Afghan Women, Universities, Hunger and Climate Change

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

On Dec 19th the Taliban government announced that women would no longer be allowed to attend universities. On Dec 24th they announced that women would no longer be allowed to work for foreign funded NGOs. These are ugly developments.

As so often before, both the Taliban and the Western powers are playing with women’s lives for their own political ends. This note explains how and why.

First, there is an increasingly bitter debate going on inside the Taliban. Once the Americans were driven out, the Taliban divided over the question of women’s education.

The traditionalists were led by Haibatullah Akhundzada. The two previous leaders of the Taliban, both assassinated by the Americans, had been village mullahs who were grassroots leaders in the armed resistance to the Russian invasion. Akhundzada was a more highly educated cleric, a senior judge in the Taliban court system.

The government is in Kabul. Akhundzada remains in Kandahar, largely in hiding to foil assassination. He acts as the spiritual leader of the movement. In other words, his task it to look after religion. From the beginning, he was hostile women’s education.

The Taliban people who head the government in Kabul have different priorities. From Day One they were acutely aware that they faced a difficult economic situation. The withdrawal of foreign soldiers and foreign aid meant a collapse in employment and incomes. On top of that, the country was suffering from a bitter drought caused by climate change.

In this dire situation, the Taliban in government knew that they absolutely had to have large amounts of foreign aid, and foreign grain, from the United Nations, the United States and the western powers. They told Akhundzada in Kandahar that if he banned all education for women, the Western powers would cancel the aid.

Akhundzada and his supporters took heed. They waited for the Taliban in government to get the West to deliver.

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A Poem – On Meeting a Liberal Feminist

Nancy Lindisfarne

Thinking about Afghanistan – Nancy Lindisfarne

In the spring of 2006, I had tea with a woman I knew slightly but thought might become a friend. We sat at a low table in the Senior Common Room at SOAS. The room is attractive, curved at the far end, light and airy. A portrait of the explorer Richard Burton looked down on us.

My new acquaintance was short and dressed in beige in an academic hippy style. She began, without preamble, before we’d properly settled in: ‘I’ve travelled in the Middle East’, she said, and then, with that presumed authority some English women can manage, she let fly the racist crap.

‘I’ve seen what it’s like.’ Unstoppable, wringing her hands, she told me of her concern for Afghan women and began telling stories. Horror stories, every one.

‘Did the women themselves tell you these stories?’ I asked. ‘Well, no, not exactly.’

I kept my mouth shut, screaming inside. Some for sure had been true once, but these were stories that had been around a long time. They were recycled, mythic. One was already a repeat when I read it again in a UN report on Afghan women in the early 1990s.

By 2006, for forty years, my life had been focused on Middle East. Listening to liberal feminists spout orientalist shyte was part of the deal. And this one, like others, was determined to keep me silent. She was determined to protect her perfect sense of right and wrong. And though I tried, I couldn’t counter her certainty – about American aims, and aid, about NGO aims and aid, about the torrent of money that flowed into the country along with the violence.

In this conversation she diminished me. Far worse, she denied the humanity, the complexity and evil in our world.

She evinced no interest in real people, no empathy for real women, or men, or children or even cats and dogs. But somehow, she knew best and she knew it all – what was under the veil, beyond the veil and, frankly, up the veil.

She was hateful and made me angry. When I went home, I wrote a poem.

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Fresh Apricots – A Syrian Prison Story

Jebel Druze – Landscape by Nancy Lindisfarne

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: Last week in Koblenz, Germany, a former Syrian intelligence officer, Eyad al Gharib, was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. It is an important verdict. It has formally exposed the scale, and appalling horror, of the crimes of the Syrian regime.

To mark this moment we are reposting a short story I originally published in Arabic in 1997. I did anthropological fieldwork in Damascus in the late 1980s, and from day one I saw the tyranny of the regime.  But I knew the whole time I was in Syria, and then again when I tried out the stories on friends in Damascus, that for their sake, I could only hint at the fear everyone felt.  As you can see here, the most politically explicit of my Syrian stories, ‘Fresh Apricots’, is little more than a bare whisper about a prisoner who has been fortunate enough to be released from Saydnaya prison.
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In 1997, Mamdouh Adwan, the Syrian poet and playwright translated into Arabic a collection of short stories I had written after my year of fieldwork. Al Raqs fi Dimasq was published in Syria before an English version, Dancing in Damascus, came out in 2000.[4] But though a bare whisper, I also knew Syrian readers absolutely understood what I was trying to say.

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My First Day in Camp with the Piruzai – Afghanistan, 1971

Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper

My friend Maryam

In 1971 and 1972 Richard Tapper and I lived with Afghan villagers for nearly a year. The Piruzai, some 200 families, lived in two small settlements near the town of Sar-e Pol in northern Afghanistan. They were Pashtu-speakers, pastoralists and peasant farmers, poor people, working very hard to survive in a vicious feudal system.

The people, the setting, and even the division of labour between Richard and myself seemed to conform to every stereotype about the Middle East. There were veiled women, men on horseback, camel caravans, stunning scenery and dramatic lives. These were stereotypes shared by the Afghan officials, politicians and urban professionals we met in Kabul. But the people we met were not two dimensional.

They were warm, funny, clear-thinking and tough. They understood we were doing research – anthropology – insanshenasi – and they wanted to help us ‘write a book’. They wanted their words to be heard and written down. Living with the Piruzai was an immense privilege and our obligation to tell the story of the Piruzai is on-going. Continue reading

Fresh Apricots – A Prison Story

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Saydnaya prison, Damascus, Syria

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: For forty-six years the Assad regime has ruled Syria with murderous brutality. A measure of this brutality was the quelling of a popular uprising against the regime in the city of Hama in 1982. Assad (the father) bombed and killed some 20,000 Syrian citizens. Or perhaps 40,000 – the violence was so comprehensive and effective that it has never been possible to establish exactly how many perished. The massacre in Hama and the violence of the Assads’ secret prisons served to terrify the population and kept people quiescent. Until 2011. Continue reading

Are Syrian Men Vulnerable Too? Gendering the Syria Refugee Response

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Syrian refugees in Jordan, 2016

Lewis Turner writes about Syrian refugees in Jordan, He argues that ‘a person is not vulnerable because they are a man or a woman, but because of what being a man or a woman means in particular situations. A refugee response that automatically assumes that women and children are the most vulnerable will do a disservice to the community it seeks to serve. Continue reading

Don’t Bomb Mosul: The Reasons Why

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American planes bombing Ramadi in October, 2015

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

An assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul by the United States, Iran, the Iraqi government, Kurdish forces and Shiah militias looks imminent. We can expect massive bloodshed and the destruction of most of the city.

Mosul is now held by ISIS. Different estimates suggest that between 600,000 and 1,500,000 people are still in the city. In the last year Iraqi and Iranian forces backed by the US bombs have retaken the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from ISIS. In both cases, the whole city was flattened by American bombs, and almost all the people became refugees. Those two cities remain destroyed, and almost empty.

Because ISIS holds Mosul, every reactionary power in the world will welcome the bombing. On present form, almost the whole of the European and North American left will do nothing to protest the bombing, and many leftists will support the assault.

The position of most of the left makes us sick at heart. Do Muslim deaths not matter? Continue reading

Rida Hus-Hus – Holding onto beauty under the Assad regime

 

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Rida Hus-Hus 1939-2016

Nancy Lindisfarne writes:

The Syrian painter and printmaker, Rida Hus-Hus, died in Mannheim, Germany on the 30 July 2016 at the age of 77. His courage, uncomplicated generosity and celebration of all that was beautiful is to be remembered and cherished. His life drawings and portraits reflected his affection and interest in other people. Through still-life drawing and flower pictures he celebrated the joy of quotidian detail, while his vibrant pastels captured the sweeping landscapes outside of Damasus, and literally painted Syria in a most beautiful light. Yet Rida was also intensely political in the dangerous environment of the Assad dictatorship, and to keep himself sane, and preserve the independence of his art, he lived an extremely modest and cleverly managed life. Continue reading

Oil Empires and Resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria

 

Afghan Resistance, 1842

Afghan Resistance, 1842

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

This article is about three intersecting wars in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.[1] The bombings in Paris occurred just as we were finishing the piece, and give our arguments here further tragic relevance.

This piece is 25,000 words long, and readers may find it easier to read by downloading the version here: Oil Empires 16Nov2015 FIN5.

It will help the reader to know from the outset where we stand. We want the mass resistance to the Assad regime in Syria to win, and the Russian armed forces and their allies to leave. We want the Americans and their allies to leave Afghanistan, now, completely. We want Assad and the American, British, French and Russian military to stop bombing the Syrian resistance and the Islamic State.[2] Continue reading

Night of Power: A Ramadan Story

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: The lunar month which began in mid-June this year is the Islamic month of Ramadan, the month of fasting and charity. This is a story to mark Ramadan, and one day in the life of Basima. At forty five, she is still unmarried, on the shelf, and as the youngest daughter of a large Syrian family, she has become the sole carer of her elderly, difficult mother.

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This short story  is set in Damascus in the 1990s, where I did a year’s anthropological fieldwork among well-to-do Damascenes. For me, unlearning academic writing and writing fiction was a lengthy and salutary experience. The impetus came from my anger and exhaustion at countering simplistic, popular stereotypes of Arab or Muslim women and men as fundamentalists, terrorists, or both. My hope then was that the stories might be a way to reach an audience beyond the academy. Continue reading

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia 6: The Class Basis of the Taliban

Taliban reader

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: In understanding the Taliban we need to face up honestly to two quite different things. First, the Taliban are on the side of the poor . Most of their supporters come from the poor. The leaders of the Taliban are themselves from among the poor. (In this they are unlike most other Islamist groups.) And when they take power in an area the life circumstances of the poor improve significantly. These are the reasons why many ordinary people support the Taliban.

But there is another truth: the Taliban are also conservative in their sexual politics, and their policies oppress women. This is one of the things most ordinary Afghans and Pakistani Pashtuns don’t like about the Taliban.

Both these things are true. We need to face up to this contradictory reality. So we need to explain the situation in some detail. This post is an academic – but readable – paper explaining the class background of the Taliban. In another post, we shall turn to their right wing gender politics. Continue reading

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia 5: Bombs and Drones

American bomber being prepared for flight

American bomber being prepared for flight

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale writeMany people now argue that feminists should support the American and Iranian alliance against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Or they argue that we should support the American and Pakistani armed forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many other feminists, and many on the left, are confused and unsure. But they also talk as if it was a straight choice between IS and the US, or between the Taliban and the US. ‘Both sides are morally repugnant,’ these people say, ‘but if I have to choose…’

This way of thinking ignores the fact that you are not just choosing between two sides, you are choosing between two ways of waging war. How you kill people is important, and has emotional and political consequences. It matters that American bombing from the air is more cruel, more unequal, kills more women, and kills more children than fighting that on the ground with guns. Continue reading

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (3) The new grand alliance in the Middle East

Women defendants at a mass trial of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria, Egypt, November 2013

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale explain the changing international alliances in Middle Eastern politics, and how this is connected to rising Islamophobia in Europe.

In most of Europe and North America now there is only one acceptable form of racism: prejudice against Muslims. This is recent. Until 1978 in most of Europe and North America Muslims were often discriminated against because they were Asian, or Arabs, or people of colour. But in the US, Britain and many other countries they were not singled out for their religion. Continue reading

Iranian Street Aesthetics

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Netanyahu speaking to the US Congress: ‘Do a deal with Iran and nuclear war is inevitable’

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: One of the reasons Middle East politics is so confusing is that the alliances between the major players keep shifting. Changes in the balance of power are often extremely complicated, and leave plenty of gaps in our understanding of what is going on. In these gaps Islamophobia thrives. This post is meant as an antidote to the Western racism that targets Iran.

The shenanigans we’ve been watching this past week in anticipation of the Israeli election on Tuesday, the 17th March are a measure of the scale of the changes that have been taking place over this past year. We shall write about the new political alignments at length in a later post. Here I want to mark what hasn’t changed nearly as much.

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New building, Isfahan

In 2005 I travelled in Iran for a month. I had recently left academic teaching to do art. Luckily, I had remnants of Persian left over from anthropological fieldwork in Iran in the 1960s, and fieldwork in Afghanistan in the 1970s. In 2005 Western propaganda against Iran was relentless and visually dominated by ugly images of dust, terrorists and women smothered in black veils. In Iran, however, people were kind, endlessly helpful, and above all, they lived their lives in colour! Continue reading

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (2): ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’ in Turkey

By Nancy Lindisfarne

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Kemal Atatűrk -Founding Father of the Turkish Republic

There is a lot to be learned when a society is changing rapidly and radically. This blog is an excerpt from Thank God, We’re Secular: Gender, Islam and Turkish Republicanism, published in Turkish in 2001.  This is a piece about Turkish Islamophobia, and about the class divide between Turkish elites and the working class. Continue reading

Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (1)

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In a park in Isfahan, Iran, 2005.

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: Using labels which fasten on skin colour, ethnicity or religious identity to treat whole groups of people as Blacks, Chinese, Jews or Muslims, is racist. And there is plenty of it around. If we think of Islamophobia – which literally means a fear of Islam – as another form of racism, we get a better measure of what is going on.

Racisms, in whatever version they appear, always serve the people in power. Far too often one hears comments about Muslims which would be immediately recognised as racist if they were said about black or Jewish people. And often these days such comments go unchallenged.

And as the Charlie Hebdo outcry has made clear, many feminists, Marxists and liberals find any accommodation between feminism and Islam well-nigh impossible. This leaves a space easily filled by cultural racism.

In a series of posts we shall aim to disentangle some of the ideas which make Islamophobia seem acceptable to many people who otherwise loath and deplore global inequality and imperialist wars. Our aim is make it easier to speak out against this hatred of Muslims and Islam.

To do this, we use gender as our lens. It is a powerful device for seeing through racisms that can otherwise seem self-evidently correct. Sexist ideas and practices are often places where a dominant ideology does not quite cohere, where slippages, and contradictions, allow us to glimpse of what is actually going on.

We begin this series of posts on Feminism and Islamophobia with a brief note on cultural racism and ‘the veil’. Continue reading

A Valentine’s Day Story

For Valentine’s Day, here is something light – a story by Nancy Lindisfarne from DANCING IN DAMASCUS, her collection of short stories about Syria in the 1990s (SUNY, 2000).

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LOVELY TITS

‘Come on. I’ll help you if you want.’ Rana grinned. She was lively, shiny, like her curly dark hair. And she was a gorgeous shape. So he didn’t really mind that she was also saying he was hopeless, the kind of guy who didn’t have the gumption to buy a Barbie doll for his kid. Continue reading

ISIS, Sexual Violence and Killing Gay Men

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale 

There are now many press and internet reports of rape by the Islamic State (ISIS). There are also reports of ISIS killing gays. These reports are being used to justify heavy bombing of ISIS fighters and civilians by the United States, Britain, France and other allies. These bombings are happening in both Iraq and Syria – ISIS controls parts of both countries.

We have to be careful with the evidence. On the one hand, the media usually ignore rape in wartime. On the other hand, there is also a long standing tradition of newspapers accusing the enemy of atrocities they have not committed. However, there does appear to be convincing evidence for widespread use of rape or women, and killing of gay men, by both ISIS and America’s allies. 

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