War and Identity

Understanding how war and displacement complicate gender and sexuality in Afghanistan and its diaspora.

Last summer, while the world watched in horror at the images of the Taliban takeover and the international community’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan, Dr. Ahmad Qais Munhazim was frantically doing whatever they could from thousands of miles away in Philadelphia to get Afghans to safety. As a scholar of international relations and Muslim diasporas, they were also being contacted by the media to shed insight on the displacement and violence faced by Afghans, particularly women and the LGBTQ+ communities. Identifying as a genderqueer, Afghan, Muslim, immigrant, this was not the first time Dr. Munhazim encountered the intersection of their lived experience and life’s work. Here we talk to them about their journey to uncover how gender and sexuality are impacted by war, and their interdisciplinary approach to produce knowledge that challenges conventional Western narratives about Afghanistan, and queerness in Muslim diasporas.

Your research spans many fields. How would you describe your work?

I study the intersection of international relations, migration, war and gender, and sexuality studies, with a specific focus on Afghanistan and its diaspora. My current project aims to understand the experiences of queer and trans Afghans in Afghanistan and in the United States amidst war and displacement.

War is tumultuous and yet there’s so much we don’t understand about how it changes everyday lives of those who experience it and are displaced by it. They carry memories of violence and trauma, which impact how they identify with concepts of home and self.

Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

How does war disrupt the understanding and performances of gender and sexuality, specifically in Afghan Muslim diasporas?

Gender and sexuality are critical elements of our identities, but they’re also performances of social constructs. We all perform them differently – the way we dress, speak, move, the space we occupy within our social circles and relationships we form with social and political structures including borders, states, homes, and communities.

War is an inherently masculine phenomenon. Femininity in the context of war is therefore immediately seen as vulnerable. Growing up in Afghanistan, I was used to seeing men wear eyeliner and henna on our hands. I remember when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, these behaviors seemed feminine to the white military masculinities and humanitarian gaze. As a result, Afghan men felt pressured to assert and even outperform masculinities in order to survive a foreign military occupation.

I theorize this behavior to be “vigilant masculinities.” Vigilance here refers to the state of caution that is yielded as a result of  exposure to direct and indirect violence. Vigilant masculinities are performances of manliness that come from a place of subordination, powerlessness, vulnerabilities and loss. It’s apparent in refugees of war as well; the experience of forceful displacement can be emasculating, and there is a pressure to reclaim what was lost. When my family fled to Pakistan during the war in the mid-90s, I worked in vegetable markets selling tea to support our income. To do that, I had to act hyper-masculine as I was navigating my everyday life in masculine spaces in a foreign country with little community support.

How are women impacted?

Afghan women have often been caught between war and its masculine forces. They are used as pawns to justify on the one hand, the Taliban’s extremist rules and keeping women at home; and on the other hand the West’s rhetoric of ‘liberating’ oppressed Muslim women to rationalize military invasions in Afghanistan. In both circumstances, Afghan women’s agency and their security are compromised, and at times, neglected.

As refugees and diasporic people in their new homes, Afghan women continue to battle this stereotype of oppression. In addition, like many Asian women, they are hypersexualized in Western societies on a daily basis which puts their safety at risk. They also have to confront the lack of gender equity in the West, especially as immigrant women of color. Fighting all these forces can be exhausting. But I hope to show in my research that while women in Afghanistan and Afghan diasporas are portrayed to perform conventional roles as the caregiver and homemaker, they take on other roles as breadwinners, leaders and activists despite all odds against them.

Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

And what about marginalized gender and sexual identities?

For minoritized gender and sexual identities in Afghanistan, there is threat of violence, stigma, and discrimination both at home and abroad. If they manage to escape the violence of war at home and find refuge somewhere in the West, they then face xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism. When the Taliban took over, many of my friends in the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan were caught in a dilemma – stay and risk their lives, or try to escape – but to where? Even in countries like the U.S., transgender people, especially trans women of color, face persecution and violence. LGBTQ+ individuals in Muslim diasporas still face racialized systems in majority white LGBTQ+ spaces, and are constantly forced to hide or disguise parts of their identity depending on their environment.

But I want to celebrate the power it takes to move between identities in that way. While doing fieldwork in San Francisco, I met an individual who was a queer, Muslim immigrant like myself. On the weekends, they performed as a drag queen in San Francisco. They would then change into very masculine appearing clothes and take the train to the East Bay where they lived with their family and led prayers in the local mosque. It was empowering to see the way this individual was able to navigate these multiple identities. They would tell me that their American, majority white, friends in San Francisco ask why they continued living with their family if they didn’t accept this part of them. But there was this sense of connection and safety that this person felt with their family, because they didn’t have to code switch or speak a different language – they weren’t racialized at home the way they were in mostly white LGBTQ+ spaces. It challenges the narrative that leading a double life is somehow a weakness, but rather a way for a minoritized individual to claim agency and a possibility for survival.

When I do share my experiences at a conference or seminar, I encounter that white gaze that exoticizes me and my trauma yet erases me as a theorist or scholar. –Dr. Munhazim

Can you talk more about these multiple layers of being a racial, sexual and/or gender minority as a refugee in a new country?

For many Afghan refugees, there is very little understanding of how race works in the West. They have grown up their entire lives in their homeland surrounded by people who look like them. They’re not prepared for how suddenly their skin color and nationality play a major role in whether they’re able to cross borders, and if they do, in their access to jobs, education, housing. They have to assimilate very quickly and leave a lot of the authenticity and beauty that they came with. In contrast, we’ve seen the difference in the way the media has covered the tragic displacement of Ukrainians by Russia’s war and the West’s response. Just last fall, in my global immigration class I showed my students a video of a Polish politician saying Muslim refugees are a security threat; meanwhile the country has received almost half a million Ukrainian refugees. I’m so relieved that Ukrainian refugees are getting the aid they need, but I wish this double standard and racist refugee systems didn’t exist. The reality is that Black and Brown refugees face a lot more surveillance and scrutiny. And if you are also queer or trans, there’s added surveillance.

What does the surveillance look like?

When I arrived in the U.S. in 2008, the name “Ahmad” attracted a lot of attention in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The “War on Terror” regimes placed security alerts on Muslim names, particularly masculine ones. From airports to hospital waiting rooms and work spaces, people with Muslim names were surveilled and at times denied their rights, access and dignity. My mail would be ripped open; one time I sent a pair of shoes to a friend and when it arrived there was only one. This was a very common experience in my Muslim community. The Afghan passport is considered one of the worst valued in the world; even now when I apply for a visa to attend a research program or a conference I have to submit documents after documents just to prove I am not a terrorist. Of course, I get singled out at airport security. In fact, I find that I outperform my queerness when I travel, because that somehow makes me seem less threatening, more ‘assimilated’ and I don’t get questioned as much.

But it’s not just surveillance by the state, but also by the surrounding community. Unfortunately the “if you see something, say something” campaign made it very common for people to surveil their neighbors, friends and complete strangers through a very Islamophobic lens. As a queer Muslim Afghan, there’s also the surveillance and questioning of my identities – people always ask me – does your family accept you? How can you be queer and a practicing Muslim? What’s your accent? Where are you from? It’s hard to feel safe, and just…be.

Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

How do your experiences inform your research approach?

My work is informed by many disciplines with a focus on ethnography, which involves engaged observations, historical interviews and group discussions to collect and listen to stories and lived experiences of war and displacement. This approach is relatively new in the field of political science, but I find that narratives and storytelling make my research more accessible to the broader audience that I am trying to reach. I also bring in my own experiences – autoethnography – because I have lived and continue to live many of the phenomena I study.

I also use a de/colonial approach. As someone who grew up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, my native language is not English. It’s not a language I dream in. It’s not a language I understand war, violence, love and everyday life in. But my research in so many ways is a result of colonial forces, and the people whose stories I tell have also been displaced by wars waged by those forces. I now conduct that research in institutions that belong to the same forces. I am trying to challenge not only conventional narratives, but also the notion of who produces this knowledge and for whom. My aim is to de/colonize these narratives and center Afghans as resilient protagonists of their own stories, rather than a community that needed saving by Western military powers.

What are some of the challenges you face as a researcher in this space?

The field of political science, like much of academia, is dominated by cisgender, white men. That has left a lot of scars on my path, because there has been pushback not only against my work but my very existence in academic spaces. I have found spaces where I feel like I belong, and other scholars whose research and teaching also intersects with their own lived experiences of oppression, violence, and systemic racism, sexism, queerphobia and misogyny. We support each other fiercely. It is because of the radical solidarity and activism of intersectional feminists, women of color, queer and trans and immigrant scholars that some of us can survive in the academy.

For minoritized gender and sexual identities in Afghanistan, there is threat of violence, stigma, and discrimination both at home and abroad. –Dr. Munhazim

It can be emotionally exhausting to relive those experiences. But the added challenge is when we share those stories as part of our research or teaching, they aren’t seen as producing knowledge but rather as anecdotes – case studies or anthologies. The field of political science is quite rigid and data driven, and these ethnographical approaches are quite new. But there are experiences behind each data point, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish with my interdisciplinary approach.

At the same time, when I do share my experiences at a conference or seminar, I encounter that white gaze that exoticizes me and my trauma yet erases me as a theorist or scholar. When I share a moment of vulnerability, it is seen as an opportunity to consume and romanticize my life experiences – but as a storyteller, not a scholar. I’m sometimes seen as a proxy, rather than a source of knowledge.

What was your journey into this field?

I knew who I was from very early on. I was an unapologetically feminine kid. But the labels surrounding gender and sexuality are very Western concepts. Fluid expressions of gender and sexuality have been embedded in Afghan culture and everyday life– in our clothing and jewelry, our ancestors’ languages and teachings, affection shown in same-sex friendships, our art and stories. I grew up reading the famous Afghan poet Rumi, who wrote openly about love for another man. That is where a lot of my own understanding of gender and sexuality came from. I started writing my own poems to deal with being a teenager and navigating my gender and sexuality, and learned the power of autobiographical storytelling.

When I returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan after years of living as a refugee, I worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for five years, where I honed my interest in displacement and refugee regimes. I questioned the ways international organizations and regimes dealt with Afghanistan and Afghans. In 2008, I landed in the Twin Cities to pursue my undergraduate studies in political science and global studies.

At that time, the 9/11 attacks and the so-called “War on Terror” was the dominant discourse on Afghanistan. People were fascinated by my experiences, but in a very orientalist way that romanticized my trauma, queerness and journey to the U.S. There was very little knowledge of what was actually happening in Afghanistan and the impact on everyday people. Whatever information was available was produced mainly by Western scholars or narratives like the Kite Runner, which I found to be problematic. I didn’t want that to be the only reference. I also felt a personal responsibility towards other queer, Muslim, Afghan immigrants who had no choice in being born or raised in a place of war and have not had a voice for so long. I don’t see the people I interview as my study subjects, but rather as my co-travelers – we are doing this work together and collectively trying to understand our experiences and the world around us.

Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.
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