What Does Work Mean to Widows in Afghanistan?

In the context of serial wars, liberal agendas of care are problematic.

Anila Daulatzai

Bakery in Kabul

Daulatzai worked in this widow-run bakery as part of her fieldwork in Kabul. The bakery work program, sponsored by the World Food Programme, exemplifies the neoliberal forms of governance and care proliferating in Afghanistan since 2002. Photo: Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos.

I first met Rehana eighteen months after her husband had left this world, which is how Afghans express that someone has died. Rehana’s husband, Kareem, had been a police cadet at the Afghan National Police Academy. He died in a spectacular suicide bombing in the center of Kabul on June 17, 2007, that took the lives of thirty-five people: ten cadets, thirteen police instructors, a bus driver, and eleven bystanders. The explosion was so powerful it sheared off the roof and the sides of the bus and scattered shards of glass and metal for miles, injuring more than fifty additional bystanders. It was the deadliest attack since the Taliban left Kabul in 2001. Given the magnitude of human loss, and because the attack took place in the heart of the capital city, this suicide bombing made both national and international headlines.

Hamid Karzai, then president, immediately referred to the victims of the attack as shahidan (“martyrs,” in Dari) and announced that the Afghan state would organize and pay for the funerals of the police cadets and instructors killed in the attack. Karzai also promised that a special fund would be created to provide for the families of the shahidan.

I had been in Kabul for two years, conducting fieldwork among widows and their families and also teaching at two universities in Kabul, when, in December 2008, one of my students asked me if I would be willing to volunteer my expertise to assist the Afghan Ministry of Interior (hereafter, MoI) in determining how best to support the families of those killed in the suicide bombing. My student, Jabar, was working for a German NGO that was partnering with the MoI on one of the special programs created to support the families of this particular suicide bombing.

I met with Jabar to discuss the expectations of his NGO as well as those of the MoI: my responsibilities were to visit the widows and their families, administer a survey, review the results, and make recommendations to the MoI as to how the widows could best be supported. My previous work with Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the earlier wars (in the 1990s and early 2000s) and my interactions with Afghans in Kabul during the current war and occupation had made me very sensitive to their unique circumstances. I had witnessed both the buildup of anticipation and hope and the sense of betrayal and disappointment that often followed when institutions were unable to meet the promises their officials had made. So, after my meeting with Jabar, I went to see an administrator in the MoI. I wanted to be certain that I understood the extent of what the state was able and willing to offer to the families before I gave the families any indication that the state would help them.

When I met with the administrator of this particular MoI program, he bluntly instructed me to conduct a survey. I advised him that a survey was perhaps an inappropriate tool to gather the information that was ultimately being sought, and I assured him that I would get the necessary information using more sensitive methods. My insistence on a different approach had to do with my worries for the families in pain and the inappropriateness of a survey in that particular context. But, aside from that, I had been concerned—for a while already—about the remarkably low quality of policy-related research conducted in Afghanistan, resulting in an overreliance on poorly designed surveys. Nevertheless, the administrator insisted on the survey.

After I read the initial questions, I was even more convinced that I could not use the survey, and I tried again to encourage the administrator to allow another approach to obtain the same, if not more useful, information. He continued to insist on the survey, while I began to systematically demonstrate how insensitive the questions were. He became particularly embarrassed by the first question—“When did you become a widow?”—since the exact date and time of the attack were clearly known and, in all likelihood, the women had all become widows at that moment. The administrator eventually capitulated but he stated that, no matter what methods I used, he would need specific information on the kinds of jobs the widows wanted and whether they would be willing to begin work immediately. The survey he had devised included a list of the jobs the widows could choose from: baking bread, making jam, gardening, cleaning/janitorial work at universities, and, if they had the skills, embroidery. “Have them choose which one they want to do,” the MoI administrator told me. Jobs were the objective. Women who were widowed in this suicide attack were finally going to be given some form of assistance, assistance that Karzai himself had promised via presidential decree eighteen months earlier. And the form this care was to take? Jobs for these widows.

My few objectives in this piece are these: First, I want to provide a brief ethnography1 of widowhood in Kabul. My understanding of what it means to be a widow in contemporary Kabul grew out of my friendships with the families who lost loving husbands and friends in this attack on the police cadets in June 2007; but I also owe my understanding to the many widows I met, came to know, and, in many cases, befriended during my four years of anthropological fieldwork in Kabul between 2006 and 2011. Second, I will briefly discuss neoliberalism and neoliberal governance in Kabul, in order to demonstrate how neoliberal patterns of thought work alongside serial war and humanitarianism in ways that produce—and privilege—certain modes of being a widow, while precluding the possibility for others. Thus, this also becomes an account of the shape lives take when they do not easily fit into tired narratives of the current war in Afghanistan, or of the wars that came to Afghanistan before 2001. Finally, I hope this brief piece may serve as an account, not only of unremitting struggle, of exhaustion, pain, and humiliation, but of patience, endurance, and grace; and that it may remind us about those discourses that obscure ethical obligations to address and duly acknowledge liability for the harm caused.

Zakat is the obligatory money—a percentage of income—that Muslims give as an act of worship. In Islam, widows fall under the category of rightful or deserving recipients of zakat.

To avoid potential confusion over my use of specific terms, I will briefly define how I employ these words. Since one of my goals is to demonstrate how policies of neoliberalism are at play in Afghanistan, I should briefly share my understanding of neoliberalism and how I use it here. In my view, David Harvey provides the most productive definition: “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”2 Harvey also references Paul Treanor, who writes: “. . . neoliberalism is not simply an economic structure, it is a philosophy. This is most visible in attitudes to society, the individual and employment. . . . The idea of employability is characteristically neoliberal. It means that neoliberals see it as a moral duty of human beings, to arrange their lives to maximise their advantage on the labour market. . . . [It is] an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs.” Moreover, Treanor also says that “the general neoliberal vision is that every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such.”3

I do not use the word “liberalism” (or “liberal”) to refer to a political position (or to one who espouses such a position) that is in opposition to conservatism. Instead, “liberalism,” as I use it, indicates the attitudes manifest in many instances of feminism or secularism, or by those who take on political positions they identify as left, radical, or anarchist, as well. Liberalism thus takes on many forms, but can best be recognized as thought or practice that reveres individual equality and freedom without concern for material equalities or, more precisely, inequalities.4

I use the word “serial” throughout this piece to recalibrate understandings of contemporary Afghanistan that seem to focus only on the current war in Afghanistan or that only emphasize the suffering of women at the hands of the Taliban. Thus, when I speak of serial wars, I include the thirteen-year war and occupation still underway in Afghanistan (2001–present), the five years of Taliban rule (1996–2001), what I refer to as the Kabul wars (1992–1996), and the ten years of Soviet occupation (1979–1989). In so doing, I hope to emphasize the durational quality of thirty-five years of war in the lives of Afghans.

Zakat is the obligatory money—a percentage of income—that Muslims give as an act of worship. This money is redistributed to those facing hardship. In Islam, widows fall under the category of rightful or deserving recipients of zakat. In addition to zakat, Muslims are encouraged to offer sadaqa (voluntary) care to widows and orphans in whatever way possible. Many Islamic states, such as Pakistan, collect zakat from their Muslim citizens and redistribute it to those entitled to receive it. In Afghanistan, except for a brief period between 1880 and 1901, zakat was never regulated by the state. During Taliban rule, attempts to systematically collect zakat were made in certain areas of Afghanistan. However, after the fall of the Taliban, President Karzai issued a decree specifying that zakat was a personal matter and that Afghans needed to manage their moral obligations to the needy on their own. Zakat is an institution that is familiar to Afghans, and they know it as something they can, potentially, depend on.

I was given a list with the names of the “martyrs”5 and their “addresses” to start my work on the MoI project. More precisely, it was a list of the districts in Kabul where their homes were located and descriptions to help identify each house (for example: next to the bakery with a green door; facing the cemetery and next to the kite shop; find shopkeeper Abdullah at the corner general store and he will escort you to the front door). Everyone in each neighborhood knew where the widows and orphans of this suicide attack lived; in general, in any district in Kabul, most everyone knows the houses where widows and orphans reside.

I walked into the courtyard and was met by Rehana’s father-in-law, Kareem’s father. I introduced myself by telling him that I was there to speak to the widow of Kareem, to see how she was and to learn about her life since she lost her husband. He led me inside the house, where first I met his wife. I sat down on the floor cushions with her and a young child of about five years old, Kareem’s nephew, Rasheed. As I sat talking with the mother, the father went to summon Rehana. Meanwhile, Rasheed got up and returned seconds later with a framed copy of Kareem’s official police photo. Kareem’s mother held the picture to her chest and began wailing. Rasheed started crying. Rehana, a shy girl of nineteen years, entered the room. She had married Kareem when she was seventeen, and she was pregnant with their first child when he was killed. The baby was asleep in the next room.

As Rehana sat down with me and her mother-in-law, her father-in-law asked if he could sit with us.6 Then, for more than three hours they told me, through their tears, about the kind of person Kareem was—the dreams he had, the jokes he told. As they shared the life of this young man with me, they repeatedly said it was the will of Allah that he was no longer in this world. Although they knew this was the work of Allah and accepted it, they could not reconcile how to make a life without seeing him every day. They told me that they had not gotten through one single day since the attack without sitting and crying together, as they were then, with me.

Eventually, I asked Rehana how she could be helped. She asked what I meant. I told her that I had been asked to see what kind of help the widows of the police cadets wanted, and needed. She asked me to keep her and her child and family in my duas (prayers).

“What else?” I asked.

When I had first arrived at the house, I had made it very clear that I did not work for the state but had come to help her figure out how the state could assist her.7 The family told me that they were utterly exhausted from trying to get any of the compensation promised them during the past eighteen months. They were surprised that the state was now interested in helping Rehana.

“What help do they want to give me?” she asked.

“Work . . . they want to give you work, and they ask what job you want to do.”

The otherwise shy Rehana looked at me and vehemently repeated: “A job? That is how they want to help me? By getting me a job? I don’t want a job. I want to care for my son, and be with my family. I don’t want a job. This pain, struggle to get through a day, this is enough work. I cannot do more work than this.”

I had realized before the words left my mouth how absurd it was to convey the offer of a job to her. I was ashamed as I thought of the times during my fieldwork of the previous two years—standing in line with widows at distribution sites throughout the city of Kabul as they received their monthly rations, or sitting on the streets of Kabul with widows who were seeking alms from passing cars—when I had myself wondered why these women did not prefer to work, relying instead on the obligations of care from fellow Muslims, strangers and family alike. Would getting a job not be a more dignified way to navigate life as a widow in Kabul? It was only as I sat with Rehana and her in-laws that I realized how inappropriate it was for me to think that waged work would somehow “rescue” widows from this “dependence,” which is inherent in their haqq (right, entitlement) to be cared for by others.

During the course of that month, I eventually met with twenty-seven of the thirty-one families on my list. As I went from house to house, the women who were widowed in this attack (and their families) all expressed their dismay that the only offer of assistance from the state was a job. After visiting all but four families, I went back to the MoI and tried to convince the administrators to consider another form of assistance. They made it clear to me that they could not change the terms of the assistance. They explained that the reason it took so long (eighteen months after the bomb blast) to get any kind of help in the first place was that they were waiting on a funding line for a program that could help the women who were widowed in the attack. The German NGO funding the initiative through the MoI was beginning a gender empowerment program, and the MoI administrators saw this as an opportunity to include the widows in that initiative by prioritizing them—empowering these women by getting them jobs.

Every Afghan family I met had widows in their homes. Afghans across the political spectrum, across class, take the obligation for the care of widows very much to heart.

In the context of this international occupation, it is the agenda of donors that ultimately governs the thinking behind the practices of the Afghan state (per very specific criteria that will either enable or disable funding mechanisms). In fact, it was not at all unusual for this program aiming to support the widows to be primarily a gender empowerment program. A substantial amount of the billions of dollars of development aid that has poured into Afghanistan has come in the form of programs targeting gender—which in itself would not preclude the inclusion of males, but in a post-Taliban Kabul, these programs were specified as for women only. Lest we forget: the war in Afghanistan was explained by the United States–led coalition as a “necessary” or “just” war that would save the women of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. In essence, the act of war was framed as an act of care for the women of Afghanistan.

The MoI administrators, and my student Jabar as well, were exasperated that the widows did not want to work. All my meetings with them began with, “We Afghans have become lazy.” The MoI administrators asked: “Why do they not want to work? Do they want to be dependent on charity their whole lives?” Jabar put it this way: “Who do they think they are? They want to be cared for and dependent on others? This is the problem of Afghanistan, everyone just wants charity.” Jabar’s questions were rhetorical; nevertheless, I tried to defend the position of the widows and their inherent right within Islam to receive aid and that it should not be understood as charity. His reply was clear: “It is not about their haqq, it is about the programs that the MoI and the German government are creating for them, and they need to work. They need to work to build this country, and it is their duty not to be dependent and lazy. There is no other option for them.” When I also asked about the request the widows made to have jobs provided for their sons or for other male family members, the reply was unequivocal: “No. This is part of a gender program, and it is only for the widows themselves, for the widows themselves to work, not their sons or whomever they want. Besides, their sons should be working anyway.”

Jabar’s response was particularly unexpected, as his own mother was a widow. He would not be swayed from his position, even when I asked him, “When your father left this world, if you had been only three or four (and therefore too young to work), would you have wanted your mother to work?” His reply was simple: “Shukr alhamdilallah [Thanks be to God], when my father left this world I was not four, I was eight years old, and I managed everything so that my mother never had to work [outside of the house] a day in her life.” Both Jabar and the MoI administrators summoned the rather historically inaccurate cliché—often used by Afghans—of Afghanistan as independent and unconquerable. “We are Afghans, we are not beggars. It is not the Afghan way to be dependent on others.”

Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002.

Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002. Photo: Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos.

As part of the fieldwork that I undertook before I met the widows of this particular suicide attack, I sat with women on the streets of Kabul as they asked passing cars for help. The women would simply say “zan e bewah” (widow, in Dari). Most of the cars’ occupants would give some money as soon as those words, “zan e bewah,” were uttered. I often found myself chasing after cars to ask those who gave money why they had done so. Most of the answers these commuters gave went something like this: “We are Afghans, we know what it means to lose in war, sometimes smaller things like property, our ability to work in our own country, the ground beneath our feet. But to be a widow means you lost more than the ground, more than a job and the widows on this street remind me of that every day.” I also came to learn that a few of the women I sat with in the streets were not even widows, yet they presented themselves as such. Thus, I came to understand that widowhood in Kabul is a form of social currency. By uttering “zan e bewah,” these women were more likely to get help. This is the reality after thirty-five years of serial war. Every Afghan family I met had widows in their homes. In some families, every single female, from the age of sixteen to sixty-seven, was widowed, some serially—meaning they had remarried, only to be widowed again. Afghans across the political spectrum, across class, take the obligation for the care of widows very much to heart.

One of my tasks as an anthropologist in the space of contemporary Kabul is to try to make some sense of this. What is the work that work does in the lives of widows? How do the development agendas of neoliberalism aim to restructure patterns of thought and practice in ways that are inconsistent with other systems of moral economy, such as the ethic of caring for widows and orphans that is rooted in Islam? How is it that these same neoliberal agendas, inconsistent in some ways, still resonate in other ways with the deep resentment Afghans have over being made perpetually dependent upon the agendas of others? Finally—the elephant in the room—since my hope is that we are all working toward the elimination of discrimination of women everywhere, why do I have a problem (which Rehana and other widows have taught me I have) with the fact that the only form of formal care widows are receiving from the Afghan state (as mandated by international donors) is that they are being asked to choose jobs? Where is women’s agency, the empowerment of women, if women do not think they necessarily need a job to have agency? What potential harm ensues when Afghans, and widows in particular, are being sold the neoliberal dream—the doctrine of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” being self-sufficient and responsible for your own success or failure—in a space and place currently and historically beset by wars that have come from elsewhere?

By questioning the measure of putting Afghan women to work as the primary way to gauge the success of the current war and occupation, I want to shift the focus onto the ordinary ethics of women like Rehana, women who were widowed in this particular suicide attack and elsewhere, in order to articulate the quiet, everyday ways Afghans pursue their ethical aspirations of endurance in the face of often utterly exhausting circumstances. Many, with perfectly good intentions, may want to believe that the best thing to come out of the ongoing thirteen-year war—itself justified under the premise of liberating Afghan women—is for Afghan women to be working, to be part of a wage-earning labor force. Though this topic deserves more, I would like, briefly, to situate such a well-intentioned sentiment within a broader understanding of the landscape of experiences that constitute everyday life for Afghans and give it some historical context. Afghans have been subjected to thirty-five years of war, including three occupations: the Soviet empire (1979–1989); the Taliban (which must be considered to a certain extent a foreign regime, since it was a movement engineered by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan); and the US-led NATO forces (2001–present). Much like Kareem’s family, Afghans have lost loved ones during each chapter of war and occupation. Through my work I try to encourage alternate ways of understanding empowerment and agency, to recognize that these hold much more than the limited definitions we may use in our imaginings about the experiences of Afghan families, or Afghan women in particular. Afghans have learned to endure uncertainty, pain, suffering, and humiliation. I am quite certain that none of us has done enough to fully understand what Afghans, collectively and individually, have experienced and endured.8 How have Afghans learned to live sanely in a world they have come to know, ultimately, as a painful one?9 What are the quiet ways Afghans, both men and women, have navigated loss and pain, and how have they learned both sane and insane modes of living lives that are adequate enough for this world?10 Surely such navigations in the pursuit of a livable life have and do require agency, as well as an active will to endure.

The war in Afghanistan has been presented as an act of care; I hope through my work to unsettle liberal imaginations of what it may mean to care.

I conclude with two notes of circumspection. First, I hope that what I have shared here is not perceived as saying that all development and international aid for Afghanistan in the past thirteen years was done all wrong, and that if only this aid had taken into account Afghan culture, everything would be fine. This is not the point I am trying to make here, even though a certain lack of cultural sensibilities can easily be demonstrated. My concern is rather with looking not only at how Afghan lives have been disrupted by serial war, but also at how ways of life are disabled or dismantled through serial humanitarianism. The war in Afghanistan has been presented as an act of care; I hope through my work to unsettle liberal imaginations of what it may mean to care. In the case of Afghanistan, it is just such liberal ideas of care that enabled the possibility of waging war on a people to be justified in the first place—as an act of care. Furthermore, as I have also tried to demonstrate, neoliberal moral economies privileging the individual as self-sufficient are eclipsing moral economies rooted in notions of the self as constituted through social relations, that is, a self not simply limited to an individual, but a self suspended in forms of relatedness and obligations within a collective mode of social belonging.

Second, there is a body of scholarly literature which holds that, in times of war and conflict, as state institutions disintegrate, people fall back on kinship as the primary structure for support and care. Yet, this is not what I am arguing here, and neither do I want to imply that in prewar Afghanistan zakat and dependence on kinship and community networks were stable and ideal forms of care and support. There is robust anthropological research, in addition to my own, which demonstrates that kinship can be as much about betrayal as it is about loyalty. That is, in my investigations into the everyday ways that serial wars, occupations, and humanitarianism have complicated obligations of care, I attend closely to the fact that kinship itself is complicated and is not always performed in ways that are nurturing and supportive.

To avoid these two possible misreadings, I situate my work with anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s research among aboriginal populations in Australia. Povinelli compels us to examine alternative forms of social belonging, vulnerability, and endurance alongside neoliberal forms of governance:

People may be bracketed by liberal procedures for proceeding in the face of alternative social projects and worlds, but these brackets do not vaporize them. Those within these brackets hear the same call for patience as those without. They are just differently positioned to this call. Large groups of people may be, as Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in another context, consigned to the “imaginary waiting room of history.” But they are living within these waiting rooms, whether one wishes they would or not. . . . From the perspective of dominant worlds, the condition in which they endure has the temporal structure of limbo—an edge of life located somewhere between given and new social positions and roles, and between the conditions of the past and present and the promise of the future.11

 I want to reiterate here what Povinelli refers to as “the promise of the future”—a promise, yet of an unattainable future embedded in a neoliberal dream. Povinelli and other critical scholars have demonstrated the problems with neoliberalism and capitalist modes of normativity, which make one believe that one is working toward a realizable dream. Even in the United States today, this neoliberal dream of a work ethic, self-sufficiency, a yet-to-be future “success” is a dubious one. And what about the particular problematic posed by this neoliberal ethic, of being responsible for yourself, getting a job to be self-sufficient, when at no time in the past thirty-five years, much less in the history of contemporary Afghanistan, have Afghans been in charge of their own destinies? Frankly, Afghans have been rendered expendable, killable. They are and have been subject to the geopolitical machinations of others. Thus, how appropriate is it, given this reality for a people who have been historically and contemporarily deceived, to burden them with a version of the clichéd, generic hope that is characteristic of neoliberalism?

Still, to say that Afghans have always been subject to the games of others does not mean Afghans are not also doing something else. What might it look like to consider the sentiments of the MoI administrators and of Jabar and of many other Afghans I came to know, their desire for Afghans to be independent because, after all, so they argue, they are Afghan? How do we shift to an exploration of the quiet, unseen projects of endurance and ethical self-making in the face of the often thoroughly exhausting circumstances of a place like Kabul? The emphasis I choose here is on the ordinary, despite the extraordinary nature of what transpires in Kabul: on how lives are shaped even in the midst of the extraordinary; on “what a life adds up to” (to cite anthropologist Kathleen Stewart12); on what a life becomes and on the potential it carries within itself, not because of the most powerful international actors and schemes, but despite them.


  1. Ethnography, a hallmark of anthropological research methods, is an in-depth theory of description of everyday life and social practice, usually obtained over long engagement with a people and a place.
  2. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), 2.
  3. Paul Treanor, “Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition,” web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/neoliberalism.html; emphasis in the original.
  4. One recent illustration of liberal practice in the United States was the response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, when activists coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Because of the disproportionate disregard for black and brown bodies in the United States, this campaign resonated with many and gained momentum far beyond the murder of Trayvon Martin and the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City (to name just two, more prominent cases). A characteristically liberal response to the Black Lives Matter campaign was “All Lives Matter,” which focused only on equality, without attending to the material injustices and racism inherent in systems such as capitalism. Some brilliant articulations on the limits and instantiations of liberalism include: Uday Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (University of Chicago Press, 1999); and the following books by Elizabeth Povinelli (all from Duke University Press): The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (2002); The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality (2006); and Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (2011).
  5. I put “martyrs” (shaheed, singular, in Dari and Pashto) in quotation marks, to indicate a note of caution in using the word. Though the term refers to an honorable concept rooted in Islam, for Afghans it has become a contested word. Throughout the thirty-five years of serial war, the word shaheed has been used for political purposes far too often, thus eroding the sense of honor the term carries. Who uses it—and in what particular context—now determines whether Afghans themselves consider the word to convey honor, disgust, or sarcasm.
  6. It is unusual for unrelated males and females to sit together in the same room. Kareem’s father knew this was an exceptional situation, so he asked for my permission to sit with us.
  7. Until Jabar asked me to assist the MoI, I had done everything I could not to be associated with any NGO, state institution, or the army. I finally agreed to volunteer my services, as long as I was allowed to reiterate that I was not working for the Afghan state or for any NGO or donor agency and that I was there, of my own volition, to try to be of help to the widows and their families.
  8. I have in mind here the multiple kinds of work that are needed: ethical, physical, philosophical, political, scholarly, and otherwise.
  9. I work with the ideas of anthropologist Talal Asad on agency and pain, specifically how Asad understands pain and suffering as being agentive rather than passive states.
  10. This idea of living sanely is Talal Asad’s: “What a subject experiences as painful, and how, are not only culturally and physically mediated, they are themselves modes of living painful relations. The ability to live such relationships over time transforms pain from a passive experience into an active one, and thus defines one of the ways of living sanely in the world. It does not follow, of course, that one cannot or should not seek to reform the social relations one inhabits, still less that pain is ‘a valuable thing’. My point is that one can live sanely or insanely in a painful world, and that the progressivist model of agency diverts attention away from our trying to understand how this is done in different traditions” (emphasis in original); “Agency and Pain: An Exploration,” Culture and Religion 1, no. 1 (2000): 43. I elaborate on this point, and on Asad’s work, in my forthcoming book, “War and What Remains: Everyday Life in Contemporary Kabul, Afghanistan.”
  11. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. (Duke University Press, 2011), 77.
  12. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007), 129.

Anila Daulatzai holds graduate degrees from UCLA in public health and Islamic studies, and received her PhD in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. This is an edited version of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program lecture she delivered in October 2014 on her ethnographic research with widows and their families in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is currently writing a book based on that fieldwork.

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