Women in Afghanistan / Frauen in Afghanistan / An Interview with Nancy Lindisfarne

Katharina Anetzberger

This interview was first published in the Austrian socialist magazine Linkswende as Frauen in Afghanistan. You can read it in German here.

LINKSWENDE: Since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, the situation of Afghan women has come back into focus. How does this situation look like at the moment concretely?

NANCY LINDISFARNE: I think a place to start is that we need to understand what does actually happen with the Taliban and the actual defeat of the US, militarily and politically. So we’ve got a group pf people who have fought a guerrilla war and they have actually taken over a government with the idea of continuing to be not democratic but ruling a state. And they couldn’t have done this without – nobody wins a guerrilla war, certainly not one where the two sides are so disproportionately powerful and weak – without popular support. And that means that people all over the country have decided that the Taliban are a better deal than either the occupation government or the warlords.

In Afghanistan over 80 percent of the population is living in rural areas or very small towns or villages. This popular support is from men, from women, from everybody. This has been a long time coming and has been kind of growing over a period of time. This isn’t because the Taliban are deeply loved by the Afghan people but simply that they have been a lot better than the cruelty and the corruption of the American government. So that’s the framework I think which is very important and is somehow kind of forgotten in so much of the media.

The situation is enormously precarious for many different reasons. We can’t talk about women without talk about the whole population in a sense that the American occupation, the government of Ashraf Ghani, lost because as I said of the cruelty and the corruption, all that affects everybody. You can’t have a war and bomb people and send drones out and kill only the fighters. So people are in a dreadful situation frankly, partly because the Americans have been humiliated, they’ve been defeated and one of the terrible things that they do in defeat is they exert revenge by making sanctions as a financial penalty. They did this in Vietnam, in Iran, in Iraq, in Cuba.

The government of Afghanistan has something like 9 billion dollars which is a tiny amount of money. But it’s in a federal reserve bank in Washington. In other words the money that belongs to the Afghan people has actually been stolen. But worse than that: the American government seems to be imposing sanctions which will make it very difficult for humanitarian organisations to actually deliver aid. And this becomes very important because the money that came in with the occupation was enormous. Many people in the cities were employed by that occupation. That money is now gone. So you have an urban population which is now without work and we have a rural population which is on the edge of starvation. Afghanistan has been suffering climate change, enormous heat and drought for nearly 50 years. This year about 40 percent of the crop has been lost. That means starvation. So a country which has been dependent on money coming in with the occupation and food aid coming in with the occupation is now being left to it’s own devices at a time when in effect it’s a perfect storm of hardship because of drought and so forth.

Nancy in Kabul in 1971

In this process of exerting revenge, the Americans rather hope that this will lead to chaos because no government can persist without being able to feed their population. And in that chaos, there will again be civil war and the Taliban will lose, so the Americans will be able to say “Oh look, they failed”. It’s a very ugly situation and I suppose the other perspective – the positive side if you will – is that though they are not democrats the Taliban have proofed themselves so far not corrupt, and I believe they are quite sincere in trying to manage a government. So whether they can last it out in these circumstances I don’t know but I don’t see them as evil at this step. Power makes people evil but at present not. What might help them is that the surrounding countries really do not want Afghanistan to go back into a situation of civil war which historically produced enormous numbers of refugees in Iran and in Pakistan which will also produce Islamist fighters. The Russian state does not want that to happen, the Chinese are very interested in bringing Afghanistan into the Balkan road projects which is the transport communication roads across Asia. So it is just possible that these very states – Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China – will actually bring in the aid that is necessary.

When we talk about the Taliban – and you mentioned the wide support in the Afghan population – , are we talking about exclusively male fighters or do you know if women are also actively involved?

The Taliban are undoubtedly sexist and in that sense I simply don’t know. On the other hand I do know there have been some quite wonderful things.

There is a wonderful article that came out in the New Yorker called “The other Afghan Women” by Anand Gopal. He’s gone round the country for about 6 months just before the Taliban took over and he interviewed systematically older women in rural areas. And he talks to these women and asks them really about the whole of their lives. They are women of 40, 50 years old. Afghanistan has been at war for those 40 years, and they are very clear about the consequences of occupations, of the soviets, of the civil war, of the Taliban, of the Americans and now again the Taliban. As far as I know there are no women running around with heavy arms but these women are fighting too, they are absolutely fighting, supporting fighters, protecting children, hiding people, hiding themselves, keeping the crops going. So one has to first understand how precarious this country is, the poverty is unbelievable, the margins of survival are unbelievable, very thin, and how much everybody has to really pull together. Certainly when I was doing fieldwork in Afghanistan a long time ago one of the thing with Pashtuns was, they understood that one of the most important things was that a household simply had to stand together because if they didn’t they would starve. They would be probably have their land stolen, they would have their animals stolen, they would starve. So the vulnerability and so the ability of working together is quite a strong one. So that’s a more important understanding than just thinking about women fighters, like the Kurdish women for instance.

The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was declared not only a “war on terror”, but also an act of liberation of Afghan women. What changed during the US invasion? Has there actually been a liberation of women, or was that mostly western propaganda?

Definitely it was an excuse, it was a set of stereotypes to sell the war. But they began earlier. There was a coup in 1973 and then a communist coup in 1978 and the communists wanted to liberate women, wanted women’s rights and they wanted land reforms. So they had good ideas. But they were also kind of fashionable, educated people of basically Kabul and other cities and they didn’t persuade the rural population of these changes. And as they didn’t persuade them, they became very violent and then in fact at the end of the day the Russians invaded and occupied the country to support this communist revolution and, in this process, over the 8-9 years of the Russian occupation, absolute horrors followed. A million people were killed, another million were maimed, there were 6 million refugees in camps is Iran and Pakistan. There were about 3-4 million internal refugees. This is in a country of 25 million people. So half the country is very seriously hurt by this. Well, the bottom line on this one is that the people who wanted to liberate women and wanted land reforms behaved with appalling violence and this contaminated an idea of feminism. And you get the resistance of course with this Islamic and this becomes increasingly sexist because one of the ways proofing that you are a good Muslim, if you are a Muslim fighter, is to say: I’m tougher on women than you are, I’m more masculine and our women are more docile. So you get an extreme of sexism in this process. Get the Taliban in the early 90s, supported by the Americans. Again the sexism is there but they actually brought peace, they made the roads safe, they stopped the civil war, which is why the Americans supported them. But they were a national independence movement, and the Americans couldn’t control them and at that moment, it’s about 1996, the American stereotypes start about barbaric, savage Taliban, monsters, hardly human, and passive Afghan women who must be safed. So it’s actually before 9/11, it’s about 4 years before those stereotypes come as a way of getting rid of the Taliban.

If you remember then, I think about 3 weeks after the American war in Afghanistan started, Laura Bush, the wife of the American president, and Cherie Blair, Tony Blairs wife, started doing speeches which were about saving Afghan women. You have to have an excuse, when you’ve got an immoral onslaught, immoral violence loosed against a country, there was a huge bombing camp at the very start. How do you justify this? So you use the liberation of Afghan women. You have all the rhetoric of women’s rights and so on, associated with an extremely violent occupation. So – did it help women? Kind of depends on whom. Because obviously there are middle class women who have been associated with the occupation, some of them for sure are genuine feminists, other probably are chancers, but you get a situation where the occupation dominates so much of life in the country people make compromises and some people of course benefit and find themselves educated and so on and so forth. But if you look more widely, because that rhetoric of women’s education is also associated with violence, you get a massive contradiction. It’s a tragedy for feminism. And there will be people, women and men I’m sure, who will fight again for women’s rights, but they fight from a position which is very much damaged by this long history.

Are there any active feminist groups or movements in Afghanistan now?

I don’t think so but I’m sure there are many people that have those ideas. So many people want to get out. It’s not just about collaboration, it is a tragedy where people are wanting to flee, sometimes for their lives but also sometimes just to make sure that they have enough to eat. There will be lots of feminists and already are in refugee camps in Pakistan and places like that. There will be others in Afghanistan, of course. But what they can do at this point is very limited.

There have been many comparisons in the media lately of the situation of women today, under the Taliban, and in the liberal 1970s. In essence, the image of a woman in a miniskirt was contrasted with the image of a woman in a burqa. So, it seems to me that basically this discussion is very much shaped by sexism. How free were women really in the 60s and 70s?

One has to think about social class. A majority of a population who are peasant farmers or pastoralists, many of those people were sharecroppers, not even peasants owning their own land but working for other people. You have that, you have very big landlords who are controlling this rural, agricultural area, and then you have a small middle class in the 60s and 70s with the same ambitions as everybody else in 1968, to have sex and drugs and rock’n’roll and to become educated and to rule a country and so on. So you got a huge class divide and very great freedoms in cities like Kabul and in the rural areas there was probably much more movement of independence than most people understood and, I know this from my fieldwork, that because the economy was so precarious women could and sometimes did run their own households. A widow would be able to take over a household. I had a stunning woman who adopted me who was known as the women’s headman and actually went and joined discussions. There was a much greater scope for participation because people needed everybody. And I think this is not the kind of women’s rights we would like but it’s not that a huge difference from the men who were in that same households. And I think that’s quite important to understand the oppression of both men and women in these circumstances.

You did field research not only in Afghanistan, but also in many other Islamic countries, in Syria for instance. Do you see any parallels? What role do tradition and religion play?

I was in Iran before Afghanistan, then in Afghanistan and then I did fieldwork in Turkey and then Syria My then partner Richard Tapper and I had hoped to go back to the same area in Afghanistan. It was not possible once the Russians had invaded. But we have wanted to go and study practiced Islam, in other words everyday Islam, and the idea was to go to the little market town nearest to where the villages were, the pastorals were, because we knew that region, we had travelled, we had contacts and so on and so forth, and we thought how interesting it would be to go and find out what Islam means to these people.  And we were interested in doing this because we knew there have been almost no studies like this in the middle east. Almost none. It seemed a great idea to do something interesting like that and relatively easy I suppose, because people like people who are interested in their culture and the things they care about. And the Islam that we saw in Afghanistan was a very tolerant Islam.

There were also exotic things like spirit possession and so forth, they believed that people had been sometimes inhabited – particularly women – with evil spirits and so forth, and I can remember a kind of long discussion about a Sufi Pir who had come to exorcise a woman who had been said to be possessed by Jinn. She lost many children, she was very ill and we had this debate: Can we take photographs? Can we take the tape recorder? And the Sufi Pir himself said “Probably not photographs, but yeah sure, you can record this, that would be fine”. It was that acceptable. There was the division between the Shia Hazaras and the Sunnis who are the majority of the population but even within the area people shuffled along, there was a great deal of tolerance. And we found that that kind of ritual year meant that there was systematically sort of ritual feasts and so forth which were moments when people shared, when people marked different kinds of social boundaries as we do with Christmas or easter and so forth. So it was interesting.

Ok, we weren’t able to do this fieldwork and thought what can we do and we decided that we would go to Turkey and try to do the same kind of study in a small town in Turkey. And when we went – so this is the late 70s – and as we were meeting people and trying to find a place to do fieldwork where people would be happy for us to settle, we talked to scholars in Istanbul and Ankara and local people and so forth and they said “What the hell you want to do Islam, Islam is finished. Absolutely finished. Turkey is a secular place, of course there are some traditional Muslims, but you know, it’s nothing, it’s absolutely nothing.” Well, we went and did this study, and it was very interesting but it was also absolutely seen to be irrelevant, because we were doing something which was passé – what has happened subsequently? And of course it has happened in part because of what happened in Afghanistan, because the resistance to the Russians was in the name of Islam, that’s what united people and we found the same kind of things going on elsewhere in the middle east, whether with Saddam Hussein or with the Assads, or in Egypt, you had regimes which had been, initially, socialist or communist, which had become corrupt. Corrupt, violent dictatorships, but they were secular, and that secularity – same process – was contaminated. I mean there is nothing wrong with the idea of secularity, but when it’s associated with a regime that is very violent, which imprisons people, murders people and so forth, people don’t like secular, and one of the places people could find to unite to resist is with Islam, which after all says “All muslims are equal”, which has just as Christianity or Judaism have, a very decent moral ecumenical side where people become equal and therefore can fight an oppressor.

Based on your experiences in Syria, you published the short story collection „Dancing in Damascus“, which focuses on the topic of gender and women from different social classes in general. In the postscript you state that you have chosen the means of fiction to reach a wider public. Did you succeed? What were the reactions?

Yeah, I think I did succeed. I mean it was translated into Arabic and Turkish I think something else I can’t remember. That was very pleasing, to have it out in Arabic – it came out in Arabic before it came out in English. For me it was really a very exciting thing to have tried to do but I also felt it was a necessity. I had been with all this rural people or the small town people in Turkey and I thought I was grown up enough as an anthropologist to actually look at an urban population, look at a middle class population in Damascus. And kind of by accident I ended up studying politics and marriage among the elite and going to big weddings at the Sheraton. It was an opportunity, and one doesn’t miss opportunities like this.

But it did mean that what I knew about people meant they were very visible, I mean to whatever stories one would tell people could guess who they would be, they were vulnerable and the Syrian regime at that time – this was in the late 80s I suppose or early 90s – was a vicious dictatorship. So, people were very frightened, and it was a way of to say something about what one has seen, trying to give voice to those people without making them vulnerable. I pulled one story because one of the women that I knew well – I have taken the stories back when they were in draft form and got people to read them – she said “This is too close, this is too much like me, and I don’t want this” – so that story went. Another person who was actually associated with the regime read the story. It was obvious who she was, and she read the story and then laughed and said “My God I had no idea how much they hated me”. Oh and I suppose the very best story – from my point of view – was one, a friend had told me. He had told me a story about a man who’d been freed from prison and the taxi ride back into Damascus, and it was something that somebody had heard, and I heard then the story and so I wrote it up, not as fieldwork but imagining this, and the friend who’d told me that story said afterwards “That’s just exactly like a story I heard once”. And you think – yes! Cause he didn’t recognize that he had been the source, so I was pleased. So – complicated. But it was very exciting to learn how to write fiction and kind of nice because one of the stories won a price and nice things have happened, and that was its own education I suppose.

In one of the stories, „Not one of us“, there is a very interesting scene: a woman from the upper class tells of the daughter who was sent to the USA to study and who has now put on the veil and turned to Islam, namely to reclaim women’s rights. The woman cries while she tells this. From a western point of view, the situation seems somehow twisted. What’s behind that scene?

It was scary living in Damascus, really scary. Coming back from these big weddings at four o’clock in the morning I knew I could walk all the way across Damascus because basically if you screamed the secret police would be there instantly, so kind of nobody did anything to you because it was so scary that the secret police would be there, I mean it’s an irony. It was also an act of resistance to then put on the veil because it meant that women could move around with the excuse of going to religious meetings in a way that they couldn’t do otherwise or that they would become again vulnerable to predation by the regime. So if you can imagine the thugs and the enforcers that are part of this ugly regime, you really don’t want to be a young woman who isn’t quite protected, right? So you either went to family parties, and the weddings became an important place where people could meet which were simply because there was a collection of people there, it was very public in this big hotels and so forth. The regime had closed the cinemas, the regime had closed the clubs, it made it very difficult to go to a café. Damascus was a very sophisticated city and yet it was very hard to have dates, make friends, do anything else. And this was another sort of social opportunity. I mean the regime had understood that they would be taken a step to far if they started closing down women’s religious groups and so forth and so on. There were episodes with the Assads where a veiled woman would have her veil pulled off by the thugs because they’re secular. Or men with moustaches or beards would have them shaven violently and so forth. But this went back and forth because the regime was also vulnerable. I mean there can be popular uprisings. So it was a kind of a tightrope walk but it gave women quite a lot of independence. And it was hilarious because they would get in the car, of course they could drive, and they get in the car all veiled and drive around and have a good time and nobody could have stopped them. So it’s a paradox. But contextually it makes sense. It was a relatively safe place to exercise freedoms that you couldn’t dare to do otherwise.

You already mentioned the story of the former political prisoner, it’s called “Fresh Apricots”. This figure is a Teacher, he teaches reading to men who haven’t learned that before, and he says they are learning this „to keep themselves busy, to open up their world“. Education is said to be an important means on the way to a self-determined life. From your experience, how do you think are women – especially in rural areas of Afghanistan – feeling about that? How important is education in their life?

Again one has to just think of the relative poverty. If you actually have to work your fingers to the bone day to day to eat, this is kind of not the most important thing to do. I can remember friends in the village – this is from 1970 – where women talked to their brothers or somebody else who was educated, they learned how to write their names, they understood that reading and writing was important. In the household I knew best there were two wives of the man who was our host, he was the village headman, and both of them were very proud that each of them had several sons and each of them had one of the sons being educated as a mullah. And one of these young men was probably going to be the mullah for the whole group and the other one was probably going to take over his father’s role as the headman who needed to read and write as did our host, who could read Persian and Pashtu and he knew enough Arabic to recite the Koran. And this was useful to him, he would be able to send notes and to look at land lease and so forth. In the village there was a Koran school run by the present village mullah but that was only for boys, and for very view boys because you couldn’t spare the labour for somebody to go off and study for five years with the mullah. So – again – one just has to understand how precarious people were. Within the towns girls were actually getting a kind of education in the 70s, there were schools – it was possible for girls to go to school as well as boys. But only a privileged group of people because in many of the towns people were extremely poor and desperate. So I don’t think anybody – men or women – has any illusions about how important this is but practically they not going to be able to do it either. And I think a lot of the crap, frankly the crap of the American occupation in building schools was just that. They would have subcontractors, they would build a school, it wouldn’t be followed up. It was all superficial, almost all of it. But we do know that of course women privately – where they could and where educated women where there – they would run small schools for women around them. People do what they can do.

That brings me to my last question: What can we do to support people in Afghanistan?

I think one of the most important things is to push very hard for humanitarian support and understanding and empathy. It’s important to understand it’s not just the people who are collaborators who want to get out but also that everybody in a situation of 40 years of war is going to collaborate. Everybody. You do things you don’t want to do. You behave in ways that you’re ashamed of because you’re trying to survive. So making asylum is actually about helping people who need help, not about whether they are good people or bad people or they did bad things during the occupation. And I think pushing far obviously refugee status, asylum for as many people as possible is one thing but more specifically I would think that you need humanitarian Organisations, food organisations, education organisations, women’s organisations who want to go to Afghanistan. But they are being stopped in a sense by this American embargo. It needs to get petitions going with people who are involved in NGO work who do want to go back and actually help – Oxfam, Medicines sans frontiere for instance – there are many groups, these are the people that basically need organise petitions to shame governments, to shame everyone because of the humanitarian tragedy that is on our doorstep and which is also linked with climate change. We really need to understand: this is what’s going to be happening to all of us. Or many of us around the world. And so making this a movement which fights against islamophobia, which stops people saying “ohh the Taliban are terrible” – who the fuck cares what the Taliban are like when people are starving. I mean they are an illegitimate government, they have come into power, they – in this sense – deserve because they are trying to support a population which is desperate. It’s very difficult what to do. And it’s very difficult to think it would be of any use sitting outside an American embassy because – I hate to say it – as far as we can see this will have no effect except the symbolic gesture.

And remember most people can’t get out of the country, even if they wanted to. It’s also helping those people who are going to be hungry, who are going to starve. Famines are never just natural events. Famines are always shaped by politics and always have a class bias, it’s the poorest and the weakest who starve. And the rich people very often make money out of it. So, one really has to also talk in terms of famine, talk in terms of extreme poverty, talk in terms of the devastation of war. This is 40 years! In a country that starts with nothing. It’s almost unimaginable. So, thinking in those terms, or saying those things over and over again, but also saying climate change because I think we need to get environmental groups in. It is an environmental catastrophe and making those links as socialists with eco-socialists, environmental groups, it’s a good place to start because as socialists down the line this is actually what we want to do.


Afghanistan – The End of the Occupation here

My First Day in Camp with the Piruzai here

Afghanistan – The Climate Crisis here

Oil Empires and Resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria here

The Class Basis of the Taliban here


Click here to order Afghan Village Voices: Stories from a Tribal Community by Richard Tapper with Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper, Bloomsbury, 2020. “This is a book of stories told by the Piruzai, a rural Afghan community who farmed in northern Afghanistan and in summer took their flocks to the central Hazârajât mountains. It is a collection of remarkable stories, folktales and conversations and provides unprecedented insight into the depth and colour of these people’s lives. Recorded in the early 1970s, the stories range from memories of the Piruzai migration to the north a half century before, to the feuds, ethnic strife and the doings of powerful khans. There are also stories of falling in love, elopements, marriages, childbirth and the world of spirits. It is a remarkable document of Afghanistan at peace, told by a people whose voices have rarely been heard.”

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