Afghan women: No turning back

The emerging activism of Afghan women will be put to the test in the aftermath of the April election.

In this year's election, women are not featured in leading roles as strongly as in the past two elections, writes Malikyar [EPA]

“Detour is not an option!” reads the Afghan Women’s Charter, which was presented to the media last week in Kabul in the presence of some of Afghanistan’s leading women of the post-Taliban decade. The Charter enumerates Afghan women’s demands of the 11 presidential candidates competing in the April vote, the third presidential election since the US-led military intervention that ousted the Taliban in 2001.

This charter, unlike most documents of this nature, was initiated by a small group of Afghan women, with no assistance from outsiders. The fact that the authors refused to seek international assistance or funding makes the effort a symbol of breaking the vicious cycle of aid dependency. It is a message that women have consciously decided to convey at a time when international engagement is about to wind down.

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Women activism

The women of Afghanistan have come a long way in the past 12 years. The post-Talban Afghan Constitution assures them equal rights and freedoms, access to education, healthcare, employment opportunities, political and social activities. Affirmative action has allowed them to occupy about 27 percent of the seats in the country’s Parliament and there are three women cabinet ministers. The governor of Bamyan province, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commision and president of the country’s Red Crescent Society have all been prominent women.

At grassroot levels, from the nearly 8 million Afghan children that attend schools, 2.4 million are girls. And according to government figures, the number of women pursuing higher education rose by 30.4 percent in 2011-2012.

In this year’s presidential tickets, however, women figures are not as conspicuous as in the past two elections. This seems to be compensated by the increased activities of women activists such as the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), an umbrella organisation that boasts membership of over 100 women’s institutions and 5,000 individuals, Equality for Peace and Democracy and dozens of other organisations that are conducting awareness and registration drives, human rights training sessions, and town hall meetings with candidates, etc.

The Afghan Women’s Charter has now begun its journey in the media and through Afghanistan’s provinces, with volunteer provincial organisations and individual activists promoting it and gathering consensus on the demands of the document.

Three women have emerged in the presidential tickets this year. Dr Zalmai Rassoul, mostly regarded as President Hamid Karzai’s pick as his successor, has chosen Habiba Sarabi, former governor of Bamyan province, as his second vice presidential candidate. A hematologist by profession, she has a dignified personality and comes from an ethnic Hazara family whose prominence goes back to pre-war Afghanistan.

Being the first woman governor in the administrative history of Afghanistan, Sarabi is one of the very few high officials of the Karzai government whose name was not attached to corruption accusations all through her eight-year tenure. In some circles of women activists, though, Sarabi is criticised for acquiescing to the status quo rather than risking activism for change.

Weak political will, perhaps lack of true belief in women’s rights among leaders of state institutions and politicians has prevented the cause to reach farther destinations.

Safiya Siddiqi is running as second vice president on Hedayat Amin Arsala’s ticket. Though this team is not seen as likely to win, Siddiqi has emerged as an outspoken member of the Arsala presidency campaign. The dynamic Siddiqi won a seat in the Parliament in 2005 with the third highest vote count during that parliamentary election. Having returned from her Canadian exile, she is well-rooted in Eastern Afghanistan, partly due to her family’s influence among Pashtun tribes of that region and recently, due to her tireless grassroots work. 

Daoud Sultanzoy, another presidential candidate in this year’s vote, has picked Kazimia Mohaqiq as his vice presidential candidate. Mohaqiq has a Masters degree from Iran and has been teaching political science and law at one of Kabul’s private universities.

Lack of political will

All this is not to say that Afghan women have reached an ideal stage. Nor are there any guarantees that the course of progress will steadily continue. So far, Afghan women have bravely journeyed along a bumpy and winding road, evading obstacles and potholes. Most of the progress in ameliorating the lot of Afghan women has come, for the most part, thanks to the international community’s pressure and as part of the overall aid package. On the other hand, this donor-driven process has reduced women’s causes to small, short-term pet projects, rather than a comprehensive and sustainable national movement.

In women’s rights, as in other issues in the greater conservatism versus modernism discourse, Afghan women – and especially the young generation – have demonstrated a remarkable eagerness and willingness for change. Afghan politicians and statesmen, however, seem to lag well behind. Instead of understanding society’s need and readiness for progress, instead of acknowledging the necessity of women’s participation for economic, social and political progress of the country as a whole, political leaders have continued to pay lip service to the conservative and traditional elements of society.

Weak political will, perhaps lack of true belief in women’s rights among leaders of state institutions and politicians, has prevented the cause to reach farther destinations.

Lack of political will is justified by “prioritisation of the country’s issues”, as one politician claiming to be a proponent of women’s rights apologetically told me a few years ago, further elaborating that for the sake of stability, we should put women’s issues on the backburner or deal with it in small increments. 

Washington’s overtures to terrorists for a negotiated peace since 2009 has prompted the Afghan government and opposition leaders to rush into a race to be the first party to strike a deal with the Taliban. Consequently, women’s causes were sacrificed as part of their appeasement strategy.


With that history, it is surprising to see that support for women’s rights figures so prominently in the speeches and programmes of all presidential hopefuls for the April election. Three of the tickets have women as vice presidential candidates and all are going through lengths to assure women that they will protect their rights.

But precisely because of that history, Afghan women and the international community must be vigilant and distinguish between true belief in women’s rights and demagoguery. Candidates, their running mates, their political attachments and support bases must be scrutinised. 

Through the Charter, engaging candidates in debates, awareness campaigns, calls for the formation of a united front and female voter registration drives in all corners of Afghanistan, women activists have waged an indigenous fight for the preservation of their gains and to further their achievements.

Whether the presidential contenders’ lofty promises and the unprecedented attention they appear to be giving to women voters will translate into real action the day after the new president is sworn in, is uncertain. All prominent candidates have assumed a flexible posture towards the Taliban, leaving the door open for negotiations and possible power sharing arrangements as a means to reach peace and stability. Women’s rights and the Taliban clearly present an oxymoron that no politician, however skilled, can reconcile.

Therefore, with all the progress of the past decade, the emerging activism of Afghan women and the attention given to women voters, it remains to be seen if the slogan “detour is not an option”, will hold in the aftermath of the Afghan election.

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.