Art, Geopolitics, and Gendering in Afghanistan: Part 1

Art, Geopolitics, and Gendering in Afghanistan

This piece is the first part engaging with my doctoral research on the geopolitics of Afghan-ized visual knowledge production across the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.  It examines the potential of visual arts to represent the diversity of Afghan embodied experiences. I am writing in times when women in blue burqas (chadari in Dari) have become the reductionist epitome for the image and idea of women in Afghanistan. The topos of “Afghan women” (again, the image of the women in the chadari appears) gains access to audiences in NATO member states through media coverage and popular culture. However, the women in the chadari are one of many realities of Afghanistan. Depicting stories by sensationalising women skating, rapping, and painting subtly attempt to justify the on-going need for presence of the US-led NATO mission for the “War against Terror” in a region which has been legally secured with the Bilateral Security Agreement since January 1, 2015. Scholarly engagements with the mis/representations of “Afghan women” provide in-depth examinations of the way images of “Afghan women” are gendered and used to promote a particular political agenda. However, these critical endeavours rarely go beyond the dissecting symbolic and institutional discourse.

The goal of this series is to promote a South-South conversation and complicate the gendering of art in Afghanistan by looking at the exchange of visual information in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Part 1

Contemporary women artists in Afghanistan received wide attention through the reconstruction of the Afghan nation-state in the years proceeding the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Since 2001, foreign investments, NGOs, and aid organisations have developed Kabul into a transnational space in which women are “key sites".  They serve as objectified mannequins to showcase Western nation-state-building processes as the judicial, socio-political and economic model of justice. The military invasion and on-going ‘colonial presence’ in Afghanistan was framed by the mission to rescue ‘Afghan women’ and ‘girls’” from the repression of the Taliban, not just in political and legal actions, but also influencing cultural practices. The international presence in Kabul ensured an audience and funding to promote not just cultural production, but particularly contemporary art made by women.  The art produced is made in an era which is known in national, regional, and international discourses for the destruction of artwork.

Women artists working on ‘women’s rights, children, peace or attempts at countering violence, drugs and corruption’ have higher chances of being financially supported by donors from NATO member states.

The state building process creates predicaments of legitimacy and “multiple tensions between local and global players”, who have quite different ideas of what this process should look like. The “global war on terror is ‘one of the central modalities’ of contemporary politics" and governance that began in the colonial past.  In this geopolitical scenario, Rahraw Omerzad, artist, curator, and former lecturer at Kabul University, founded the Centre Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA), the first space for contemporary art in Kabul. He opened this space, primarily for women, in 2004 with 200 women members and funding from the Goethe Institute in Kabul. In 2008, the CCAA organised the first “Female Painting and Modern Painting Exhibition” in Afghanistan, funded by Women of the World.  The artists were between 16-25 years old, female, and without formal art education. The works of the emerging young artists engaged with the experience of geopolitics: traumas of war and conflict, repression, fear, and hope. These topics go beyond representing the artists’ experience, but also what the funders expected to see: misery and gender-based violence.  Women artists working on “women’s rights, children, peace or attempts at countering violence, drugs and corruption” have higher chances of being financially supported by donors from NATO member states. The textual and visual work of Afghan-American artist and scholar Amanullah Mojadidi shows that engagements with the blue chadari or the use of graffiti – a rather unconventional, hip, and revolutionary art form – is co-opted or instrumentalised by Western governments and donors.

The foundation Turquoise Mountain, established in 2006 by Scottish politician Rory Stewart, started its activities by reconstructing large parts of Kabul’s old city, Murad Khaneh, and re-establishing traditional forms of craft and artisanal production. In 2008, the foundation offered “The Afghan Contemporary Art Prize.” Jurors shortlisted a number of students and artists who were then invited to workshops with Euro-American photographers and freelance scholars. While these workshops taught important skills and techniques, art investigating chadari-wearing female figures became a main focus, further demonstrating the embedded visual vocabulary of imperial powers.

Geopolitical tensions and ideologies are played out in such artistic spaces in Kabul, and are informed by colonialist legacies.

The sensationalization of this art by Westerners does no justice to the numerous gendered, racialized, sectarian, and classist urban experiences of Afghan artists and art students who are born and raised in the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, regardless of where they studied. Neither does it take into consideration the interwoven geopolitical context in which artwork evolves. There is an active and growing art scene in Kabul, which simultaneously includes a strain of competition, hostility, and accusations towards particularly female artists, as will be described below. These geopolitical tensions and ideologies are played out in such artistic spaces in Kabul, and are informed by colonialist legacies.

Scholarship on women in Afghanistan tends to universalise the women in Afghanistan into a singular group of oppressed “Afghan women.” Yes, women continue to be in a vulnerable position due to gendered discrimination and sexual violence, despite legally integrating women into the political system of Afghanistan with a new constitution in 2004.  But although there has been extensive research which highlights the livelihoods of women in Afghanistan since the Saur Revolution in 1978, few scholars have engaged with the deconstruction of the “Afghan women” beyond their representation in pop-culture, media, literature, and international organisations.

Rostami-Povey has initiated a shift of focus from the deconstruction of Afghan women as mere victims to a gender-aware and empirical examination of women’s power potential in Afghanistan.

To challenge this problem, postcolonial feminist Kandiyoti has critically examined the relationship between international and customary law and its influence on women’s lives in Afghanistan, particularly in the aftermath of the US invasion. Rostami-Povey has initiated a shift of focus from the deconstruction of Afghan women as mere victims to a gender-aware and empirical examination of women’s power potential in Afghanistan. Gender matters, but engaging in critical research needs the acknowledgement that gendering is not just about crystallizing violence against women, but rather the power relations in which women’s sexuality in relation to men determines their place in the social hierarchy. Sexualized bodies are always at risk of subjugation by the decision- and policy-making processes of ruling elites.

Suggesting that “Art is a Process,” as the performance artist and writer Esha Sadr (2016) argues, how can gender-sensitive approaches to art production in Afghanistan consider the following: first, how socio-political knowledge in insecure contemporary urban spaces will inform art; second, to what extent art is a legacy of colonialist invasions; and thirdly, how regional sectarian and ethnic battles have normalized conflict in many geographies of the global South. Complementing postcolonial feminists discussions, the politicization of epistemology is crucial for critical Afghanistan studies.  Hanfi attempts to “re-think” colonial history and correct the epistemic violence that has shaped perceptions of Afghanistan.  Such perceptions were formed as a “British colonial construction in both material and ideological terms." Hanifi points to how Western knowledge plays a significant part in the continuance of colonial tactics which were successful in part due to local elites’ cooperation. His approach can be read as complementary to second wave feminists’ and feminist geographers’ call to “situated knowledges."

Reclaiming and locating knowledge is crucial in order to deconstruct a colonial construction of the past and examine its legacies in the present. A critical feminist geopolitics should not just be “about putting together the quiet, even silenced, narratives of violence and loss." It needs to consider different conditions of artistic knowledge production, shaped by access to certain stories and history to which some researchers might have little or no access to due to their nationality, language skills, race, or gender. This line of questioning does not make social settings less complex, but in fact complicates it further.  The power of dominant knowledge becomes clear, as does an understanding of how it shapes representations of women in Afghanistan and impacts their everyday lived experience.


Paniz Musawi Natanzi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies in SOAS and has a forthcoming book chapter to be published by Hurst & Co and Columbia University Press this year.