Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Women Complain Over "Symbolic" Roles

Statistics showing rising numbers of female officials do not tell the whole story.
By Mina Habib
  • Female lawmakers in the Afghan parliament. (Photo: Eric Kanalstein/Getty Images)
    Female lawmakers in the Afghan parliament. (Photo: Eric Kanalstein/Getty Images)

Maliha (not her real name) works in the press office of an Afghan government ministry. She told IWPR that although one of her responsibilities was to issue invitations to press conferences and briefings, her boss simply did not allow her the authority to do her job.

“The minister selects specific media and then orders me to inform the outlets he has already chosen,” she said. “It has affected my dignity at work and my reputation. Although I have the authority, the minister does not allow [me to use it]. If my role is not symbolic then what would you call it?”

Women working with government in Afghanistan warn that statistics showing growing numbers of female employees do not tell the whole story about ongoing gender bias within the workplace.

According to the ministry of labour and social affairs, nearly 78,000 women have been appointed to government positions since the Taleban regime was unseated in 2001.

More than 8,000 women are also currently employed in government offices.

But Mary Nabard Ayen, deputy director of the state-run Bakhtar news agency, said that although women had a greater public presence their role remained largely symbolic.

“Our leaders must accept that women constitute half of society, and deserve equal rights to men,” she said, noting that Article 22 of the Afghan constitution explicitly provides equal rights to men and women.

The constitution also guarantees that at least 64 lawmakers must be women, and four female ministers have been appointed to the current administration of President Ashraf Ghani.

Ayen said, however, that such appointments were just for show and had little real impact. She noted that this had been the case in both the post-2001 administrations.

“The national unity government has appointed some women to important leadership roles so as to prove to the international community that they have given women a role within the structures of power,” she continued. “But the women appointed have no authority.”

Ayen said that she experienced discrimination on a daily basis in her own work, adding, “Very often, I am not asked for my opinion, and when I am asked then my opinion is ignored.”

Ministry of women's affairs spokeswoman Kobra Rezai agreed that the presence of women in public life had increased over the last 16 years, noting that over a quarter of both civil servants and lawmakers were now female.

But she too said that conservative traditions often took precedence over Afghan law.

Changing these attitudes would take time and women needed to fight for their rights, she said, adding, “Women in government offices face many challenges, but these challenges will toughen them up so that they become experienced managers.”

Shahla Farid, a law professor at Kabul university, said that several factors continued to restrict women’s access to work. This in turn meant that female employees were still seen as an exotic and unusual phenomenon.

“Insecurity and instability as well sexual harassment have deterred women from finding jobs,” she said. “So there is still discrimination and unequal treatment of women, women are still seen as an object of pleasure and enjoyment.”

They also still remained reliant on the will of male figures to succeed or fail at work.

“A woman is appointed to an important post, if for example, she is related to a minister or knows a member of parliament,” she said. “Their competency is not considered and this means women have little authority at work because their capacity is inferior to the duties they are assigned.”

Sharafuddin Azimi, a professor of psychology at the Kabul university, noted that women had been excluded from the public sphere by decades of war in which they were largely denied access to education.

“Women should work in areas that suit their specialised fields,” he said, adding that this would help build self-confidence.

“They should believe in their own potential. Women must be hired based on their capacity not on their political affiliations, ethnic origin, linguistic abilities or relations to a particular faction.”

Ziba Samya is the deputy for supporting and promoting women’s rights department at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.  

She also argued that women needed to take the initiative and actively struggle for their rights, adding that her organisation had heard many complaints from women about their limited authority at work.

Maryam Kofi, a lawmaker from Badakhshan province, said that the current state of Afghan politics meant that men and women alike had been disenfranchised.  She argued that parliament as a whole had been sidelined in the decision-making processes.

“In the national unity government, working authority has been taken away from men as well as women and in fact power is monopolised by the presidential palace,” she said.

“Here in parliament we are given responsibility but not authority. For example, if we impeach a minister and dismiss him from the post, we later we hear that he is continuing his position as an acting minister, so there is no authority left, neither for us nor for parliament.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.