Selling war: commodifying the (in)security of Afghan women

Examining the commodification of an everyday object, an Afghan rug, reveals a complex interconnection of economy and security. Commodification of the rug is bound to the selling of particular ideas about the security and insecurity of Afghan women and security/insecurity itself is characterised within economic terms. These terms of commodification reanimate logics that structure and distribute the insecurities of war and military violence.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the PREPPE blog series.

The objects of everyday life can be a valuable entry point into understanding political economy. This post focuses on the commodification for a western market of ‘war rugs’, a sub-genre of the Afghan rug that incorporates imagery of violence and war.

Tree of life with tanks and helicopters (circa 1980s)

War rugs are compelling. First comes the confusing moment of realising the familiar is not so familiar after all. As in this early example, (right) helicopters and tanks hang like heavy fruit, branching from the central trunk of a tree of life. Timeless abstracted vegetal symbols share space with the hard shapes of violent modernity: vehicles and weapons. The confusing moment gives way to a question: what does it mean?

That question has a compelling answer in the form of a fairly standard story that tends to accompany war rugs. ‘Tribal’ women in Afghanistan have made woven rugs for centuries in their homes for their family and tribe and to trade. Traditionally the motifs were animals, nature and abstract shapes. When the Soviets invaded in 1979 the women translated their experiences of war and occupation into their weavings as acts of artistic self-expression and resistance. At first war themes and traditional themes were combined as weavers hid subversive references to war within their work; the warlike crept gradually into the peaceful domain of tribal weaving (as in the examples above and below). Later, as soviet occupation ended and women realised the more warlike themes were popular with buyers they made them much more bold and obvious. As Afghanistan has seen successional wars and occupations the weavers of the country have continued to express themselves and their experiences in this way, looking to the changing nature of the conflicts raging around them for inspiration with the result that nowadays many war rugs show images of drones.

Mosques with bombs and jets (circa 1987)

This is the story you will typically hear if you want to buy a war rug. You’ll find it – or a version of it – in online listings, in catalogues, and in consumer-oriented media features. Even if the reality was once as neat as this story it is not today: most war rugs now on the market were likely made by men in factories and the production of rugs has been linked to child and forced labour.

The Commodification of (In)Security/The (In)Security of Commodification

The production and the circulation of a war rug is always bound within particular markets and their logics, simultaneously constituted by and shot through with experiences, imaginations, and perpetuations of, and investments in, multiple forms of (in)security. There is a huge amount that could potentially and fruitfully be considered in this vein, but here I am going to focus on the ways in which war rugs are made compelling and intelligible to and within a particular market through the commodification of certain ideas about (in)security that are packaged up in the figure of ‘the Afghan woman’.

Mosques with bombs and jets (circa 1987)

Through the story of the Afghan ‘tribal’ woman weaving her war-torn experiences into rugs as a form of artistic expression (and domestic entrepreneurialism), the contemporary western buyer is invited to ‘buy-in’ to particular ideas about (in)security, war and western liberal violence. This ‘story’, and this process of ‘buying-in’ is not a side-show to the lived, material realities of war and military violence. Rather, as terms of commodification, these stories (re)produce the logics and relations that structure and distribute these insecurities. In order to disentangle this we need to understand why the story of the defiant tribal Afghan woman weaver is compelling to a western buyer, on what terms and through which logics.

To do so we have to understand the significance of the figure of the Afghan woman more broadly. As has been widely documented, the invocation of Afghan women was central to legitimating narratives of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The oppression of Afghan women by the Taliban came to be seen as an example of the threat to the west posed by Islamic “terrorists”. In a radio address in 2001, five weeks after the invasion, first lady Laura Bush described how the “brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists”; “in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us”. Liberating oppressed Afghan women and girls came to be seen as a central mission of the invasion, one that simultaneously addressed fears about threats to western security and positioned the war within the aims of liberal ‘humanitarian intervention’. Elsewhere in her radio address Laura Bush spoke of how the treatment of Afghan women by the Taliban horrified “civilised people throughout the world”. Imagined geographies of civilisation/savagery such as this have been central to colonial projects; invoking the insecurity of Afghan women to justify invasion and occupation is one of the more recent in a long line of examples of ‘colonial feminism’ in which the protection of women from savagery has been used to vindicate various forms of intervention and occupation.

The figure of the Afghan woman, the insecurity she was seen to be enduring and the security that she could be gifted by the US-led invasion and occupation, was central to making that invasion and occupation seem like a good idea. We could say that the terms of the commodification of the war rug offers a way to buy into that familiar and comforting account. But there is more going on here that points to the way in which security and insecurity themselves are understood within economic terms so that in this case the commodification of (in)security also concerns the (in)security of commodification.

Let’s go back to the war rug story, beginning with the ‘tribal’ Afghan women making rugs for hundreds of years. This invokes imaginations of the timeless traditions of the exotic East, but also establishes the potential of the tribal Afghan woman as a liberal, enterprising subject. Weaving is a mode of individual expression, but also, crucially, this individual expression is turned to entrepreneurial ends as the rugs are sold and traded. The entrepreneurialism imagined here is more Silk Road than modern free market capitalism but what is important is the potential that Afghan women have to be active individuals within a market economy. The next key part of the story is when the Soviets invade Afghanistan. Under communist oppression rug-based commerce seems to falter. The Soviets are simultaneously violent oppressors and enemies of free enterprise. Here the individual Afghan woman shows her resistance by hiding subversive images of violence within her weavings, and she has the last laugh as these designs become the focus of a vibrant international export market after the Soviets have been vanquished by the west. In this way, the Afghan tribal woman takes her experiences of violence and insecurity and through individual enterprise transforms it into economic security.

The Taliban are only sometimes referred to explicitly in war rug stories. As in this example, we learn that “[w]omen’s economic and social independence…was grievously curtailed” limiting their ability to make and market rugs. The exact circumstances of the US-led invasion are typically glossed over but it is emphasised that the weaving of war rugs has now, in the contemporary moment, come to some form of maturity in which ‘ongoing conflict’ is an established source of inspiration for weavers who now are able to embrace the production of war-themed rugs within the newly awarded economic and social freedoms brought by US invasion and occupation. That women can now make and sell large numbers of war rugs demonstrates the success of the US mission in which security is imagined not as security from violence (conflict is, after all ‘ongoing’) but security to operate within the market. Indeed, the continued insecurity of war becomes just more material – for the enterprising Afghan woman – to be commodified and turned to the ends of economic security. Insecurity becomes, then, not the violence of war and occupation but insecurity of commodification – the stymieing of individual free enterprise. In this way, the western buyer of a war rug is invited to buy-in to an account of (in)security that is fundamentally structured by economic logics, but furthermore they are invited to be a part of it. Buying a war rug, woven by a now liberated Afghan woman, might seem adjacent to the myriad ethical capitalism ‘fair trade’ schemes through which women in ‘developing’ countries make craft items for sale to ethically minded western buyers.

The terms of commodification that I have explored here, and of which war rugs provide a vivid example, are fundamental to the logics and relations that structure and distribute the insecurities of war and military violence. By this I mean that, as we have seen, these economic logics and fantasies become part of the terms on which invasions and occupations are justified and they structure the aims and imperatives of war and occupation. They produce a world in which security is understood as a person’s freedom to sell a consumable version of their own suffering.