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

A Step Backwards for Afghan Women

Women are sorely underrepresented in the new cabinet – and they want to know why.
By Salima Ghafari
Women have made great strides since the fall of the Taleban: they are back in schools and the workplace, and they have more than a quarter of the seats in the new legislature.

But in at least one area women seem to have taken a step backwards - the new cabinet, which at present is entirely male.

There was only one female candidate on the list of 25 ministers that President Hamed Karzai submitted for parliamentary approval in March - Suraya Rahim Sobhrang, nominated for the women’s affairs ministry - and she failed to win confirmation. No new candidate has yet been proposed.

In the previous government, the ministries in charge of women’s affairs, youth affairs, and martyrs and disabled were all headed by women.

That is not to say there are no women in the executive: there are two female deputy ministers of women’s affairs, one deputy health minister, one in the higher education ministry and one in the ministry of labour and social affairs. There is also a female governor in Bamian province.

But the fact that there are none with full ministerial rank has got some Afghan women fighting mad. President Karzai, they say, is being pressured by radical Islamic groups and former leaders of the anti-communist jihad to keep women out of power.

“I am extremely dissatisfied,” said Shukria Barakzai, a female parliamentarian in Kabul. “Without a doubt, the new cabinet has been formed based on consultation with various jihadi factions.”

Mazari Safa, the deputy minister of women’s affairs, also expressed concern.

“Our ministry is worried about the lack of women in the new cabinet,” she said. “We have told the president many times, via letters and the media, that the women’s ministry wants a real presence for women in all matters.”

Presidential spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi acknowledged that Karzai had consulted with religious and tribal elders in forming the cabinet. He would continue this practice since it helped build national solidarity, said Rahimi, adding that this did not mean the president made his decisions under pressure from any specific group or faction.

“The presence of three women in the previous cabinet and only one [nominated] in the new one does not mean that their value or position is reduced,” said Rahimi. “Now there is one woman in the cabinet, but there may be five in the future. It is not important to us.”

Rahimi’s comment on one cabinet post being held by a woman referred to the post of women’s affairs minister, for which another female candidate is likely to be nominated following the rejection of Sobhrang.

According to Sabrina Saqib, one of the youngest deputies in parliament, previous female ministers are to blame for the current absence of women.

“The three women who were in the cabinet before were unable to win the government’s trust,” she said. “Therefore, men believe that women don’t have the necessary skills.”

Saqib said that when female members of parliament spoke to Karzai about his failure to propose women for cabinet posts, “The president said that they were unable to find any skilled and experienced women to head ministries, and that most of the competent women are in parliament.”

Nonsense, said Malalai Joya, the outspoken deputy from Farah province who regularly tackles the jihadi leaders in her speeches.

“There are many experienced and skilled women in Afghanistan, but they are prevented by powerful groups from assuming their rightful place in government and politics,” she said. These groups included warlords and various jihadi factions, she added.

“Karzai’s glorious celebration of mujahedin victory day shows he will do anything to please these groups,” said Joya, referring to the parades and festivities held to mark the Eighth of Sauer, in late April, the day the mujahedin captured Kabul in 1992 and ousted the communist regime. Many Afghans believe that this date marked the beginning of the worst conflict and destruction the country has experienced, and see no reason to celebrate it.

According to political analyst Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, the former mujahedin leaders have gained the upper hand in parliament, and this has made them bolder in their demands.

“The jihadi leaders did not have a free hand during the interim and transitional governments,” he said, referring to the administrations which existed from 2002 to 2006. “But now that these people have secured a majority in parliament, they can impose any conditions they want on the government.”

Getting rid of women in the cabinet was one of their first gains, he said.

But Abdul Shakur Waqif Hakimi, spokesman for Jamiat-e-Islami, the party to which many jihadi leaders including former president Burnahuddin Rabbani belong, said his party had not been consulted on the formation of the cabinet.

And he denied that – if it had been asked - Jamiat would have intervened to keep women out of government.

“Jamiat-e-Islami does not disagree with women being present in the cabinet,” he said.

Political analyst Qasim Akhgar said he was worried that government by an all-male cabinet would have a negative effect of women’s morale.

“I consider it a step backwards,” he said.

Many Kabul women agree. Rabia, 33, a housewife, said that she believed the jihadi leaders did have a hand in cutting the number of women in the cabinet.

“It isn’t true that women are free,” she said. “Women’s freedom only exists in words. They have always humiliated women, and they are doing it again. They don’t want women to be involved in politics.”

Salima Ghafari is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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