A new threat for Afghan women in politics

Targeting Afghan women politicians is a relatively new phenomenon – and probably imported from next-

Shukria Barakzai survived a suicide car bomb attack on November 16 [Getty Images]

As I was organising my notes yesterday to write up a strategy for monitoring the political participation component of the Afghan Women’s Charter, a horrifically loud sound shook the building. There had been another explosion in my neighbourhood.

I ran to the balcony and saw smoke rising less than 500 meters away on Darulaman Boulevard, which leads to the Afghan Parliament.

This must have been the 10th or 11th explosion in the capital since the new Afghan president was inaugurated on September 29. Unlike previous attacks aimed at the Afghan National Security Forces, this time the target was a woman politician: Shukria Barakzai.

Barakzai, one of 69 female members of parliament, survived, but three civilian passers-by, including a university student, was killed and over 30 others were injured.

The incident was immediately condemned, from President Ashraf Ghani to ordinary shopkeepers, as a cowardly, un-Islamic, and certainly un-Afghan act.

“Targeting a woman is against our Afghan culture and values,” declared a Kabul taxi driver on one of the privately-owned local television stations.

Maintaining instability

A day earlier, Mawlana Fazlur Rahman, head of Pakistan’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl group, and one of the creators of the Taliban back in 1994, announced that jihad in Afghanistan is a duty of every Muslim.

“We do not justify the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan but we do justify the resistance against them,” Rahman reportedly said.

Afghan women gains under threat

In Kabul, it is believed that the Mawlana and his ilk are abusing the concept of “jihad” for their political aim of maintaining instability in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban and other armed groups – headquartered in neighbouring Pakistan – indeed appear to be intent on obliterating Afghan values, customs, heritage and above all, the democratic system that was established after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001.

In effect, one of the most palpable outcomes of the post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been the astounding rise of women in the public sphere.

While the 2004 Afghan Constitution holds men and women equal before the law, a number of additional articles ensure gender equality on access to education, healthcare and political participation, all based on the spirit and letter of Islam. The legal framework, along with the international community’s support for equal rights, has allowed Afghan women to make big strides during the past decade.   

Still, women who symbolically take government offices or parliament seats and do not stir trouble might be tolerated. But the likes of Barakzai, who are active and outspoken in political, social and cultural arenas, are thought to have crossed the line.

The attack on Barakzai’s car was clearly meant as a warning to other Afghan women to mind the limits that the Taliban ideology imposes on Muslim women, regardless of the rights the Holy Quran bestows upon them.

This view is not limited to the Taliban and other armed groups fighting the Afghan government and its international supporters. There are a few conservative elements within the system, who reap the benefits of democracy and international aid, while sharing the Taliban’s view that women have no place in the public sphere. They make up a small contingent, but thanks to the support they have enjoyed from the previous administration as well as the international community’s hitherto acquiescence, their voices are loud. 

Bilateral Security Agreement

There are also rumours that the attack followed a series of threats that Barakzai and other women MPs had received last week, as they were seeking to gather signatures for the approval of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US – still pending approval from the parliament.

The attack followed a series of threats that Barakzai and other women MPs had received last week, as they were seeking to gather signatures for the approval of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) …

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had refused to sign the security pact, perhaps hoping to gain favours in certain “moderate” Taliban quarters and with their Pakistani supporters. The new Afghan administration signed it immediately, arguing that in the negotiations process, the most important Afghan concerns were raised and met favourably by the Americans.

More importantly, the ratification of the BSA, as Ghani has argued time and again, would, for the first time since the US military intervention of 2001, return Afghan national sovereignty to the Afghan state. In the past 13 years, the presence of US and NATO forces on Afghan soil was legally justified through UN Security Council resolutions. The bilateral agreement would recognise the state of Afghanistan as the legitimate counterpart and decision-maker on the presence of US troops in the country.

Some MPs have raised objections to granting judicial immunity to US troops and want to see an end to the night raids and house searches. The US military’s Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act binds Washington to insist on the judicial protection of its military personnel abroad.

When upon Karzai’s insistence, night raids were somewhat curtailed, the country witnessed a surge in terrorist attacks. Therefore, the majority of Afghans today favour night raids as a means to maintaining security in the country.

Whether there is any truth to the rumours linking BSA naysayers to the attempt on Barakzai’s life, or if the incident was a part of the larger assault on women’s rights and progress, surely targeting women politicians in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon. 

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.