the author has not explained how she dealt with the translation issue.
The book also suffers organizationally. Sections on the history and role of the state are repeated, sometimes word by word. For example, see the section under "Refugee Women" and Prostitution." There are seven tables and three appendices in the book which provide useful information.
To sum up, Skaine has attempted to bring to our attention the plight of Afghan women, their lost history, and their hope for the future--a focus which rarely finds its way into the academia, media, and/or politics of the West, in particular the United States. It is one thing to tell stories; however, we need to engage theoretical and methodological tools which dare to displace the liberal and Eurocentic politics that shape much of the literature. This means a critical approach to religion, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, and militarization, and the ways in which they interact, co-exist, and repress the women of Afghanistan as well as the rest of the region.
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Shahrzad Mojab. Review of Skaine, Rosemarie, The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban.
H-Gender-MidEast, H-Net Reviews.
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