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.]


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.


3. Given the draw-down of American troops in 2014 and a drop in US financial support to Afghanistan starting around that time as well, resulting in what many claimed as the bursting of the “Ka-Bubble”, do you think the carnival has ended or just shifted and changed? You elude to the later in your conclusion. In what ways has the carnival continued and what ways has it shifted and changed?

In spite of the lighter international ‘footprint’ in Afghanistan since 2014, the carnival continues in the sense that state sovereignty remains extremely fuzzy. The central government is not able to control the territory. ISIS has joined the resistance movement organized by the various Taliban and rebel groups. Many Afghans feel like the 2014 Presidential elections primarily served to support the liberal ideology of ‘political freedom’ for Western audience instead of triggering tangible change for Afghans. The fact that many Afghans continue to undertake perilous journeys to seek asylum in Europe and elsewhere is a clear illustration of their incapacity to imagine a secure future for themselves and their families. Even though it is unlikely that such movements of population will stop in the near future, the EU continues to use the argument that the country has been rebuilt to justify its deportation of Afghan asylum seekers back to Kabul. The recent rule set by the British Home Office according to which gay Afghans can be deported back to Kabul as their lives are not endangered if they simply ‘pretend to be straight’ is another illustration of the carnivalesque relationship that binds Afghans with the rest of the world. Indeed, if there is certainly no room to publicly ‘come out’ as a gay person in Afghanistan and therefore no possibility for anyone to be anything else but ‘straight’, the knowledge Afghans have for such a possibility to exist in the West is not sufficient for them to be perceived as credible when making such claims. This double bind of having to embrace the liberal narrative of freedom while being prevented from seeking its rewards is to me a powerful illustration of the fundamentally illusive nature of the ‘transition toward democracy’ in Afghanistan.

4. In your book, you urge us to rethink “the Afghan woman”. You place her within imperial, humanitarian as well as local fields and encourage us to look at their agency. Could you elaborate?

The continuous lack of intersectional analysis in dominant feminist conceptions of women’s emancipation means that such movements tend to exclude certain categories of women. Most Western feminist groups understand emancipation as a journey through modes of resistance that involve a clear break up with ‘patriarchal’ traditions. Black and subaltern feminists have demonstrated that such a conception of emancipation does not take into consideration other forms of exclusion based on race which constrain women of color in specific ways. I think intersectional analysis is particularly useful in the context of Afghanistan because of the colonial dynamics with which Afghan women, like Western women of migrant heritage, are confronted. Indeed, it is possible to draw a parallel between the way the plight of Afghan women has been instrumentalized to rally international support for the military intervention and the obsession of the French authorities with the veil of Algerian women during the colonial period (which continues today under the guise of ‘laïcité’) or the Sati debate in colonial India. In this sense, Afghan women’s lives are under a double occupation: the one of international military troops and the humanitarian machine with its neoliberal ideology and the one of local nationalist discourses that form the emotional glue necessary to reclaim sovereignty. Because women fear the social sanction reserved for those who are considered traitors, they cannot make choices that do not show some level of adherence to the patriarchal norms promoted by nationalism. This does not mean, however, that women are bound to passivity. Rather, their agency has to be placed in this very constraining environment. In other words, caught in the dynamics of identity politics, women’s public performances need to have local cultural resonances in order to be recognized as legitimate.


5. I like that you talk about the US occupation of Afghanistan as a key factor in the shaping of Afghan society but you do not theorize the nature of the occupation itself in the book. Instead you look at the effects of humanitarianism on Afghan women. Humanitarianism is linked to the occupation but also sits separately from it. Would you agree with this assessment? If yes, how would you theorize the nature of American occupation in Afghanistan?

My conceptualization of the occupation of Afghanistan is one that borrows from postcolonial theory to (1) highlight dominant forms of knowledge produced on Afghanistan in general and women in particular and (2) to explore the conditions of possibility of an autonomous feminine voice under conditions of cultural dominations. I therefore conceive the ‘occupation’ as a phenomenon that encompasses both physical military occupation AND an ideological occupation in which NGOs and international organizations participate. Of course, humanitarianism cannot be reduced to ideology. The gap between the values that it seeks to promote and the practices ‘on the ground’ is such that it leaves some room for creative interpretations. Humanitarianism is nevertheless ontologically cultural: it sets a coherent and coordinated plan of interventions that aims to transform the world according to Western models of liberal democracies. With its emphasis on responsibility (R2P) rather than neutrality, today’s humani­tarianism is increasingly enmeshed with governance and security concerns. The hegemonic nature of contemporary humanitarianism is noticeable in the way women’s rights programs in Afghanistan are promoting a vision of the individual (free to chose, detached from communitarian and family responsibilities) that is functional to the corporate market economy.


6. You touch upon the growing class divide in Afghanistan as a result of humanitarian and state-building efforts in the country (127-8). Can you elaborate how class informed the lived experiences of your female interlocutors?  

Only the relatively wealthy upper middle class has had the financial means to flee the country during the various wars in Afghanistan. The experience of migration, now like then, is therefore a class experience. Afghan exiles who returned to Afghanistan after 9/11 with the objective of participating in the ‘reconstruction’ of their country were better placed than their fellow citizens, who had remained in Afghanistan (or in the refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border) during the war, to join state-building and humanitarian efforts. Their command of English as well as their academic markers (degrees etc.) made them preferred candidates on the humanitarian market. Local and international NGOs specializing in gender were particularly eager to recruit young Afghan women and of course those who had lived abroad and could speak English were more easily recruited. But if becoming part of the humanitarian and state-building apparatus was a unique employment opportunity for women, it was also a source of tension that forced women to double their efforts to demonstrate their loyalty to their families, their religion and their ‘culture’. In the book, I use the example of female students boarding at the National Women’s Dormitory in Kabul who had recently returned to Afghanistan and had found part-time jobs in NGOs and on NATO military bases to illustrate the complexity of their new found position within the educated upper-middle class. As much as these young women were proud to climb the social ladder, they were simultaneously eager to be perceived as ‘good Muslim girls’. Their desire to physically appear ‘modern’ while respecting their Muslim faith forced them to engage in other forms of self- discipline in order to maintain status and reputation.


7. Much of the research on Afghanistan is conducted by men. You are part of a small group of women researching the country. How do you think your positionality as a woman provides a different sensibility to the social scientific research on the country? And what do you think are major areas of further research on Afghanistan?

Contrary to certain misconceptions according to which contemporary Afghanistan would be a particularly difficult context for female anthropologists, my experience is that it offers wider possibilities for women researchers. Indeed, as a ‘foreign’ woman, I was able to navigate on both sides of the ‘gender divide’, something that would have been impossible for a male researcher. In addition, the scholarship on Afghanistan, which largely remains ‘male dominated’, tends to focus on formal politics instead of the everyday experience of ordinary Afghans. Women are often left out of the picture or when they are, they tend to be relegated to the status of ‘powerless victims’. My intention in writing Kabul Carnival was to challenge this representation by showing how women of various classes and ethnic origins sometimes intentionally, and most of the time intuitively, struggle to optimize the terms of their recognition in their immediate local lives. Further research on this issue is necessary and now that time has passed, I feel Kabul Carnival only scrapped the surface. I wish the situation in Afghanistan could improve so that I could return. I am particularly fascinated by the recent re-emergence of female literary circles in major Afghan cities. These are sites where women work collectively to preserve and promote their unique feminine voice. Their literary work deserves to be commented upon and published for both an Afghan as well as an international audience. That’s a project I have in mind for the future.

8. Can you recommend five recent works that complement your own?

My scholarship has taken inspiration from the groundbreaking works of feminist scholars in particular Lila Abu-Lughod’s writings on Bedouin women in the Western desert of Egypt; Begona Aretxaga’s ethnography of nationalist women during the civil war in Northern Ireland, Veena Das’ exploration of the gendering of violence in the context of the Indian partition, Gayatri Spivak’s analysis of subaltern voices, Ratna Kapur’s postcolonial interpretation of gender justice, Judith Butler on gender performativity and many others.

I am not sure I can think of five recent books but at least four come to my mind right now: Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety and Lila Abu Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, which are already classics…and then Emma Tarlo’s Visibly Muslims: Fashion, Politics, Faith which came out in 2010. Finally, I would like to mention Françoise Vergès’ last book (available in French only for the moment): Le ventre des femmes: capitalism, racialisation, féminisme.

9. Did your book go through significant changes from your dissertation? Can you talk a little bit about the production of the book itself, from formulating the dissertation research question to the completion of the book itself?

The first thing my editor, Tobias Kelly, told me when I approached him with my proposal is that a good PhD dissertation does not necessarily make a good book. So it took me some time to rethink and revise the text so as to deliver a publishable piece that would appeal to the broadest possible audience while remaining theoretically sophisticated. Fortunately, it was not a lonely experience and I fully enjoyed the process of engaging in vigorous and enriching conversations with my editor and reviewers. There is no doubt that these conversations helped me make the best of the data I had collected. From the very start, I knew the stories I wanted to tell but what was lacking was a strong framework that would bring them together. In other words, I had all the pieces of the patchwork but they needed to be stitched up more tightly together. I finished my PhD in 2010 and the book came out in 2015. During these five years, I started new research projects. I familiarized myself with new literature on international governance, human rights, humanitarianism, Islam and gender. I wrote a few articles. And I also gave birth to my son! I don’t feel I wasted any time. I do not intend to write that many books in my life anyway and I’d rather take all the time that is necessary to mature a text than publish something that I find half satisfactory. In short, I would advise recent PhD graduates to adopt a ‘slow food for thought’ approach, even though current employment patterns in academia tend to compel young scholars to ‘publish or perish’.

10. Is there a connection between the project that resulted in “Kabul Carnival” and your current research projects? If yes, how did your dissertation and resulting book nudge you towards your current project? If it is a complete break, what about your past project encouraged you to work on something entirely unrelated?

My current research projects are a natural (even though not obvious) continuation of my doctoral work in Afghanistan. Kabul Carnival investigates the local reception of human rights, and more specifically women’s rights, from the perspective of actors targeted by transnational projects of gender justice and empowerment. I am now looking at human rights and international law from the perspective of the institutions where such regimes are produced. After the completion of my PhD, I worked together with Jane Cowan on an ethnographic study of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the city where I currently live. We are now in the process of analyzing our data and writing a book that will reveal some of the intricacies, contradictions and unintended effects of this new UN mechanism put in place in 2008 to monitor human rights globally. More recently, I have been hired by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva to study its ‘diplomatic culture’ from an anthropological perspective. This 150-year old historic international organization is a fascinating object of study, notably because of its strong legal culture anchored within the Geneva conventions and its action-oriented ethos derived from its humanitarian mandate. In this sense, the people I encounter at the ICRC are a strange hybrid of humanitarians-in-suits and lawyers-in-trekking-shoes whose work involves as much lobbying states in international fora as bringing aid to the victims of conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Looking at it from a distance, my work seems to direct itself toward following the social life of transnational legal regimes, from the conference rooms of international organizations where treaties and conventions are drafted to the offices of national administrations in charge of ratifying them and to the ‘field’ programs of NGOs responsible for implementing or monitoring them. By following these assemblages of people, technologies and knowledge practices, I am trying to give a human face to these world-reforming institutions that remain largely unknown outside expert circles. I also intend to understand their inconsistencies, the hopes and frustrations they generate as well as the ideologies and values on which they rely.


[Syeda Masood is a PhD student at Brown’s Sociology program. Her dissertation compares the phenomenology of Afghan and Western actors in Afghanistan during the US led war in the country.]