In Spite of Taliban Threats, Afghan Women Come Out to Cement Their Right to Vote

It was the early morning, and the streets sounded eerily quiet in Karte-3, a central neighborhood of Kabul. Armed soldiers, police officers and roadblocks replaced children playing football. In front of polling stations, some journalists even wore helmets and body armor. On the 28th of September, the capital was bracing itself for a presidential election the Taliban had vowed to disrupt—even if it meant killing civilians. 

Rabia Balkhi High School, Kabul. (Elise Blanchard)

Contrary to the tense streets outside the polling station set up at Habibia High School, it was difficult to believe the scene upon entering the female voting section: laughs and joyous chatter resonated between the walls of the classroom. In front of the blackboard, a little boy rested his head on one election observer’s lap. 

As expected, turnout was extremely low—but those who did come knew they were not simply casting their vote for their chosen candidate, but also making a statement: They’d retain their right to vote, and the Taliban would not take it away.

Rabia Balkhi High School, Kabul. (Elise Blanchard)

“Taliban don’t want us to come,” said Neema Soratgar, 40, “but we are stronger than them.” Soratgar, a teacher and owner of a fitness club, brought her 7-year-old daughter and 19-year-old niece along with her. Shy, the lanky teenager recorded a video with her smartphone as her aunt pointed her finger stamped in blue ink, indicating she’d voted. 

“I decided to show my children that it is our responsibility to vote, especially as women—it’s a big chance, a big event in our lives,” Soratgar said. She remembers how, when the Taliban was in power, she was jailed for having a makeshift school for girls in her home—and how she restarted it right after her release. Now, just as before, she refuses to listen to the insurgents. 

Palwasha Hassan, 48, did not listen either: “Voting is my response to the Taliban,” she said. “I can vote and not listen to you.”

Despite the statement in which the insurgents issued an “ultimatum,” “especially to city dwellers,” not to go to polling stations, Hassan went to vote at Rabia Balkhi High School, accompanied by her sister and mother. 

Although the system is far from perfect, Hassan reflected, “I don’t want to go back to an Afghanistan where somebody comes to power by force and people have no say—so even if I see no ideal candidate, I had to come and vote.” 

Rabia Balkhi High School, Kabul. (Elise Blanchard)

This sentiment wasn’t limited to female voters in Kabul. The Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS), an Afghan research organization dedicated to strengthening democratic processes in the country, conducted a voting awareness training for around 200 women from 18 provinces. 

In places which are often much more conservative than the capital, women faced many obstacles: lack of information, social pressure not to go, difficult access to polls—sometimes due to lack of female staff—and a strong Taliban presence. 

“After the training, these women campaigned in their home provinces, but not necessarily for a candidate,” Samina Ansari, Head of Public Affairs at DROPS said. “They campaigned for voting, for the process and the system that allowed them to do so.”

The women DROPS spoke to also worried that if the Taliban were to come back to power, gains made in the past 18 years—including the right to vote—would be lost. Indeed, giving women the chance to participate in choosing their country’s leader would have been unthinkable under the 1990s insurgents’ government. 

While Afghan women have kept their right to vote in this election, it is important to remember than the country’s electoral system is far from perfect. Fraud has been rampant in previous elections, and turnout has hit record lows, according to current estimates. Plus, there were no women among the candidates.

But for Shinkai Karokhail, one of 69 female MPs in Parliament, this doesn’t mean people should give up on the process.

“It is not optional, in my opinion, at this moment in our lives,” Karokhail said. “You cannot force people to vote—but we are in a critical situation and we have to save this country.”

Shinkai Karokhail, one of 69 female MPs in Parliament, casts her vote at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul. (Elise Blanchard)

Ms. is monitoring the outcome of the elections, but results are not expected for three weeks.

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About

Elise Blanchard is a French freelance journalist and photographer based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She studied journalism at Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia University in New York. She is on Instagram @eliseblchrd.