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FEATURE | winter 2006

A Brave Sisterhood
Throughout Afghanistan, women overcame sexism, illiteracy - even bullets - to run for office and vote.

Candidate Parween Darani campaigns near KabulOn election morning, the Jefaya mosque in eastern Kabul is packed with women of all ages, many in blue burqas, squeezed together in disorderly lines. While other polling sites across the Afghan capital remain quiet, with a lower turnout than expected, this one bustles with activity.

Women of the Shiite minority, historically one of the most mistreated groups in Afghanistan, have come out in force to make sure their voices are heard. But many, being illiterate, are having trouble navigating the seven-page ballot.

Halima, 75, who like many Afghans only goes by one name, has a confused look on her wrinkled face. She has been sitting in the corner for at least half an hour, scanning the packed ballot like a newspaper. "I know it's very important to vote," she says, "so from 8 a.m. I've been sitting here, looking for my candidate."

Afghanistan's historic parliamentary election on September 18th was the last step on the path to democracy dictated by the Bonn agreement, which set out a process of democratization for the country after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It was a significant step, as well, for women's participation in the country's political process, both as voters and as candidates. Of the 5,700 candidates running for 249 seats in the House of People, or Wolesi Jirga - the lower house of parliament - and 420 seats on provincial councils, 575 were women. But the relatively low number of female candidates was deceiving, since the 2004 constitution had already determined that at least 25 percent of the seats in the House of People would be filled with women.

It's a remarkable boost in achievement for the female population of the country, considering that Afghanistan's problems are still magnified for women. Eighty percent of the country's women are illiterate. A woman dies every 27 minutes in childbirth. Under an ineffectual judicial system, men illegally sell their daughters to prospective husbands, while women who are raped fear prosecution for adultery. Teenage girls and young women still set themselves on fire to escape forced marriages or violence.

Many believe that women's political gains have been achieved faster than the society is ready for. But that couldn't stop women from running for office or voting.

On the day before the elections, an American organization hosts a gathering of women in the aging Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, high on a hill overlooking the city. For security reasons, its location had to be kept secret until the last minute, and bags are carefully inspected at the door. Inside, women candidates mingle with veteran women's-rights workers from Afghanistan and beyond.

"Women work in offices now, and in government," says Laila Ahmadzai, program coordinator for the NGO Women for Afghan Women, who spent 13 years in Pakistan as a refugee, returning to Kabul three years ago after the Taliban was driven from power. "When people moved to Pakistan, we saw different cultures, and brought changes to our own lifestyles. Now women have more rights in their homes."

Hossai Andar is familiar with these changes. A 41-year-old with a ready smile, she has been running as a candidate in her home province of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. She receives visitors in her small apartment, which doubles as campaign headquarters, but shoos the men out so she can speak freely. Under the Taliban regime, she ran an underground school for girls here. In four years, she says, 500 girls attended, taking classes in math, physics, chemistry, English and the Koran. When Taliban officials became suspicious, she told them she had a tailoring shop and taught girls handicrafts. She called the program Tailoring and Embroidery for Girls.

Andar had problems campaigning in Ghazni, a city which is largely under the control of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the feared leader of one of the main mujahideen groups that fought against the Soviets. "I don't trust my own mother," says Andar. "Everyone is from a political party. I tell them I'm running for one of the three seats set aside for women, but they know my campaign is very wide [in the constituency she hopes to serve]. People are tired of Sayyaf - they want democrats, educated people."

Many women ran on the platform of having "clean hands" - unstained by affiliation with armed factions and the violence or religious extremism of the country's past. But without strong political or financial backing, the new women parliamentarians could find themselves sidelined among the commanders and clerics who were expected to win the majority of seats in the House of People.

The best hope is that the new female parliamentarians will have a moderating influence on their colleagues. "Afghan women can provide an important counterbalance to the political and religious extremism that threatens to undermine democracy in Afghanistan," said a February 2005 study done by the Women Waging Peace Policy Commission (now the Initiative for Inclusive Security Policy Commission), a Harvard University-launched group that explores conflicts around the globe.

But running for office in Afghanistan called for bravery far beyond that required of, say, an American woman running for the U.S. Congress. Candidate Malalai Joya, 27, a women's-rights activist campaigning in the western Farah province, gained fame at the 2003 Afghan constitutional assembly by saying that the jihadi commanders who fought the civil war in the 1990s - many of whom were sitting there - were criminals and should face punishment from national and international courts. Death threats ensued, and Joya had to travel incognito for security reasons.

Hawa Nuristani faces similar pressure this time around. She lies back in bed with a grimace, crutches propped up next to her. The former television news presenter is running for a seat in her home province of Nuristan, an impoverished region bordering China, despite having heard that a mullah in Nuristan had issued a fatwa, or edict, that anyone voting for a woman was an infidel. Her sisters had begged her to restrict her travels to Kabul and its environs, especially since, unlike many of the male candidates, she had no money to hire cars or gunmen and did much of her campaigning on foot. But the week before the election, as she was walking to a remote village, a gang of men with covered faces and AK-47's appeared and tried to make her group go with them. When the petite woman refused, they shot her in the leg.

"The fact that I am a candidate to parliament in itself is positive work," Nuristani says. "We shouldn't have the expectation that everything will change overnight. Tradition is still ruling; it's a religious society."

Nuristani wanted to run in Nuristan rather than Kabul, where she now lives, because she thought the people of Nuristan - especially the women - needed more help to bring about change. However, she says in doing so they must be careful not to move too fast. "If you want to go to the roof, you have to go step by step," she says. "In Nuristan, women's faces are totally covered. You can't tell them, suddenly, ‘Lower your scarf.' That would create a bad reaction."

Most of the candidates have faced a steep political learning curve. Nasrine Gross, an Afghan American women's-rights activist, ran a training seminar for women candidates in the run-up to the election, introducing them to such concepts as fundraising and public speaking. Her training guide includes sections on "Dealing With Men's One-Upmanship" and lessons on how to make people remember you. About 200 candidates, from the ages of 18 to 73, attended. Once elected, Gross says, the women will need extensive coaching on basics such as how laws are made and how to link up with other women to form voting blocs.

She tells the story of one 31-year-old candidate with six children from Ghor province, who was engaged at the age of 10 and married at 12. With only a sixth-grade education, she wanted to run on a platform of education for women. "Women have a very local, native understanding of the problems in their areas," says Gross. "It's important that they gain a voice."

Massouda Jalal, the minister for women's affairs, agrees. She was a candidate for president in October 2004, campaigning in a rickety yellow taxi-cab with her husband/manager while other candidates drove around in large SUVs with an entourage of staffers. Like the women running for parliament this year, she ran as an independent with little financial backing.

"I am trying to give them training, resource centers and a chance to meet other female parliamentarians," says Jalal. "I expect them to develop a sisterhood, and stand for women's rights." She has a 10-year plan, she says, by the end of which time there should be no need for a ministry of women's affairs.

But many think Jalal and others are too optimistic. A month after the election, Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, editor of the magazine Haqoq-e-Zan (Women's Rights), was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy, because of articles he wrote which questioned the severity of Islamic punishments for crimes such as adultery. Jalal said that this was due to parts of the Afghan government still needing reform, and she made an oblique reference to those Islamic clerics called the ulema, who continue to
dominate Afghan courts.

"We need legal and judicial reform," Jalal declared. "There are a lot of unprofessionals, and uncertified people working in the judicial area."

Back at the Jefaya mosque, Halima finally finishes voting. She puts her ballot in the box, lowers her burqa and walks out into the blinding sun to find her husband and children. "I don't usually get to come out and participate," she says. "Today is a great day."

Postscript: After accusations of election fraud delayed official results, it was announced on November 12 that 73 women won election to parliament. Malalai Joya won an unreserved seat, garnering the second-largest number of votes in Farah. Hawa Nuristani and Parween Darani won. Hossai Andar lost. Several candidates were wounded and eight killed during their campaigns. Warlords, clerics and candidates linked to warlords won the majority of seats in the House of People, including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who won seats for himself and his supporters. Warlords and allies also comprise a substantial majority of those elected to provincial councils, which elect 34 of the delegates to the House of Elders.

Bay Fang is a foreign correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered Afghanistan since October 2001.