Afghan Women and Elections: Unseen, Unheard, Unknown
Nasrine Gross, USA/Afghanistan
August 11, 2004
These days Afghanistan is engrossed in a wonderful debate over democracy and first-ever presidential elections. From street corners, teahouses and wheat fields to classrooms, offices and fashionable parlors, the talk is about candidates, parties and participation. The press, the politicians, the intellectuals, the educated elites and the folks on the street are all proffering their opinions. Every print, talk and picture media has analyses, roundtables and reports. And the civil society is holding seminars, conferences and symposia.
However, most of these events and pronouncements are made only by men, for men and about men. Afghan women are absent from nearly all of this. In fact, since the ratification of the new constitution, there is a noticeable decrease in women’s activities, visibility and voice. What is worrisome is that almost everyone involved in Afghanistan seems to be acquiescing to this situation including the international community, the government, the political groups and all the media. Here are some examples of what I mean: The United Nations in Afghanistan does not seem to have any women in top positions or does not give them any visibility. The foreign missions, as far as I can tell, with the exception of the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom, seem to be void of women in high offices, especially the Islamic countries. The Joint Electoral Commission seems to have only men in high-level positions or as spokespersons even though women have been its very successful—and sometimes tragic—workers, and a couple of high-ranking women are employed there but they are not given much opportunity to be seen and heard publicly.
In the political arena, there are no women as heads or spokespersons of the thirty registered parties. There are no women as spokespersons or as advisors in the entourage of any of the declared candidates. I have not heard of a single woman present in all of the much talked-about back door negotiations and coalition building among potential candidates and power brokers. Nor have there been any statements encouraging women in this political way.
As well, women are rarely shown in media photos of local leaders meeting national leaders, whether in Kabul or in the provinces, either as staff members of the leaders or as members of local delegations. I don’t have a TV, but in radio programs to which I listen extensively, rarely are there women as commentators, analysts or interviewees. Nor are women’s civil society activities reported rigorously. And, very few women’s voices were heard a while back when for several weeks a much-publicized reportage of a national unity program comprised of opinions of political and learned figures was aired by official media.
Under such circumstances one gets the feeling that Afghanistan consists of only men. That Afghanistan and the world community consider the affairs and future of Afghanistan to belong solely to Afghan men. That all women’s gains in the constitution, in education, in employment the last two and half years have been for show or for satisfying some external, out-of-the-country need without any attention to this fifty percent of the Afghan population.
The only attention that has been given is to the number of women registering to vote. A great victory has been achieved that 41% of the 8.6 million registered voters are women. But based on what is happening in Kabul, one is left thinking that all this emphasis on women registering is so women would vote for men without men acknowledging them.
I am very concerned about this situation. The establishment of democracy and the holding of elections are touted as the panacea for lifting Afghanistan out of a failed state status and putting it on the sure road to the rule of law and reconstruction. Yet, there are always these hollowed and clichéd arguments used against women’s full participation: For women not registering in some parts of the country, the argument is that men do not allow their women to get out of the house. While in reality these countrywomen work in the fields perfectly unencumbered and meet with non-relative men to negotiate water turns, crop pick up and trade. How could it be that their husbands accept this activity but will not let them go to the nearby office and register with a female staff? This to me seems like propaganda.
Another argument is that we are a traditional society and we cannot break these traditions but must go slow. Well, registering to vote and casting a ballot to elect a president is not a tradition of Afghanistan. On the contrary this is the first time in the history of the country that this activity is being undertaken, and look how 90% of all adults embraced this novelty. I do not accept that Afghans cannot discern the good in a new activity if it is presented to them correctly.
Still a third argument is that too few women are ready for national political discourse. How about the several hundred women that so successfully attended the two loya jirgas? And those women who drafted and reviewed the constitution? How about the thousands of female doctors, teachers and professors all over Afghanistan, the many female poets and writers and Koranic reciters, the thousands of female mujahedeen, hundreds of female retired government employees, thousands of female university students or the legions of female NGO and civil society workers? Where are their analyses, commentaries and opinions?
And finally, it is argued that the non-literate women of Afghanistan who comprise the majority of women (about 90%) are not aware of the social conditions and cannot articulate the needs and wishes of the people. I think this is the worst propaganda. I think farmers‚ wives, quilt makers, midwives, widows, crippled women, mothers who have borne nineteen children, female rug weavers, kilim makers, fruit driers, vegetable pickers and Kuchi women, all these women are very aware of their own wishes, their families’ and communities’ needs as well as their own traditions and historical and social contexts. Why are we not seeing or hearing from them? Why are we not having round table discussions of couples from far villages? Why are they not included in the dialogue? Why are our leaders, powerbrokers, pundits and press not interested in these women’s views?
How do we gage what Afghan women expect from democracy without giving these full citizens of Afghanistan an opportunity to also speak? How can we know what they are capable of if we never see or hear them? How can we help society see what women’s participation really means if we never show them? How can we solve Afghanistan’s problems if we do not include women in this great debate about our future?
Democracy is my people’s choice, men and women’s alike. For the sake of Afghanistan and the world beyond, let us not replace it with political patriarchy!
Nasrine Gross, an Afghan writer, is a women’s rights activist and the recipient of the 2004 Medal of Freedom from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany. She teaches at Kabul University and works at the University’s National Center for Policy Research.