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Afghanistan: Female Lawmakers Taking Their Rightful Place In Politics

By Hamida Osman A campaign poster for a female candidate (file photo) (RFE/RL) During their campaigns, they endured intimidation, threats of physical violence, and restrictions tied to Afghanistan's conservative traditions. But they persevered. And now dozens of female deputies have taken their seats in the upper and lower houses of Afghanistan's new parliament.

Kabul, 20 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Shukria Barkzai called it a "momentous day."

Barkzai is one of 68 women elected to seats in the lower house of Afghanistan's new parliament, where she is also a candidate for speaker. The parliament is also the first in Afghanistan since 1973.

Barkzai described her feelings during the opening session of parliament yesterday, in an interview with RFE/RL's Afghan Service.

"The atmosphere was beautiful, very calm, full of emotions and love," she said. "I think if our previous leaders once again attempt to divide people under the names of languages, regions, and clans, I am 100 percent sure that the current atmosphere in parliament will continue forever."

Twenty-five percent of the seats in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, or National Assembly, were reserved for women. Seventeen women will also sit in the upper house.

Barkzai said she hopes the new parliament will set an example for the whole country: "We should make good laws for Afghanistan, and we should be strong observers of the law for this country. We should respect new ideas. We should catch some people who don't believe in democracy, but now they've joined this new process. We should teach them [what] democracy is, and I hope this parliament will be a successful parliament for the future of this country."

Malalai Joya represents the western province of Farah in the lower house. Joya is one of the most outspoken critics of the makeup of the new parliament, whose members include warlords, militia commanders, and former Taliban officials. Many of the new legislators also lack political experience.

"I'll try to introduce legislation that will protect the rights of the oppressed people and safeguard women's rights," Joya said. "Those who came here under the name of democracy shouldn't be given the chance to continue their crimes under the slogan of democracy. Which means first, I represent my people here, and secondly, I will also continue my struggle against warlords, no matter what party or sex they belong to. I'll continue my struggle, especially against those parties who destroyed our country. As I am representing my people, I have big hopes."

Joya says she won't discriminate between male and female members of parliament, but says that those who committed human rights abuses and other crimes in Afghanistan's violent past should not be treated equally.

During September's parliamentary vote, Afghans also elected provincial councils, which then appointed two-thirds of the members of the 102-seat upper house. Afghan President Hamid Karzai selected who would fill the remaining seats.

Joya believes Karzai compromised too much in his choices. "Unfortunately, we see there are some selected members of the upper house with blood on their hands," she said. "That is useless, and they present a threat to the people of Afghanistan. The government should not trust those who have failed the people once. Instead, the government should have selected people with qualifications in legislation and those who have not committed any crimes. Many people are worried and concerned of Karzai's decision to take such action."

Reuters quotes Mohammad Yunos Qanooni, a former factional official whose forces have been accused of abuses, as saying the term "warlord" is outdated. Abd al-Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former commander who has been accused of war crimes by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, says the new parliament "represents the reality of Afghanistan."

Afghanistan Votes

Afghanistan Votes

RFE/RL's complete coverage of the historic September 18, 2005, legislative elections in Afghanistan.