Helping Afghan women find a voice

Activists say they are pressing presidential candidates to address women’s issues.

Afghan women rally against marital law
Female candidates contesting the poll have received threats in many parts of the country [AFP]

Shinkai Karokhail, a member of parliament in Afghanistan, has hopes that candidates running in upcoming presidential elections will bring women’s issues to the fore.

She says she is concerned that since the US-led effort to oust the Taliban in 2001, women in many parts of the country have continued to face a lack of liberties and access to education.

Karokhail, who campaigned against a controversial Shia Family Law passed by the government in April, believes the major contenders for the presidential race have largely avoided women’s issues in their election campaigns.

“Women’s issues are as sensitive as the Durand line (the contested border between Afghanistan and Pakistan). Why should they [candidates] do something that might lose them the votes of conservatives and extremists?”

Women’s political rights

Rights activists in Afghanistan are concerned that local media have focused on the high profile electoral campaigns of the candidates, particularly the top contenders, but sidelined women’s issues.

special report
Al Jazeera’s in-depth look at the presidential poll

Hoping to push their agenda forward, a group of women activists from Kabul organised a loya jirga (grand assembly) to mobilise women’s votes and raise awareness of their rights.

Bringing together activists from around the country, the jirga was designed to put women’s issues back on the agenda and to make sure that their voices are not ignored.

“We want women to learn how to obtain their political rights in a society dominated by men,”  Karokhail told Al Jazeera.

“Men will realise we have a voice. We need more women ministers, more diplomats, and for those who are there to come together and speak in one voice.”

Making a difference

The campaign may be working.

Last week, candidates Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, participated in a special TV programme debating women’s issues.

in video


Violence threatens women’s vote

Although Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, did not participate in the programme, the discussion was considered a major acknowledgement of women’s issues and the importance of their vote.

Mahbouba Seraj, an activist who moderated the programme, told Al Jazeera: “Women’s issues may have been low in priority for the candidates but they have been pushed higher as a result of the pressure of women activists.” 

Although women’s voting patterns have not yet developed to sufficiently decide an election, they can still play a role in the provincial council polls which are being held simultaneously on August 20.

How a woman votes, or whether she chooses to vote at all, will make a difference to many of the 3,177 candidates contesting 420 provincial council seats.

Threats and intimidation

Orzala Ashraf, a human rights campaigner who mobilised women to play a more active role in politics in the volatile eastern provinces, says a woman’s vote is integral to democratic development.

“What is important in this contest is also the culture of democracy and the principle of elections. We want to maintain the value of this principle,” she says.

But many activists have complained of intimidation and violence against women ahead of the elections in many parts of the country.

They say there are also real fears of disenfranchisement because of increasingly conservative attitudes which restrict women from public affairs.

Gulalai Achakzai, a delegate to the jirga from Kandahar city, feels there is a “big difference between the previous elections and this one”.

“Security has become so bad that I doubt if more than 10 per cent of the women voters will come out to vote on polling day,” she says.

Achakzai’s own distant relative, Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, was shot dead in April.

“Stay at home”

A recent report prepared by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says that “the lives of a large number of Afghan women are seriously compromised by violence”.

Activists say they need a candidate who will fight for women’s education [GALLO/GETTY]

“The pattern of attacks against women operating in the public sphere sends a strong message to all women to stay at home … The effective imprisonment of women in their homes in an electoral period raises additional concerns,” the report said.

The UN report also indicated that the threats have come not just from the armed opposition, including the Taliban, but also religious leaders, village mullahs and even the women’s families.

The violence has already impacted the democratic process as fewer women stand for elections.

While a concerted campaign by NGOs, electoral bodies and the media helped increase the number in Kabul, there are few women candidates in Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces.

Karokhail hopes that meetings such as the women’s jirga would send a message of support to women candidates and any future government. “We want them to know that we will not be silenced. We want them to understand that we have to be counted,” she said.

Small steps

Wazhma Frogh, the country director of Global Rights, a human rights advocacy group, said the women’s jirga is a step in the right direction

“Our campaign is not for any particular candidate. We want women to follow the agendas of the different candidates and see which is best for them,” Frogh told Al Jazeera.

Hasan Bano Ghazanfar, the sole woman minister in Karzai’s cabinet, refrained from asking women to vote for the incumbent president.

But she did press women at the jirga to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

“Don’t believe your vote does not matter. A single vote can change your family’s fortunes,” she said.

“It can change your life.”

Source: Al Jazeera