Listening Up: Locating Women’s Voices in Interwar Afghanistan

By Marya Hannun
Submitted to Session P6038 (Retrieving Nuance, Contextualizing Agency - Women and/in Afghanistan, 2020 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
In “Updating the Gendered Empire: Where Are the Women in Occupied Afghanistan and Iraq?” Cynthia Enloe draws our attention to the absence of women as agents in narratives of conflict, arguing this perpetuates notions of war zones as inherently masculine, violent spaces. To make these claims about Afghanistan today, Enloe draws on a robust body of feminist historiography around the Middle East and South Asia, writers who asked of the archive: where are the women? And found them in the reformist press, novels, poetry, legal sources, but also in the domestic sphere: the kitchen and the brothel. However, when it comes to Afghanistan’s own past this question remains largely unasked.

In this paper, I discuss the possibilities and challenges of locating women in the history of Afghanistan through my own work on Islamic reform and state formation in the Aman Allah period (1919-1929). Given the scholarly attention devoted to the monarch’s reforms around marriage and female education — as well as the causal role attributed to these reforms in his overthrow — it is astonishing how silent the literature remains when it comes to women’s participation, even elite women. Where are their voices? What is the value of engaging them when we find them? When we do not find them, can we read productively into the silences? Looking for women reveals elite women in this period — including members of the royal family and the wives and daughters of bureaucrats — served not only as symbols but also agents of change through the institutions of the press, schools, and marriage. Understanding their participation allows us to better evaluate the nature of Aman Allah’s reforms and complicate the simple reading of this period as one in which the state tried and failed to institute social change.