XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud

[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: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII.]

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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).

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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.

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XQs VIII: A Conversation with Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande

 

[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 Yogesh Chandrani for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVI, VII.]

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Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande teaches comparative politics at Temple University’s Department of Political Science and was previously assistant professor of politics at the University of Mumbai. Her book, Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002, examines the forced displacement of Muslim communities of Gujarat due to the pogrom of 2002. In the aftermath of the violence, the Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat represented the state as a model of good governance. In the book, Lokhande draws on extensive field research and government documents to examine the politics of forced migration and relief and rehabilitation in order to interrogate the neoliberal state in India.

(Interview conducted by Yogesh Chandrani, September 2016 – January 2017).

1. Can you describe how you came to this project and the central questions that inform your inquiry?

The research for this book grew out of my doctoral studies at the Center for Political Studies, JNU where I was initially interested in the category of internally displaced persons in India and I was advised to focus on Gujarat. The central question that I began with and that is at the heart of the book is: how does displacement affect the experience of citizenship rights in a democratic setup where there is no evident large scale or regime changing conflict but where the democratic processes continue and such events are seen as aberrations. In Gujarat for instance the debate went from violence to good governance and that is what the book engages with. Continue reading “XQs VIII: A Conversation with Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande”

XQs VII: A Conversation with Sarah Besky

[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. Interview conducted by Patwari via e-mail. Previously: IIIIIIIVV, VI.]

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Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.

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1. Let’s start with the title of the book, The Darjeeling Distinction. What is the significance of this title?

Darjeeling is often represented as distinct—a place apart from the rest of India, and tea unlike (and better tasting than) other teas. Darjeeling tea is known for its smoky, muscatel taste. It is not drunk with milk or sugar. It is one of the few teas on the market whose name is also the name of a place. The Nepalis, or Gorkhas, who constitute Darjeeling’s majority population, are often portrayed as internal others within India. They have built a longstanding movement for subnational autonomy. Their claims for a separate state of Gorkhaland are largely based on their shared sense of ancestral attachment to the place. (Meanwhile, the plantations on which many Gorkhas live serve as the pastoral backdrops for Bollywood musical asides–when the budget does not allow for a trip to Switzerland). With the book, I wanted to critically examine Darjeeling, as place and product, in national and international imaginaries. The book examines the linkages between geographical and consumptive distinction, but it also looks at the ways in which the plantation, as a productive form, remains exceptional.   In it, I critically engage Darjeeling’s multivalent distinctiveness, where it comes from, how it is perpetuated, and what it means for Gorkha belonging. Continue reading “XQs VII: A Conversation with Sarah Besky”

XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur

[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 Tariq Rahman for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIV, V.]

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unnamedNayanika Mathur is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has studied at the Universities of Delhi and Cambridge and has held research fellowships awarded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge. Her book, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

Tariq Rahman is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests broadly include real estate, financialization, development, the state, genealogy, and Pakistan.

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  1. Please explain the significance of your book’s title, Paper Tiger.

Continue reading “XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur”