Pious Peripheries: Runaway Women in Post-Taliban Afghanistan

Triwik Kurniasari

Pious Peripheries: Runaway Women in Post-Taliban Afghanistan is based on rich ethnographic fieldwork which explores the marginalization of women in Afghanistan and the evolving process of gender differences in the country. Through 24-month research, Ahsan-Tirmizi closely examines the struggling lives of Afghan women who are running for their lives as they are facing social and legal sanctions from their society due to various cases of abuse in the post-Taliban regime. The author discusses the rejection and accusation of sexual promiscuity and disobedience that surround Afghan women as they pursue a better life. 

In Pious Peripheries, Ahsan-Tirmizi discusses the experience, struggle, courage, and bravery of marginalized women in Afghanistan who resist and subvert despite deadly threats. The author employs an ethnographic method to explore the marginalization of Afghan women and the development of gender differences before, during, and after the Taliban rule (1996-2001) to provide a thorough understanding of the resistance of women fleeing a patriarchal society. 

The book begins with an introduction detailing her positionality in relation to the research. This includes the story of the deaths of some women in Ahsan-Tirmizi’s life, which encouraged the author to conduct research as these friends and relatives had been deemed promiscuous and disobedient. The author clearly states that this book is not about how the outside world sees Afghan women, but about “how ordinary Afghan women understand and inhabit their own worlds” (p. 4). The first three chapters highlight the resistance of the women and the ethnographic process conducted at a shelter in Kabul. The second three chapters provide an explanation of the power of the Taliban, pashtunwali customary law, and Islam in Afghan society, while the last three chapters outline the concepts of piety and promiscuity through Taliban publications and articles produced by Afghan feminist newspapers. 

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the shelters, called khana-yi aman (home of safety), in the Afghan context. The shelters are used by runaway Afghan women, who are facing social and legal sanctions, as they are trying to escape for various reasons, including forced marriage, sexual abuse, and adultery. In Chapter 2, the author highlights some cases of runaway women at the Kabul shelter where the author was able to stay, interact, take a closer look at the women’s lives, and attend the dispute-focused court hearings along with the women and their lawyers, friends, and families. Chapter 3 discusses landay, short verses of sexually explicit poetry in Pashto and Dari, which are narrated spontaneously by the runaway women at the shelter to express their protests and “sentiments about their world” (p. 77). The themes include abandonment, mourning, love, friendship, hospitality, and separation. This chapter includes some poems that provide a better understanding of the issues. Ahsan-Tirmizi, for instance, examines the experience of the women who were sold at a young age by their parents to their future Taliban husbands. 

Chapter 4 presents interviews and conversations between the runaway women and their Taliban husbands at family court. The author describes some writings taken from Taliban publications, which highlight the Taliban’s powerful role in Afghanistan and their fights against secularism. This leads to Chapter 5, which explores the history of Afghan womanhood based on the notions of piety and chastity. Here, the author highlights the history and evolution of women's rights and gender equality through the tireless efforts of Queen Soraya in the 1920s. In Chapter 6, the author looks at some texts written by influential Afghan literati to illustrate how women’s morality is encapsulated by a series of moral codes (e.g., pashtunwali, Quran, and hadith), and how masculinity is constructed above femininity as Afghan women are seeking emancipation. This chapter is set in a conceptual structure that demonstrates the transformation of feminist anthropology, which is based on Foucauldian perspectives. The author ends the book with a conclusion that serves as a reflection on why ordinary Afghan women run away despite the risks of shame and death from their families and community. 

Ahsan-Tirmizi sheds light on the idea that the runaway women do not intend to break free from Islam or Pashtunwali, nor to embrace Western lifestyles; rather, they run away to perform “their own Muslim piety and pasthun-ness in ways unconstrained by Western or local patriarchal discourses” (p. 4). This book rejects the stigma of runaway women, who were deemed immoral, uneducated, rural, and tribal, as some of the runaway women are prosperous and highly educated. Throughout the book, the author brings up the issue of the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s behavior and clothing, which influence every part of their lives, including their career aspirations. Ahsan-Tirmizi's immersion in the environment and language allows her to collect first-hand information from the runaway women to be put into eight readable chapters. She integrates well-researched ethnographic data to offer a fresh take on the role of runaway women in a patriarchal social system. The book is significant to the current situation as the world is mulling the plight of Afghan women and girls after the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021.

Although the book includes some excerpts of the interviews, the details on how the interviews were conducted are absent. Providing more information on how she conducted the interviews, including details on the number of participants, the consent process, and the types of questions, would assist readers, particularly scholars and researchers, to learn more about how to do research on marginalized populations in a conflict zone. Nevertheless, the book provides a valuable and absorbing window into the plight and struggle of runaway Afghan women as they attempt to make their own choices and claim their rights, while still carrying out their religious beliefs and values. 

The book is intended for the fields of women’s and gender studies, particularly for the growing scholarship on women who persist despite immense risks. The book is also a useful resource for students and faculty in other fields, including Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, political science, and sociology, to help them better understand sexual promiscuity and the feminist movement in the context of religion in Afghanistan. The public, including those working in the humanitarian field and assisting resettling Afghan refugees, can use this book to learn more about women’s issues in the region.