Rescuing the Women of Afghanistan: Gender, Agency and the Politics of Intelligibility

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Thomas Gregory

Abstract

The purpose of this thesis is to examine the performances of gender that permeated the justifications for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, focusing on the representational practices that dominated the Bush administration's narratives of rescue and circumscribed our understanding of the actors involved. In particular, I will argue that the image of Afghan women as the helpless victim of Taliban oppression not only allowed the United States and its coalition allies to cast themselves as heroic masculine warriors but also helped to reinforce the idea that Afghan women were little more than mere symbols of helplessness, placing them in a position of absolute inferiority and dependency. Crucially, I will claim that this image of Afghan women as the passive prisoners of the Taliban was contingent upon the suppression of a series of alternative perspectives that could not be accommodated within the parameters established by the prevailing frames of war. On the one hand, I argue that the dominant representations of Afghan women tended to show them in decidedly monolithic and one-dimensional terms, with the Bush administration and its coalition allies defining them almost entirely by the suffering they experienced. Absent from these accounts, however, was any mention of women's resistance to Taliban rule or their criticisms of the military intervention. On the other hand, I will show how the international community relied upon a particular historical narrative that allowed them to present Afghanistan as a barbaric aberration in the modern world whilst allowing them to dismiss the period of Taliban rule as a terrifying oddity in the country's history, destroying many of the freedoms that were said to exist under previous regimes. As well as ignoring the myriad of interactions between Afghanistan and the outside world and the complex social, economic and political forces that helped to precipitate the rise of the Taliban, I will argue that this historical narrative reinforced the idea that the lives of Afghan women were in a state of suspense during this period, their very existence as human beings held in abeyance until coalition troops could intervene to redeem them. What distinguishes my argument from the work of other feminists is my attention to the way in which these representational practices are contingent upon an uneasy process of repetition and reiteration, leaving them vulnerable to the possibility for subversion and resignification. Drawing on Judith Butler's work on performativity, normative violence and the politics of intelligibility along with Gayatri C. Spivak's work on the subaltern subject, I show how the activities of organisations such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and the voices of individuals such as Malalai Joya help to expose the limits of the dominant norms of intelligibility, opening up the possibility for a less violent and less exclusionary re-imagining.

Details

Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Advisors
Award date1 Aug 2012