As Afghans begin to vote for their new president, the country’s women are looking to the election with a combination of excitement and anxiety, cautious optimism, and the awareness that the gains they made over the last decade are still fragile.
On the one hand, this election — widely heralded as Afghanistan’s first ever democratic transfer of power, if things go well — has seen unprecedented participation from women: both on the road and at campaign rallies, and on the ballots, running for provincial council seats, and even for the vice presidency.
The question of women’s rights has also featured prominently on candidates’ agendas and in campaign promises — though the real test of that will come in the months following election day, when political commitment to the cause will be tested, and when it will become clearer whether the Taliban will be able to regain ground in the country.
'Being a woman in Afghanistan is not easy, it’s not easy at all.'
“There seems to be great excitement. We’ll have to see how that translates once we know who is the new president, if there is a winner,” Patricia Gossman, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Afghanistan, told VICE News. “The visibility of women is an important signal, but if it doesn’t translate into real changes on the ground then we haven’t come very far.”
“To be honest, in 2004 no one was talking about women’s issues as part of their election agenda. In 2009, women leaders met behind closed doors with just a few candidates. But in 2014, we have made huge progress,” Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan MP and prominent feminist, told VICE News. She compared this election to the last two following the US-led overthrow of the Taliban. “Regardless of the security threats, Taliban attacks, and everything, we’ve had public events all across the country, and everywhere we saw men and women. Can you imagine? Women were in every single corner, in every part of the country. They were very active.”
Voting in Afghanistan’s presidential election opened on the morning of April 5 as crowds flocked to the polls to choose a successor to Hamid Karzai.
Women were not only more visible on the campaign trail, they are also involved in the election process itself. Some 13,000 women will work as security officers at polling centers, and separate polls for women will entirely be led by women — a “big change,” Barakzai said.
More importantly, she added, even the more conservative candidates in the race have felt obliged to at least address women’s rights concerns — often aggressively prompted to do so by a growing, independent Afghan media.
“None of them can ignore the power of women,” Barakzai said. “Because we are supporting the election, we’re part of it.”
Security is on high alert in several parts of Afghanistan on April 5 as millions of citizens take to the polls to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
Some candidates also brought their wives to campaign rallies, a remarkable break from the practice of exiting President Hamid Karzai, whose wife Zeenat has been completely absent from the public scene.
“In provincial elections, my vote is for women, but at the presidential level I will think twice,” Barakzai said, referring to her choice between top contenders Zalmai Rassoul — whose running partner is a woman — Habiba Sarobi, and Ashraf Ghani, who had his wife Rula speak on his campaign. “The presence of one of the candidates with his wife has changed the political environment. Having women in the seat is important, but also seeing a first lady.”
But despite the optimism, Barakzai said, women in Afghanistan continue to face huge challenges — including attacks on the gains they have made through their activism and the support of the international community.
“Being a woman in Afghanistan is not easy, it’s not easy at all,” said Barakzai, who has been active in Afghan politics for the past 13 years. “Being a woman and being in politics is very hard: politics in Afghanistan is the most dirty game, and they believe this is men’s business. They believe women can’t be leaders because leaders can only be criminals, warlords, drug lords.”
Women who have claimed a place on Afghanistan’s political stage have done so at a huge personal cost. Many have been harassed, threatened, and even removed from their posts for their political work, as was the case for Malalai Joya, a prominent MP from Farah province who was suspended until the end of her term for her criticism of other politicians.
'There are people in government who are not interested in seeing women’s rights protected.'
Her story, some women’s rights advocates say, should serve as a cautionary tale and a reminder that more visibility on the Afghan public scene does not necessarily equal real political progress.
“When she was elected, she did what she promised her constituency, which was to speak out about women’s rights abuses. But when she did that, she was kicked out of parliament by these warlords,” Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based group that works closely with Joya and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), told VICE News. “No matter how many women get elected to positions of power, if they exercise their power in a way that undermines these warlords, then they will be killed, undermined, threatened, harassed.”
“Malalai Joya has had so many assassination attempts that she has to live underground,” Kolhatkar added. “You can be a woman, get elected to a city council or parliament, not challenge the power, keep your mouth shut, enjoy the corruption, and you’ll be fine. But is that something to celebrate?”
While there have been some obvious gains in terms of women’s rights in certain parts of the country and among certain demographics, Kolhatkar said that the situation remains dire for Afghan women, and their future is a serious cause of concern.
She also said that “under US watch” women’s rights in Afghanistan have deteriorated, with more women than ever imprisoned for so-called “honor crimes,” the installment of an extremely conservative judiciary, and recent increases in domestic and other forms of violence against women.
“There’s been all this talk over the last decade of women’s groups coming to the table, and negotiating. But frankly, how do you sit at a table with someone who’s pointing a gun to your head?” Kolhatkar said, referring to continuing misogynistic sentiment among many in Afghanistan’s ruling elites.
That concern has echoed among rights advocates for several months now, as the Karzai government has moved to implement legislation that severely restricts the advances of the previous years.
A provision in Afghanistan's draft criminal law, introduced earlier this year, seeks to bar the relatives of the accused from testifying in court — which would make most domestic violence cases almost impossible to prosecute, advocates say. The law would mark a significant step back from the success of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was finally passed four years ago, following huge international pressure on the Afghan government.
“There are people in government who are not interested in seeing women’s rights protected. It isn’t just the Taliban, though of course we’re going to be watching that very carefully,” Gossman said. “A couple of the candidates have said in very general terms that they support women’s rights, but we have seen a backtracking from the Karzai administration, and very worrying trends with violence against women legislation and challenges to women’s seats in parliament.”
Some see a redeeming potential in the Rassoul-Sarobi ticket, but only cautiously so.
“I wouldn’t say she’s any kind of a radical women’s right activist, but just the fact that she has held such a high political office in Afghanistan, being the only woman to do so, certainly characterizes her courage,” said Kolhatkar, who met Sarobi after she was elected the first-ever female governor of Afghanistan. “Symbolically, if people do vote for her, it’s a good sign.”
Women’s advocates also look with concern to the gradual withdrawal of foreign NGOs and international funding, on which much of the progress in terms of women’s rights, health, and education has relied during the last decade.
“There’s going to be a tendency for people to wash their hands of this. That would be the worst possible signal to send both to the government and to the women who are dependent upon donor support,” Gossman said. “It would be a terrible mistake for the international community to abandon them now.”
Some Afghan women share the concern, but they also say they can stand on their own feet.
“Whatever we achieved was first the result of the struggle of Afghan women, and then the pressure of the international community on the Afghan government,” Barakzai said. “There is a women’s revolution in Afghanistan, and we will see the results, maybe in ten years. Because women in Afghanistan are working hard. Everyone will be amazed by us.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi