- The Conditions for imagining and enacting identity - the discursive construction of Afghan-ness in London
- Schlenkhoff, Angela
- University of Kent
- May 2005
This paper seeks to analyse the processes of identity and community formation within the Afghan diaspora in London. The author argues that memories of different experiences in the home country and different discursive agents, such as the family, community organisations and the Afghan community itself model the parameters of the discourse of Afghan-ness.
The research was carried out over one year fieldwork period in London as part of a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. The paper was presented at the 3rd Annual Forced Migration Student Conference, Oxford Brookes University, UK. Although the presentation does not explicitly state its methodology, it draws upon interviews with Afghans in London and with Refugee Community Organisations [RCOs], and uses some secondary sources.
The paper identifies the main aspects at the basis of the Afghan identity in exile. It argues that the different backgrounds of Afghans in London - shaped by personal history, ethnicity and religion - affect directly the memory they have of their home country; this in turn influences their experience of life in exile. The author analyses three major discursive agents: the family, the RCO and ‘the Community’. In exile, changes occur within the family framework as a consequence of a readjustment of the social position occupied by family members; this significant change results in a sense of dispossession and triggers a feeling of inadequacy and lack of self-respect. In light of this, employment and housing are both key factors. Children and youths experience the difficulties of living within two cultural systems, the Afghan and the British.
With regards to London-based RCOs, the author finds that these organisations are significantly politicised and reflect the political and socio-cultural fragmentation of Afghanistan; consequently they tend to attract members of the community who share the same ideology of the group. The approach of Afghans to these RCOs reflect their personal experience: generally, RCOs are deemed useful, especially by the new arrivals; those who have been in exile for longer and who can rely on solid social networks rarely seek advice, particularly in case of family issues. The lack of trust of RCOs in London reflects the Afghan people’s negative experience with authorities and institutions in Afghanistan. Further, the notion of voluntary organisation is strictly connected to the Communist experience in Afghanistan and many expatriates are not at ease with this connotation. The wider Afghan community serves as a ‘social sanctioning agent’. For Afghans it is very important to uphold their image as valid members of the community and gossiping usually sanctions ‘improper’ behaviour bringing shame to the family. This aspect seems to be more often perceived as a burden by the younger generation.
Although further analysis is needed to show this with more certainty, it appears that the principal discourse of Afghan-ness is led by those who arrived at a later stage of the Afghan conflict bringing with them a stricter interpretation of Islam and traditional Afghan culture. This results in a considerable amount of pressure for those who are not accustomed to adhere to norms and values that are considered ‘purely Afghan’. The most conservative people perceive those with a more progressive social attitude as endangering the purity of Afghan identity.
- Resource Type
- Conference paper