Is Afghanistan Ready for Women in Parliament?

The recent elections showed some surprising gains for women, but it is far too soon to herald a new age of sexual equality.

Now that the results of September’s parliamentary and local council elections have been finalised, officials and international pundits have been little short of gushing in their assessment of how female candidates fared in the various contests.

Women, as required under the constitution, will occupy 68 of the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament. They also secured 121 seats in the provincial councils which have a total of 420 members. That was three short of the 124 mandated by law because not enough female candidates could be found.

In a country where women have long been held back by fear and tradition, this does indeed reflect a significant gain.

Peter Erben, operations manager for the Joint Electoral Management Body, JEMB, announced at a news conference in early November that “most” of the women who will come to the parliament won their places fair and square. Only “a small number” owe their seats to the quotas established by law, he said.

Many international observers shared the JEMB’s enthusiasm. “Women did remarkably well as candidates, winning 68 of the parliament’s 249 seats,” the New York Times wrote on October 28. The Eurasianet website spoke of “stunning gains for women”, arguing that “women would have won about 27 per cent of the seats even without the constitutional quota”.

But an objective analysis of the results reveals a different picture. Without the benefit of seats specifically set aside for them, only 19 women would have been elected to the Wolesi Jirga. The remaining 49 must credit the affirmative-action provision in the constitution for their posts.

Some women did do remarkably well. Fawzia Gailani, mother of six and pioneer of women’s aerobics, was the top vote-winner in the western province of Herat. Malalai Joya, an outspoken critic of the warlords, came in second in the conservative Farah region. Six women in Kabul can boast that their victories owe nothing to quotas, and everything to their own grit and determination.

But these are exceptions rather than the rule. In 22 out of the country’s 34 provinces, no women would be entering the lower house of parliament if it were not for the constitutional requirement. The nomadic Kuchis, who were balloted separately, also had no women in their top line-up, meaning that in 23 out of 35 election regions, no women finished high enough to win Wolesi Jirga seats on their own.

For example, in Kandahar, the birthplace and continued stronghold of the Taleban, three of the 11 parliamentary seats allocated to the province were reserved for women. But the highest-scoring woman actually finished 17th in the overall ballot, the second highest female candidate came in 28th and the third in 32nd place with a mere 1,468 votes, or 0.9 per cert of the vote. All three, however, will be in the new parliament, ahead of men who won significantly more votes.

In total, women won only 7.6 per cent of the seats in parliament in open contest rather than through the reserved quota.

In the provincial elections, the results were similar. Out of the 124 seats reserved for them, women won only 29 outright.

The JEMB points to Kabul, where ten women won seats on the 29-member provincial council, exceeding the eight slots legally reserved for them. But election officials are less forthcoming about the 20 provinces where no women would have made it at all without the quota. In places such as Zabul, Uruzgan, and Nangahar, there were not even enough women candidates to fill the reserved seats, so five of these will remain empty.

Regardless of how they gained their elected positions, most women are justifiably proud of their achievements.

Shukria Barakzai, who came in 23rd in Kabul’s parliamentary election, has announced she will seek election as speaker of the new legislature.

In an interview with the independent daily Arman-e-Milli, she said she thought she had a good chance of winning the post, since the Afghan people were looking for assurances that the new body would not be plagued by the problems of the past.

“The people who have been in power for the past 30 years are known as warlords, communists and drug smugglers,” she said. “I stand as an Afghan woman with a national idea. This is who should be speaker of parliament.”

Barakzai may have a hard time getting the male-dominated legislature to vote for her.

But she says that in future, many more seats should go to women, “Sixty-eight is much too few. It should more in line with the actual population figures.”

Parwin Mohmand, who won a seat reserved for Kuchis, is grateful that any seats have been set aside for women. She came in 46th, with only 0.6 per cent of the vote. But that was enough to gain her a place among the ten Kuchi parliamentarians.

“If there were no law granting seats to women, then there would not be many of them in parliament,” she said.

Najiba Sharif refuses to attribute her seat to the quota system, despite the fact that she came in 51st in Kabul, where only the top 33 candidates would have been elected to parliament without it.

She maintains that she actually received many more than the 1,547 votes officially awarded to her, and blames election fraud for her modest results.

“I was sure when I nominated myself that I would win,” she told IWPR. “The seat was not given to me. I won, and I am happy that people voted for me.

“Karzai signed a law saying that these seats should be reserved for women, so it is our right. Men should not be unhappy.”

One male candidate who would have won a seat in parliament if there had been no quota for women is Abdul Hafiz Mansoor.

Mansoor lost his post as the head of Radio and Television Afghanistan after he refused to allow women to sing on the air. But he expressed no bitterness about being denied a seat.

“Women should have a role in the parliament; I support them,” he told IWPR. “And I supported this during the Constitutional Loya Jirga. I knew this would happen, but that is the law and their right.

“If we don’t give them the chance now, then we will have to wait another 50 years for women to have equal rights with men.”

Still, says Mansoor, there are limits. “I don’t think women should appear on television,” he insisted.

All agree that the women who are coming to parliament are a rare and unusual breed.

“These are educated women, they are strong,” said Sultan Ahmad Baheen, the JEMB’s spokesman. “They will be able to discuss the issues, and they will be able to make decisions.”

Political analysts say that even the modest results that women showed in the elections represent a victory, given the restrictions under which they campaigned.

“This is a big problem in Afghanistan,” said analyst Qaseem Akhgar. “In some provinces women were not able to stand for election. If they did stand, they were unable to campaign, to go out among the people. A lot of men think that women should just be their mouthpieces – that they should just do what they’re told.

“Women have a long way to go to gain their rights. I hope in the future they will be more active. But we are not there yet.”

Wahidullah Amani and Salima Ghafari are IWPR reporters in Kabul.


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