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Examining Gender and Race Through the Experience of Female Humanitarian Workers in Afghanistan

Examining Gender and Race Through the Experience of Female Humanitarian Workers in Afghanistan

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Richard Williams

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Partis-Jennings, H. (2019). The ‘third gender’ in Afghanistan: A feminist account of hybridity as a gendered experience. Peacebuilding, 7(2), 187-193. DOI: 10.1080/21647259.2019.1588455

Talking Points

 In the context of international female humanitarian workers in Afghanistan:

  • Some women from “liberal democracies” report experiencing a “third gender”—whereby, if they act as equals to their male counterparts, they “are masculinized, and not real women but something else,” providing them with a measure of freedom and access in this context.
  • Respondents’ race and international status condition whether or not they experience a “third gender” identity; for example, female Canadian humanitarian workers of Afghan descent, whose appearance tied them to Afghan gender expectations, were not granted the same degree of gender fluidity available to their colleagues of European descent.
  • A feminist analysis of the “third gender” in this context reveals how this self-identification, though in some ways emancipatory, depends upon and even reinforces racist stereotypes about Afghan gender norms and the association of “true” femininity with subjugation.


What might the experience of female international humanitarian actors teach us about the role of gender and race in peacebuilding? Hannah Partis-Jennings examines this question by looking at how women from “liberal democracies,” including Germany, Australia, Canada, and the United States, describe their experience living and working in Afghanistan, an “illiberal” and deeply patriarchal society. Some of the women interviewed in this research characterize their gender identity in the Afghan context as that of a “third gender,” whereby foreign women who act as equals to their male counterparts “are masculinized, and not real women but something else.” The author employs a feminist perspective on hybridity to examine how gender is perceived and performed in a space where “local” and “international” norms interact. Such a context could create opportunities for foreign women to “situate themselves as culturally dissonant but respectful guests helping to link together different strands of the Afghan social order and ensure that Afghan women’s voices were heard.”

Hybridity: “a meeting between international and local norms, actors and practices” creating “new arrangements, which display hybrid features where for instance liberal and illiberal norms co-exist.” Using the example of female humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, hybridity “combines female bodies and ‘liberal’ gender expectations with traits, access and behavior associated strongly with masculinity in ‘illiberal’ Afghanistan.”

The author visited Afghanistan in 2014 and, as part of her research, conducted interviews with 41 participants across a range of military, international humanitarian, and Afghan civil society roles. While some interviewees used the term “third gender,” the author makes sure not to generalize this experience to all female “internationals.” Much of this discussion takes place in the grey area between perceived dichotomies (i.e., between male and female, or local and international), where these dichotomies can be inadvertently reinforced: for instance, if “international” female bodies who interact as equals with men are thereby masculinized, that move reinforces the link between femininity and subjugation. The interviewees identify as a “third gender” in an Afghan context but not in a European or American context, suggesting that this gender category relies on and can only be understood in contrast to a stereotypical understanding of “Afghan socio-cultural norms.”

In interviewing Afghan-Canadian respondents, women born in Canada but of Afghan descent, the author found particularly useful insights on how this gendered experience intersects with race and the “international.” Because their physical appearance ties them to Afghan socio-cultural norms, they were not afforded the gender fluidity provided to their female colleagues of European descent. They existed in a space where they were not fully “local” nor fully “international,” facing bias from both Afghan society and other international humanitarian workers. The “third gender” experienced by some white women in Afghanistan appears to exist only in the interface between “liberal” and “illiberal” socio-cultural norms. This “third gender” self-identification relies on “certain racialised ideas about Afghan men and Afghan women/femininity” built into the perceived dichotomy between ”liberal” and “illiberal” norms—namely, assumptions about how the Afghan gender framework cannot accommodate empowered women as feminine, as “’brown men’ are [seen as] backward, traditional and oppressive, and ‘brown women’ are [seen as] silenced and powerless.”  

The fact that the “third gender” only makes sense in relation to an “illiberal Other” becomes clearer when the author discusses the contexts in which respondents did or did not experience its emancipatory effects. When imagining themselves vis-à-vis the constraints understood to weigh on Afghan women, they experienced living as a “third gender” in Afghanistan as liberating them from gender norms and expectations. In expat contexts, however, respondents who otherwise identified with a “third gender” in the Afghan context still reported gender discrimination when working with their fellow international male colleagues. The respondents criticized the “hyper-sexualization [and] patriarchal expectations within the international domain.” They believed that their male counterparts in Afghanistan assumed female humanitarian workers were “sexually available and subordinate,” not truly equal to male humanitarian and/or security workers. Furthermore, the presence of heavily armed and predominately male security personnel was emblematic of the broader “masculinised security practice” (emphasizing “weapons, stoicism and a constancy of risk”) that took hold as the only “common-sense” approach to ensuring safety in a threatening wartime environment—but which made at least one respondent feel like she was “in prison.”  

For peacebuilding, the operation of the “third gender” highlights the friction present when divergent socio-cultural norms interact and how that friction is expressed through the physical attributes and lived experiences of women. A critical, feminist analysis of a “third gender” reveals how this self-identification, though in some ways emancipatory, depends upon and even reinforces certain racist and gender stereotypes of the “‘illiberal’ Other.” It also reveals, through its inquiry into the lived experience of women, some of the contradictions inherent in the liberal peace, which can hold its gender norms up in contrast to those of an “’illiberal’ Other” while also reproducing its own forms of gender inequality.

Informing Practice

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was justified not only as the appropriate response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th but also as an appeal to “save” Afghan women from a deeply oppressive regime. At the time, many feminists and other critics could see beyond that thinly veiled justification, including the authors of a report from the Institute for Policy Studies in 2002 (see Afghan women: Enduring American “freedom” in Continued Reading) stating, “It has become axiomatic that the issue of women’s rights is always politically manipulated by the powerful, to justify almost anything.” Afghan women were never guiding the conversation about their safety and livelihoods. Instead, women are to be “saved” or “protected” through a security paradigm that emphasizes the use of violence as a means to achieve safety. Fast forward over a decade of continued violence in Afghanistan when the author of this research interviewed female humanitarian workers in 2014. The lived experience of women in the Afghan context reveals a continuum of oppression and empowerment, contingent on their physical attributes of race and international status, with neither foreign nor Afghan women yet quite equal to their male counterparts.  

This analysis demonstrates why researchers and practitioners in peace and security need to pay attention to intersectionality; they cannot examine gender in peacebuilding without examining how other identities, particularly race or ethnicity, interact with gender to create specific perceptions and behaviors.

Intersectionality: a legal term used “to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ’intersect’ with one another and overlap.”

Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. Vox. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from

Term and concept coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in the following paper: Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.

This dynamic between race and gender, and a corresponding conversation about the privileges it affords to white women, is apparent in recent protests against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence in Portland, Oregon. The “Wall of Moms,” gained popularity and undercut the portrayal of protesters in Portland as “rioters,” “looters,” or “terrorists.” The values and attributes that society links with (white) motherhood, like peacefulness, are in opposition to those values and attributes that society may link with so-called violent protesters. While the “Wall of Moms” did help to shift the media narrative to accurately describe the nonviolent nature of the protests and lay the responsibility for violence on police and federal agents, media coverage of these “Moms” effectively overshadowed the decades of work that Black mothers have invested in organizing for racial justice and advocating for police and criminal justice reform (see What the “Wall of Moms” protest says about motherhood, race in America in Continued Reading). This suggests that those values and attributes ascribed to motherhood are only made salient when those mothers are white and not when those mothers are Black.

Such critical analysis demonstrates what white privilege confers in the U.S. and informs how that privilege can be used strategically in the movement for racial justice. For example, the “Wall of Moms” sought to use their white privilege to protect protesters from police violence, indicating that there are various roles that individuals can play in the midst of protest movements. (See Navigating the dilemmas of unarmed accompaniment on the US-Mexico border in Continued Reading.) While they cannot be held solely responsible for how the media portrayed their actions, the coverage they received is also a reminder that those of us with white privilege need to be actively vigilant in noticing and limiting how our actions for racial justice may overshadow the work and leadership of Black activists. [KC]

 Continued Reading

Jones, S. (2017, November 21). The dangers of forcing gender equality in Afghanistan. The New York Times. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from

Kolhathar, S. (2002). Afghan women: Enduring American “freedom.” Institute for Policy Studies. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from   

Weingarten, E. (2019, January 29). How sexism threatens peace in Afghanistan. The New Republic. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from

Kurtzleben, D. (2020, July 28). What the “Wall of Moms” protest says about motherhood, race in America. NPR. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from   

Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. Vox. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from

Wood, A. (2019, November 5). Navigating the dilemmas of unarmed accompaniment on the US-Mexico border. Retrieved on August 7, 2020, from


International Center for Research on Women:

Keywords: Afghanistan, gender, humanitarian intervention, race, liberalism

This post was edited on September 9, 2020 to clarify research methods. 

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