[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Syeda Masood for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII.]
Julie Billaud is an anthropologist working on Afghanistan, Islam, gender, international governance and human rights. She is the author of Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
1. You open the book with a quote from Bakhtin and his idea of the carnival informs your book in a big way. How did you come across Bakhtin’s theory and what compelled you to frame your book largely through his theoretical lens?
Before studying anthropology in the UK, I studied contemporary literature in France and I came across Bakhtin’s theory of language and his work on the social nature of speech in this context. It is only later on, when I started studying for my PhD, that a Mexican anthropologist and friend of mine introduced me to his writings on Rabelais and his reflections on the ambiguous and subversive potential of the carnival. Reading this text was enlightening, as it enabled me to draw similarities between the medieval carnival and the context of ‘postwar reconstruction’ in Afghanistan. Indeed, the so-called ‘transition’ is in my opinion better described as a state of liminality comparable to the one found in a carnival where the new and the old merge in unexpected ways. The joyous atmosphere of the carnival put aside, the ‘postwar/reconstruction’ carnival in Afghanistan is a moment when rules are turned upside down and when new imaginaries can emerge. For instance, the downfall of the Taliban has opened some room for free speech and for women to take part in politics; developments that could at first sight be perceived as a radical reversal of the old order. Yet these reforms have been carried out while former mujahidin and warlords responsible for major crimes and human rights violations have been brought back to power with the support of the international community. Besides deepening a sense of uncertainty experienced by the Afghan people, these contradictions are a source of intense social tensions between conflicting visions for the future of the country. Furthermore, this state of uncertainty forces Afghans to play roles and to constantly adapt their performances according to different situations. It is not the first time that Afghans are forced to engage in a play whose scenario has been written for them by others. Indeed, this ‘frame’ (to use Gregory Bateson’s notion) which powerfully impacts on people’s behaviors, creating spaces and interactions which are ‘set apart’ and understood to operate according to different rules, was also a feature of the Russian occupation of the country. Bakhtin, who wrote on the carnival in a context where communication was perceived as a threat to power, has developed an intimate knowledge of the necessarily ambiguous nature of transcripts in such environments. In the same way as James Scott understood the difficulty for subordinates to speak their minds in the presence of power, Bakhtin was deeply aware – as a witness of the Stalinist purges and as an intellectual who had been banished from the center of official Soviet culture – of the conditions of possibility for dissent to be expressed. Scott uses the notion of ‘hidden transcripts’ to characterize the critique of power that goes on offstage, behind the back of the powerful. I personally find Bakhtin’s reflection on the centrifugal force of popular culture, promoting ambivalence and allowing openness and transgression, slightly more compelling than Scott’s ‘public/hidden’ transcripts dichotomy.
2. You touch upon many themes and highlight several tensions that your interlocutors were living with like gender as self and performance, nation and occupation and freedom and constraints. What would you say is your main argument in this book?
In writing Kabul Carnival, my intention was to provide a historically, politically and culturally situated representation of ‘Afghan women’. The argument I make in this book is that the political category ‘woman’ in Afghanistan is the result of a long history of interventions in the region, which have often been legitimated by the need for white men ‘to save brown women from brown men’, to use Gayatri Spivak’s expression. These orientalist representations of Afghan women as oppressed ‘others’ have been reactivated in the post 9/11 context to legitimize the occupation of the country and the various reforms imposed on the Afghan polity. Because of the disconnect that currently exists between the liberal ideology accompanying so-called ‘reconstruction’ efforts and the harsh material reality of life under foreign occupation, the international community’s agenda for ‘gender justice’ has the paradoxical effect of triggering identitarian reactions and nationalist feelings which deeply constrain women’s capacity to speak. Indeed, the eruption of moral panics framed in terms of ‘moral pollution’ is very much related to the presence of NGOs, international organizations and military troops whose agenda and actions remain doubtful for the majority of people. Like in other colonial encounters, women are the symbolic terrain upon which a cultural battle between different versions of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ is being fought. The book provides ethnographic illustrations of the dilemmas faced by ordinary (and less ordinary) women in their quest for a culturally legitimate voice and of the various cultural repertoires they mobilize in their everyday interactions. Moving away from representations of women as powerless victims, the book is an attempt to reveal their extreme resourcefulness and ingenuity even in the most precarious circumstances. More generally, the book is a plea to acknowledge the wounded relationships between Afghanistan and ‘the West’ and the unforeseen consequences these may have, not only for gender relations but also for the country’s political destiny.