Neoliberalism or zakat? The voices of widows in Afghanistan

“What does work mean to widows in Afghanistan?” by Anila Daulatzai, is a provocative essay in the Winter/Spring 2015 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin that invites reflection and further discussion about religion and social justice. An anthropologist with degrees in public health and Islamic studies, Daulatzai looks at the lives of Afghanistan’s many (often very young) widows and their families, and the government’s intent to “compensate” them for their tragic loss by offering them a place in the labor market. Doesn’t this violate the Muslim principle of zakat–an obligatory percentage of everyone’s income that Muslims must give as an act of worship to help those in need–including widows? In the case of widows, that is, zakat is not so much “charity” as it is an obligatory form of social justice. Why is the Afghani government–which is dominantly Muslim and which entirely respects the tenets of Islam–failing to respect widows’ religious (and in a Muslim society, social) entitlement to zakat? Why, instead, does the government view women’s jobs as the only form of public assistance they can offer? “A job?” asked one 19-year old widow in astonishment when she heard of the plan. “I want to care for my son and be with my family…This pain, struggle to get through a day, this is enough work. I cannot do more than this.” This is not just a concern for an Islamic culture; this young widow’s cry reminds me of my grandmother who, widowed suddenly in 1930 with two daughters under 5, was forced to beg her married sisters to care for her children while she went to work as a nanny to a privileged son in a rich family. (Her mother-in-law, another longtime widow, eventually rescued the three of them with an alternative economic model, taking in other old ladies and foster children, a hard labor that left its own scars but at least ensured survival–together–throughout the Depression). There is a fine line between women choosing to enter the labor market and those who are told they have no choice about what they must do with their time to realize a government’s promised “help.” Daulatzai suggests that in Afghanistan, at least, the tension between the women’s voices and those of the public funders is rooted in a philosophical difference, that marked by neoliberalism.

Her essay is an edited version of an HDS Women’s Studies in Religion Program lecture she delivered on her ethnographic research with widows and their families in Kabul. Her earlier research also engaged her with internally displaced persons in Pakistan and Afghanistan. For a shorter summary of Daulatzai’s research and views on these issues, read her January 2014 opinion piece, “Humanitarianism is as culpable as war.”

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