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.


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How to See

I was invited to speak on Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s 2014 (already seminal) book Memory, Power, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600. It was awarded the 2016 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize at the Association for Asian Studies. Alongside Cynthia Talbot’s The Last Hindu Emperor (2015)– about which I wrote here— and Shahid Amin’s Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (2015), this book represents a significant turn in South Asian studies towards ‘memory studies’ broadly speaking. Due to the travel EO, I chose not to attend the festivities in Toronto but Professor Nile Green (the Chair of the panel) was gracious enough to read my comments. I post here a shortened version for your edification.

Two of the works that were significant in my own intellectual formation belong to Phillip Wagoner and to Richard Eaton. Wagoner’s Tidings of the King: A Translation and Ethnohistorical Analysis of Rāyavācakamu (1999) taught me the invaluable lesson that historical texts can pretend a pre-textual history as its own– and that any prima facie reading of such texts can compound historiographic errors over generations. Wagoner’s effort in re-situating Rāyavācakamu as an early-seventeenth century text, as opposed to it’s own claim to be an early sixteenth century text, and in thinking about the genre as a source of historical emplotment, gave me a method to interrogate my primary concern– a thirteenth century Persian text claiming to be a translation of an eighth century Arabic work– anew. Eaton’s landmark study Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India (1978) was itself methodologically innovative in considering texts emerging from within or about Sufi households alongside legal declarations and historical narratives. In my own research on thirteenth century Sindh, I was guided by Eaton’s example of creating a social network for a distant past by tracing textual and material networks that continuously cross borders enacted by historical or historiographic sensibilities.

I want to start with this particular perspective– of thinking about method for studying Indian medieval pasts. It is my contention that Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (2014) invocation and use of “Memory” begins from their methodology of walking the secondary regional centers to compile their GIS maps. In effect, walking provided the means with which the authors ‘see’ the landscape– both in its contemporary form and in its historical context.
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Gentle Readers,

My op-ed in NYT on the recent FATA/administrative developments that connects the history of spatial politics and territorial otherness.

The nearly 40-year war in Afghanistan has produced its own idea of the “tribal” in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas — one that took the British colonial emphasis on “Pashtun” militancy and layered on top the American enemy, the Afghan Taliban. The Tribal Areas went from being a base for Pakistan and American military operations against Soviet troops to a platform for Taliban militancy against the United States and Pakistan. Deemed a geography outside the laws of the nation, the Tribal Areas were found by both the militant and the anti-militant forces a region where violence could be meted out with little regard to its inhabitants.

Pakistan has kept the frontiers in place, legally and spatially. Continuing the colonial practices, the president of Pakistan appoints a “political agent” in the Tribal Areas to keep power centralized. The political agent is the sole arbiter of law and order and one without any responsibility toward the people. The ethnic stereotyping and animosity has deliberately deprived the Tribal Areas of schools and hospitals. The war on terrorism has instead turned it into a landscape covered in police and surveillance stations.

Teach-in on Disappeared Activists in Pakistan

Disappeared: The word does not directly refer back to the person who’s vanished, or at least, doesn’t entirely capture her experience. The disappeared knows where she is during her disappearance, even as she knows that they are displaced. In the case of state-enforced disappearances, the state denies any knowledge of their whereabouts. Poof! Vanished! She’s disappeared to others: loved ones, family, friends, and comrades. Her absence leaves behind a cavity, a question mark, and a world made incomplete in one blow.
I do not disappear to myself. I disappear to others. They notice that I am gone–or so I hope. I hope that they will respond to the cavity I left behind as I was violently extracted from amidst them, that they will raise hell, that I will be missed, remembered, that my memory will live on (if only for a while), that I will leave behind a trace, that I might die but it won’t be a social death.

One of the words for ‘disappeared’ is ghayab: absent. Remembering and witnessing is an act of making present those who are made to be absent.


Given below are the remarks by three of the panelists at the teach-in on Pakistan’s disappeared activists/bloggers (who have since been returned) that took place at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor on January 16, 2017. The teach-in was organized by South Asia Solidarity in Michigan (SASMi), and sponsored and hosted by the Center for South Asian Studies. At the teach-in, the panelists provided an overview of the specific cases of the five disappeared activists/bloggers. They addressed the broader trend of enforced disappearances of people in Pakistan and the victimization of political activists, placing the trend in a global context of repression of dissent. They discussed the history of state-civil society relations in Pakistan, and focused on what the disappearances and securitization of cyber-spaces meant for intellectual and political freedom in Pakistan and elsewhere. The teach-in ended with an open discussion of practical ways of furthering our solidarity politics in these troubled times across the globe.

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