Julie Billaud

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, vii + 244 pp.

Reviewed by Aatina Nasir Malik


Kabul Carnival by Julie Billaud underscores the phase of postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan by posing a challenge to the dominant ways in which Muslim societies and Muslim women are often studied. The book questions the appropriation of Afghan women by different regimes i.e. the modern monarchies (1920– 73), the Communist regime (1979– 92), the Soviet regime (1992– 96), and the Taliban regime (1996– 2001), all of which aimed at subsuming women within the normative orders of either tradition or modernity. Kabul Carnival explicates women’s everyday lived life experiences that navigate the contradictions of both traditional and modernizing forces. The book revolves around a fundamental clash between western imported modernity and the traditional religious values describing postwar reconstruction as a ‘carnival’ i.e. a kind of liminal phase entailing a reversal of order from the religious decrees enforced by Taliban to a new model based on western (neo)liberal democracies, that under the cloak of development and humanitarian aid becomes a site for international intervention, paving way for colonial continuities, masking disorder and ambiguities that were quite inherent to it. Author’s use of ‘carnival’ however, is not only in reference to the uncertain political environment of the times but also extends to what she calls the carnivalesque performances of women, asserting agency to manoeuver the norms that regulate their lives.

For women, the postwar phase and its alleged modernity entailed visibility and participation in the public spaces albeit with dangers of rejection from the religious community that entwined with nationalism. However, even under the double burden of nationalism and imperialism, it is largely about women’s ability to make claims for recognition in their immediate settings through everyday camouflage actions, emotions, dramatic gestures, and performances. It also confronts the notion of Afghan culture as ‘fixed’ or ‘unchanged’ revealing its dynamics through women’s negotiations that shapes and reshapes it. The fieldwork, unlike classical ethnography, is more of a ‘mobile ethnography’ based on observations and interviews involving multiple locations like local NGOs, family courts, defense attorneys associations, university women’s dormitory, etc. in Kabul. The author mostly focuses on urban middle-class like college students, women MPs, women rights activists who are active and participate in public spaces bringing out the diversity in their lived experiences, subjectivities and agency.

In the first chapter of the book, the author traces the centrality of ‘woman question’ in Afghanistan i.e. how a woman’s body becomes the site of political struggle and agenda for ‘liberation’ or ‘national identity’ from the 1920s till the present. The ‘woman question’ she argues was never mutually exclusive but situated within the power dynamics and complex relationships between religious tradition and western modernity; rural and urban divide; and the tribal and foreign institutions of power. Each regime thus, addressed it in a different way either by unveiling and making woman’s body visible in line with western modernity or veiling and hiding it symbolizing preservation of national identity in ‘traditional’ way. Chapter two highlights how the reconstruction in the postwar period, i.e. post Taliban period, involved the application of imported ideas of freedom, progress, and rationality through economic and cultural programs. The modern state building involved the deployment of positive technologies of power through bureaucratic means of governance more in conformity and appealing to the global discourse of modernity rather than addressing the local concerns. Women’s rights and visibility in public were integral to this reconstruction but a look at the creation and working of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) inferred that it was just a “window dressing” of the new Islamic Republic (p.65) where cultural progress was manifested through bureaucratic rituals of workshops, training, conferences, and campaigns along with professional managerialism of elite women, which reforms-wise was quite detached from the social realities and material needs of ordinary women. Similarly, chapter three unpacks the meaning of gender justice under international supervision that entails the transmission of international standards of practice rather than dealing with complex issues and violence against women contributing further to violence. Here the author questions the distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ means to justice showing how legal institutions vis-à-vis women’s rights often took recourse in informal institutions like family mediation, shuras, and jirgas so as to maintain public legitimacy.

Chapter four and five further talks about contestations between post-war western-modernity and Islam vis-à-vis women with regards to their reception of media, dressing, use of cosmetics and veiling practices, calling attention to women’s agency and the way their bodies become sites of negotiation with respect to both. The author argues that women creatively seek autonomy as well show solidarity to their national community, and in similar ways, they adhere to and contest the notions of western modernity. Talking in detail about the women’s veiling practices she underlines how veiling in different forms like burqa, chadari and headscarves, lets women create an alternative public space to participate in public affairs. The performances of women rather than imposing gender hierarchies improve their possibilities and potentialities. Chapter six talks about women’s resistance that is legitimately expressed via poetry and suicide as a performance of protest. The communicative potential of suicide or attempt to suicide helps women channelize the unaccepted and unheard, questioning gender roles especially of men as protectors and at the same time using the stereotypical feminine tropes of emotionality, uncontrollability, and weakness to resist encompassing the moral order.

The book is an interesting addition to the pool of theoretical literature that concerns feminist issues vis-à-vis the everyday lives and struggles of Muslim women by questioning the universal paradigms of western modernity attempting to ‘save’ them. Taking into account the historical and socio-cultural differences particular to Afghanistan the author argues that postwar reconstruction is not just about development but nationalism as well, and ensuing from imperialism this is more of an ‘anticolonial nationalism’ (p. 208) linked closely with religion. The women here get caught between questions of gender equality within the community, on one hand, vis-à-vis dependency and support from the community on the other, thus shaping modern national culture which solely confirms neither to dictums of west nor Islam.


Aatina Nasir Malik is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute Of Technology, New Delhi-India

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