Afghanistan: Not Just a Pretty Face

Political sensation Fawzia Gailani dismisses suggestions that her electoral triumph in Herat was down to her looks.

Afghanistan: Not Just a Pretty Face

Political sensation Fawzia Gailani dismisses suggestions that her electoral triumph in Herat was down to her looks.

Thursday, 22 December, 2005

The undisputed heroine of Afghanistan’s recent parliamentary elections is a little-known businesswoman from the conservative western province of Herat.

Fawzia Gailani’s success is little short of astounding in a country where, until just four years ago, women were not allowed to work or go to school. She came first out of 162 candidates in Herat – the only woman to take the top spot in any of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. And with close to 17,000 votes, she was, by a large margin, the country’s top woman vote getter.

The female stars of the race, political heavyweights such as Kabul’s Shukria Barakzai or Nangahar’s Safia Seddiqi, received just a fraction of Gailani’s impressive total. Seddiqi, a poet who rose to political prominence during the emergency Loya Jirga, came in third in Nangahar, with just over 9,000 votes. Barakzai, a political analyst and editor, came 24th in Kabul’s race with approximately 2,200 votes.

Gailani, a diminutive 33-year-old mother of six, is convinced that it was her unstinting service to the province that secured her a seat. But many in Herat – both supporters and detractors – hint that her looks and her large and ubiquitous campaign posters secured the win.

"Fawzia was not well-known in Herat," said Nahid Baqi, a student at the literature department at Herat University. "Certainly her posters had something to do with it."

Since her victory, Gailani has received a lot of media attention, and some of it has not been kind. Newspaper pieces hinting that her appearance, rather than her intellect or acuity, attracted voters make her angry.

"It is absolutely not true that people voted for me because of the posters," she said. “I established courses for women in Herat to teach them English, computer courses and the Holy Koran.”

She also launched the city’s first fitness centre for women – continuing a line of work she began as a refugee in Iran, where she spent 16 years during the wars and strife that have plagued Afghanistan’s recent history.

But analysts believe that the real reason for Gailani’s surprising success is her last name.

The Gailani family is an illustrious one in Afghanistan, as bearers of a Sufi Muslim tradition. Family members played a prominent role among the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet invastion, and gained more kudos by staying out of the bloody internecine conflict that followed the collapse of communist rule in 1992.

“Gailani is a religious family,” said Fazel Rahman Oria, a political analyst and editor of the monthly magazine Payam. “They command great respect, especially in Paktika, Herat, and Nangarhar.”

In voting for Fawzia, people were giving voice to their trust in the Gailanis, he said, though added that she is accomplished in her own right.

“Fawzia did things for people in Herat,” said Oria. “That is why she got so many votes. But her family name certainly helped her.”

Habubullah Rafi, political analyst and member of the Academy of Sciences, agrees that family connections helped. “The name Gailani is a bright one in Afghanistan. People respect them,” he said.

Faiz Mohammad Gailani, Fawzia’s husband, supported his wife throughout the campaign. He travelled with her on the stump, helping to ensure her safety in a country where women candidates were often intimidated, sometimes even attacked.

In a country where men have enjoyed undisputed dominance for centuries, this makes him quite unusual.

“I am totally satisfied with my husband,” said Gailani with a smile.

She will now sit shoulder-to-shoulder in parliament with some of the most notorious people in her country’s history. The new legislature contains many who have been dubbed warlords or even criminals by domestic and international human rights bodies. But Gailani isn’t fazed by the prospect.

“I am confident that the new parliament will work unanimously for the nation. I am not afraid,” she said. “If there is a dispute in parliament, I will defend issues in the national interest.”

She dismisses the widespread criticism of the elections, saying that overall the process was fair and well run.

“There were some small frauds, but it wasn’t enough to bring the entire process into question,” she said.

Gailani is a high-school graduate in a country where up to 80 per cent of the population is illiterate. And with her fitness centre she is also a pioneer in business.

But she acknowledges that Afghanistan may not be ready for women to take their place alongside men in public life.

“Women received many fewer votes than men,” she said. “This is because of the security situation, because of fear and weakness among women themselves. It is a great accomplishment that women will have 68 seats in the [lower house of parliament], but women need more chances."

Gailani makes her own chances. According to student Nahid Baqi, it was also Fawzia's gutsy and aggressive campaign that convinced voters.

“She was always going to remote areas of Herat,” said Baqi. “She was not afraid to go places where men congregated. She did not restrict her campaigning only to women.

“Most of the people who voted for her were ordinary people, and that was because of her campaign.”

Wahidullah Amani and Salima Ghafari are IWPR staff reporters in Kabul.

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