Maliha Chishti

The Pull to the Liberal Public: Gender, Orientalism, and Peace Building in Afghanistan

Abstract: Orientalist and liberal-modernist underpinnings of postconflict gender programming in Afghanistan narrowly construct Afghan women’s rights and freedoms, moving them away from the traditional domestic sphere (reliance on religious and cultural worldviews, local institutions, and informal markets) and toward a distinct path of Western liberal (colonial) modernity, focusing on women’s public roles, formal political participation, state-centric legal rights, and neoliberal market participation. This liberal-modernist bias has meant that the women’s rights agenda is bound to the few contested, hypermilitarized, and politically fragile pockets of liberal publics that are unevenly dispersed across the country and that have limited accessibility for most women. The pull to the masculine-militarized liberal publics is juxtaposed against an Orientalist framing of a stiflingly traditional society from which Afghan women are expected to flee simply because emancipatory possibilities are deemed impossible within it. This article argues that countless rural and urban women are, for many reasons, unable to or lack the desire to enter the liberal public and may not even have the choice or desire to retreat from the interpenetrating spaces of customs, values, traditions, culture, and religion. In failing to account for the complexities of women’s lives, gender programming has failed to offer a broad-based, inclusive, or flexible approach to women’s rights and gender relations.

Journal of Women in Culture and Society

The University of Chicago