Gender Studies in Afghanistan or jender bazi: The Neoliberal University, Knowledge Production and Labour Under Military Occupation

By Paniz Musawi Natanzi

Universities in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul have long been embedded in political, ideological and armed warfare. Following the military invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, private universities in Kabul became sites of marketisation and models for other cities and provincial towns in the country. In the process of neoliberal transformation, gender mainstreaming was a key cross-sectoral tool, intersecting foreign, development and military policies, which included higher education. Funding for the development of university degree programmes and scholarships in gender studies came with conditions of adhering to an anti-social political and epistemological understanding of gender that builds on expanding “individualisation and financialisation”[1] while claiming to serve communities through entrepreneurialism. The hegemony of finance under neoliberal imperialism, the current manifestation of capitalism and process of empire-building, in sites of military and humanitarian-developmental intervention reconfigured social, political, economic and epistemological structures also through the university. The management of some private universities won bilateral or multilateral “aid” that the occupation set up: they experienced how profitable it was to commercialise knowledge production that trained students in gender policies, laws and entrepreneurialism[2] that the occupiers aimed to institutionalise.

I focus here on Kabul, from where the US-led war and military occupation (2001-2021) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) paved the way for Afghan and foreign civil actors to build a higher educational infrastructure that trained Afghan labour power to work in the top-down imposed tertiary sector. Towards the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission (2001-2014) and during the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) (2014-2021), gender studies programmes in universities showcased diversity, equity and inclusion practices and advertised entrepreneurial programmes for women as “empowerment” including in the Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education (GIHE), the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) and Kabul University (KU). At the same time, the occupation exacerbated on a daily basis social, political and physical death and injury, class formation and struggle and structural inequalities. Drawing on empirical data gathered between 2015 and 2021, I describe this imposed gender order of neoliberal imperialism, in which Afghan students were socially situated, as jender bazi (Dari Farsi: the gender game). [3]

Theorising jender bazi

The US-led military occupation of NATO was concerned with defeating the Taliban militarily and alligning Afghanistan structurally with neoliberal economies. Since the military invasion in 2001, neoliberal policies constructed a financial architecture through bilateral and multilateral funding mechanisms via the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), bodies of the United Nations (UN) and governmental development agencies, headed by the largest occupying donor states in Afghanistan referring to themselves and capitalist state allies as “the international community.” In Afghanistan, the USA was the largest donor followed by Germany, Japan, the UK and Canada.[4] The deregulation of finance capital and privatisation promoted through the occupying states produced in Afghanistan a coordinated civil infrastructure that proliferates – and continues to since the hand-over of power to the Taliban in 2021 – as in other sites of intervention an ecosystem of “scholarship, ideology and policy”[5] to justify the occupation.  Post-2001, the liberalisation of capital streams into Afghanistan and of domestic finance[6] also perpetuated the establishment of private universities and opening of programmes responding to the demands of the war economy’s development and governance sector. The World Bank played an integral role in the construction of the foundations of a higher education system in Afghanistan running the “Strengthening Higher Education Program” (SHEP) from 2005 to 2013 in the country.[7] The aim of the programme was to “restore basic operational performance at a group of core universities in Afghanistan” in order to use these universities “as an institutional base for an agenda focusing on tertiary education development, capacity building and reform.”[8] While reforms were geared towards the intra-systemic strengthening of institutions under construction, capacity building responded to system-conform knowledge production to produce a technocratic cadre. [9]

Mohsin Taasha, from the series “Rebirth of the Reds (part 4),” silver leaf and gouache on handmade wasli paper, 55x70cm, Kabul, 2020 (courtesy of artist)

In Afghanistan, the occupiers integrated “lessons” from US-led military invasions and occupations in the Americas, Carribean, Pacific and Asia to optimise the colonial strategy of dividing and conquering the population by training the occupied “to conduct counterinsurgency operations.”[10] In a coordinated manner, financial institutions funded what the alliance of military, development and foreign policy-makers, the “agent[s] of both economic and social restructuring,”[11] required to demobilise collective potentialities through employment. In neoimperial configurations, occupying donor states control the process of “reconstruction” while the nominally sovereign state is “granted trappings of sovereignty,” i.e. “their own government, constitution, flag, currency, and security force.”[12] Afghans were also given their own intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, which worked in a symbiotic relation with the CIA. The military paved the way for the civil infrastructure that transformed labour relations and intensified class conflict: for instance Afghans who worked as nongovernmental organisation (NGO) activists,  administrators and technocrats mediated services between national and foreign institutions and organisations funded by occupying donor states and Afghan “target beneficiaries.” [13] For many work-seeking men in the cities day labour was the only option. From the early morning hours men waited on the side of roads for someone to require their labour power. At the same time, small-scale entrepreneurs were supported: particularly women in business were celebrated by agents of neoliberalism as success stories. The romanticisation of small-scale entrepreneurship brushed over the social, political and economic ramifications of debt-making and dependencies between aspiring entrepreneurs and their investors. It also shifted the public eye away from the large-scale profit-generating businesses of foreign corporations, governments and multilateral organisations that were delivering the material and labour power the war and occupation required. These actors were not interested in providing Afghans the means of production. The entrepreneurial logic continues to demobilise the precarious and work-seeking population as it “places the merit of success and the burden of failure on isolated individuals, and suggests that the resolution of every social problem requires the further individualisation and financialisation of social intercourse.”[14]  

While the suffering, grief and loss of women and girls was extensively commodified during the war and occupation, the work of Anila Daulatzai shows how neoliberal policies circulated particular narratives about the suffering of female recipients of humanitarian aid while “precluding the possibility for others” with tangible implications: it shaped the “textures of women’s subjectivity and experience.” [15] In the neoliberal university in the mode of war the hijacking of gender studies was a civilian site of counterinsurgency warfare geared to “humanize” the war and occupation for Afghans as well as tax-payers in NATO member states including Germany.[16] As subjects of institutionalised jender bazi cis-women and -men were meant to serve the civil-military infrastructure – not uproot it. Conceptually, bazi[17]socially situates how Afghans were driven to play in the higher education market that neoliberal development built. Jender describes the liberal[18] conceptualisation of the analytical category of gender by foreign, development and military policy-makers that exponentially thrived with UNSCR 1325 (2000) and the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda. Students such as Sohrap, whom I discuss below, were studying political science in the academic environment that the neoliberal composition of imperialism had created: the representation of allegedly saved and empowered “Afghan women” was glorified as freedom and progress in perverting hegemonic narratives. These obfuscated political differences among women and detached them from the structures of the occupation that were violating the land and environment, organising economic reproduction around the needs of the occupation and war while perpetuating the social, political and physical death and injury of millions of Afghans. [19]

Training gender technocrats: students owning jender bazi

The claim to be “the first woman” in a field of work, “the first feminist” or “the first” to introduce a gender studies programme in higher education in Afghanistan became a reoccuring narrative that entrepreneurialism under occupation engendered. It also always coincided with competing claims over who is actually the first. Being “the first” became particularly in the US a prized position in the second half of the 20th century following feminist and civil rights movements for equal citizenship. Differently raced, gendered and classed people and people with disabilities began to be integrated in the name of diversity and inclusion into institutions and organisations, however, intra-systemic reforms did not dissolve structural inequalities. [20]

Although GIHE in Kabul, was “the first” university to integrate “women” and “gender” into its curriculum in response to donor demands, both KU and AUAF claimed the title of “the first” gender studies programme in Afghanistan in 2015. Similarly to GIHE, both AUAF and KU responded to donor demands to train students to work as “gender experts” in the governmental, development and private sector.[21] KU’s master programme in gender and women’s studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences was tailored under the technical lead of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and funded by South Korea with the objective to institutionally promote “the development of academic capacity and training of specialist’s [sic] cadre.”[22] AUAF also modified an already existing women centre by renaming it “International Center for Afghan Women’s Economic Development” geared “to promote research, education, and advocacy for Afghan women’s economic empowerment” and funded by the US Department of Defense, Department of State and United States Agency for International Development (USAID).[23]

GIHE, a nonprofit private university was founded in 2010 by Dr Sima Samar, former head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and former Minister of Women’s Affairs, with the objective to offer “cheap and quality higher education.” In 2012, the Women’s Empowerment Center (WEC) at GIHE began to implement “academic courses on gender studies” aiming “to open the path for gender and women’s studies programmes in the Afghan higher educational system.”[24]  Following the “success” of the Women’s Empowerment Center (WEC) including “gender training initiatives” the university received funds from the German government for a Gender Studies Department within the GIHE and a Peace Building Department, which tailored training and workshops around the WPS agenda.[25] The students at GIHE were from poor families in the city and provinces as well as families who had gained class upward mobility into the lower and middle class that emerged in the years after the invasion. Many young women gained educational mobility through scholarships[26] that enabled them to study and live in Kabul. The GIHE promoted female students from precarious backgrounds and families who had privileged their sons’ education. The university’s gender studies seminars also aimed to promote the participation of men, however, men from impoverished households and who were the first generation to enter the university felt left out. A former student of political science at GIHE, Sohrab, recalled a workshop on “Gender Studies Academic Course” in spring 2017:

“The workshop was for men and women for about six weeks. The teachers were all Afghans who had attended workshops on gender and feminism. Those of us who you attended the whole span of the seminar received cash in the end. The men who attended were teased by the other boys to be zanchu [the literal translation of the term is “little woman”]. But as we say in Kabul, an keh naan dahad farman dahad [The person who provides bread gives orders].”[27]

Sohrab was the first in his family to go to university, had worked since the age of five as a manual labourer to contribute to the family income, survived domestic violence and gang wars in his neighbourhood. Growing up as a cis-boy gave him permission to move freely through the city during the first Taliban government in the 1990s, but also exposed him to forms of violence at home, on the streets and in the workplace. Sohrab’s movement privileges as a cis-boy and -man did not automatically work out to his advantage. Sohrab did feel left out, because the assumption was that all men in Afghanistan are privileged for being men. He highlighted that attendance in class mattered to receive a certificate and cash. The cash incentive, as also his understanding of the Dari Farsi idiom emphasises, was worthwhile: he was confident in his heterosexual masculinity and being a zanchu did not carry a negative meaning although it is meant to insult a man by feminising him or by questioning his masculinity for following the order of women. [28] While in the classroom Sohrab provoked conversations with the teachers and female students who failed to convince him of how gender studies seminars can help to change gendered injustices in daily life. However, he also knew that jender bazi pays the bills and creates access to opportunities. Therefore, after this course, he worked for a young cis-woman parliamentarian during campaigning for elections. In this game his agentive power had to allign with the parameters of the occupying states, whether he identified with it, or not.

The next level of the Game?

Under a nominally sovereign Afghan government individualisation and competition deprived Afghans of possibilities of working towards a decolonial present and future. Since the military withdrawal and hand-over of power to the Taliban in August 2021, the neoliberal architecture erected during the occupation and war prevails in Afghanistan. More recently German institutions have coopted the revolutionary concept of decolonisation and are transforming it into a reactionary tool of developmentalism. For instance the German Foreign Office (GFO) hosted the Global Women’s Forum for Peace and Humanitarian Action in Berlin in May 2023 and promoted the conference on Twitter with “#InvestInWomen.” Germany, which had to repackage its foreign and development policy operations in Afghanistan for audiences in Germany in August 2021, continues to centre-stage female entrepreneurs and humanitarians employed in institutions and organisations that perpetuate the colonisation of Afghanistan through financialisation to make “aid” appear innocent. As part of the programme the GFO invited the NGO Peace Direct which claims that it can “decolonise aid” in sites of intervention. Needless to say that neither “aid” nor policy can be decolonised, because they are means of neoimperial governmentality.

Jender bazi also continues in the diaspora in neoliberal universities in North America, Australia and Europe: tropes around women and girls, the Taliban, education, development through business and democracy circumvent investigating how neoliberal imperialism governs Afghanistan’s population, including civilians and the Taliban, and maintains the suffering of Afghans. A decolonial feminism queries not only the situationality of women, but investigates the construction and reproduction of structures that continue to destroy social, political and biological life in Afghanistan and transnationally in order to work and think towards life-affirming futures and the abolition of systems of oppression and exploitation.


[1] Saad-Filho, Alfredo. 2020. Value and Crisis: Essays on Labour, Money and Contemporary Capitalism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, p. 215.

[2] The critique expressed here is a structural one and not directed at small-scale business owners.

[3] The term jender is an Anglicism in Dari Farsi that proliferated during the US-led NATO military occupation. Bazi (Farsi: game) in Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan can refer to a play or sports. In Dari Farsi expressions with bazi and a preposed noun can describe social configurations of power.

[4] See for instance: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/Development Assistance Committee (OECD/DAC). 2022. ‘OECD Data.’ Accessed 05.06.2022.

[5] Fine, Ben. 2009. ‘Development as Zombieconomics in the Age of Neoliberalism’. Third World Quarterly 30 (5): 885–904.

[6] Rooden, Ron van. 2004. ‘Overview.’ In Reconstructing Afghanistan, edited by Adam Bennett, 1–5. Washington, D.C: International Monetary Fund.

[7]The World Bank. 2013. ‘Afghanistan: Strengthening Higher Education Program.’ Accessed 10.01.2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For an overview of the interface between US universities, intelligence agencies and the mobilisation of Afghan students, see: Hanifi, Shah Mahmoud. 2021. ‘What next for Afghanistan?’ Royal Society of the Arts Journal. 2021. Accessed 05.01.2022.

[10] Warrior scholars such as Jones argue that an occupation can only be “successful” if the occupied do not feel occupied by the US, see: Jones, Seth G. 2008. Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Rand Counterinsurgency Study, v. 4. Santa Monica: RAND National Defense Research Institute, p. 7-8, 10-11. Accessed 08.09.2022.

[11] Fine, Ben. 2013. ‘Financialization from a Marxist Perspective.’ International Journal of Political Economy 42 (4): 47–66.

[12] Parenti, Michael. 1995. Against Empire. San Francisco: City Lights Books, p. 50, 119.

[13] Robinson, Cedric J. 2000. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press; Fanon, Frantz. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press; Vergès, Françoise. 1999. Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

[14] Saad-Filho, Value and Crisis, p. 215. See also: Jad, Islah. 2008. ‘The Demobilisation of Women’s Movements: The Case of Palestine’. Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). Accessed 24.03.2014; Haddad, Toufic. 2016. Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory. SOAS Palestine Studies. London: Tauris Academic Studies.

[15] Daulatzai, Anila. 2015. ‘What Does Work Mean to Widows in Afghanistan?’ Harvard Divinity Bulletin. 2015. Accessed 02.12.2021.

[16] CIA Red Cell. 2010. ‘CIA Red Cell Special Memorandum; Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-Led Mission-Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough’. CIA Red Cell. Accessed 05.05.2020.

[17] Bazi in Dari Farsi can be configured to describe heterosexual and queer forms of life and labour; care and andivali (camaraderie); pleasure and desire; as well as abuse and violence.

[18] Liberal conceptualisations of gender in and on Afghanistan, including also politically left, green and conservative writings, centre-stage diversity and inclusion programming, rights-based discourses and the freedom to express (some) opinions as signifiers of “authentic” political liberalisation.

[19] Jender overwrote spatiotemporally particular conceptualisations of gendered roles and relations and sexuality: Munhazim, Ahmad Qais. 2023. ‘Afghan Muslim Aunties and Their Queer Gifts.’ South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 46 (1): 206–17. On perversions, see: Musawi Natanzi, Paniz. ‘German perversions: male Afghan refugees and Germany’s geopolitics of mental health during NATO’s war in Afghanistan.’ In: Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Communities, edited by Ajlina Karamehic-Muratovic and Laura Kromják, Routledge (forthcoming).

[20] Ferguson, Roderick A. 2012. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Difference Incorporated. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[21] This sections focuses exemplarily on GIHE. Both AUAF and KU responded to donor demands and received funds to train students to work as “gender experts” in the governmental, developmental and private sector.

[22] The UNDP has taken down the website announcing in 2015 Kabul University’s “First-Ever Master’s Programme in Gender and Women’s Studies.” Kabul University. 2020. ‘Master’s Program in Gender and Women Studies.’ Accessed 23.10.2021.

[23] SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction). 2020. ‘The American University of Afghanistan: State and USAID Have Taken Action to Address Concerns with the Management, Processes, and Systems at the University.’ Accessed 10.01.2022.

[24] Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education. 2019. “Gender & Women’s Empowerment Center.” Accessed 10.01.2022.

[25] Indigo Foundation. 2022. ‘Afghanistan: Women’s Empowerment Centre – Indigo Foundation.’ Accessed 10.01.2022.

[26] Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education. 2020. ‘The Linda Norgrove Foundation (LNF) Scholarship for Young Women at Gawharshad University.’ Accessed 10.03.2022.

[27] Interview with Sohrab, 06.02.2022. The name has been changed.

[28] Munhazim explains the use of zancha, or zanchu, to insult queer subjectivities, see: Munhazim, ‘Afghan Muslim Aunties and Their Queer Gifts.’ p. 211.

About the author:

Paniz Musawi Natanzi is a political scientist and Postdoctoral Associate in the 2022-2023 theme year programming in “Feminist Theory and Imperialism” in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Currently, Paniz is completing her book manuscript The Kabuli War Mode of Visual Art Production: Masculinities, Labour and Race in Contemporary Afghanistan. For her doctoral dissertation she conducted fieldwork in urban Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. After her Ph.D. Paniz worked as a consultant in the fields of gender, migration and labor, mental health and prison politics in Afghanistan. In 2023/2024 Paniz will be a Postdoctoral Associate at Duke University Middle East Studies Center (DUMESC) and provide oversight of relevant programming at DUMESC and Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC).

Citation: Paniz Musawi Natanzi, Gender Studies in Afghanistan or jender bazi: the Neoliberal University, Knowledge Production and Labour Under Military Occupation, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.06.2023,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 29. Juni). Gender Studies in Afghanistan or jender bazi: The Neoliberal University, Knowledge Production and Labour Under Military Occupation. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Juni 2024, von

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