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Protections For Women Under Threat In Afghanistan

Two Afghan women in Kabul walk past posters of presidential and provincial candidates ahead of elections in 2009.
Two Afghan women in Kabul walk past posters of presidential and provincial candidates ahead of elections in 2009.
The book on the war in Afghanistan is not yet closed, but already there are attempts to erase one of the post-Taliban era's most celebrated successes.

The participation of women in Afghanistan's political process, a right that was restored and protected in the country's new constitution and electoral law, has come under attack just as its government takes a bigger role in its own affairs.

Afghanistan's House of Elders, the upper house of parliament, is currently debating a revised electoral law whose draft text omits passages that set aside 25 percent of seats on provincial and district councils for women.

The House of the People, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, passed the draft legislation in late May. If approved by the upper house the bill would then be forwarded to the president for his signature.

The measure has raised concerns among rights and democracy activists. If it were to become law, they fear, the removal of seats allocated for women would effectively deprive women from serving in government at the provincial and local levels, where more conservative and male-dominated society prevails.

In turn, this could reduce the number of women in the upper house, whose members are selected from the provincial councils. And ultimately, the passage of the bill could build enough momentum to threaten the stipulation in the constitution that secures 25 percent of parliament seats for women.

Activists and women lawmakers view the move as part of a larger effort by conservative forces to exert their influence in Afghan institutions to shape the country's future to their liking.

Growing Nervousness

Women lawmakers see conservatives as pushing for maximum authority just as international forces plan their exit from Afghanistan, Kabul takes a leading role in the country's security, and citizens begin registering to vote in the presidential election set for early next year.

In a political tug of war expected to intensify as the election and withdrawal of foreign troops near, the conservatives are arguing against the affirmative-action measures by saying that reserving seats for women is undemocratic.

Qazi Nazeer Ahmad Hanafi, the head of the lower house's legislative commission, defends the proposed revisions to the electoral law.

"It is against the Afghan Constitution to set aside 25 percent of the seats for women in the provincial councils," Hanifi says. "This is because those who receive fewer votes in the elections will be able to win against those gaining more votes. Why can a man with 4,000 votes lose, and a woman can win with only 500 or 1,000 votes? [Women] are, in essence, appointed."

The Afghan Constitution does not specifically address the representation of women in provincial councils but does allow for 25 percent of the seats in the two houses of the national parliament to be reserved for women.


Shukaria Barakzai, a prominent female lawmaker, voted for the revised text that passed in the lower house last month but was later outraged to discover that the passage protecting women's representation in government had been omitted.

She says the parliament's legislative commission swindled legislators by not informing them about the change.

Barakzai sees a grand conspiracy behind the move. "Some factions such as the [hard-line Islamist] Hizb-e Islami and Jammiat-e Islami want to do away with the democratic achievements of the Afghan people," she says. "They want to return to a time when power grew from the barrel of a gun. They are afraid of women's empowerment because they do not want to see the politics being decided by ballots instead of bullets."

Barakzai says that some of the leading members of the two Islamist currents openly resist democracy by opposing elections and calling for the formation of a national council to replace a democratically elected government.

She says that these same forces blocked parliament from ratifying a law that would have branded violence against women as un-Islamic. "There were always political sensitivities and threats regarding women's rights in Afghanistan," Barakzai says. "But today the very presence of women in political, social, and economic life is being threatened."

The United States, which along with the United Nations was key to establishing the Afghan Constitutional Council that drafted the current constitution, expressed "concern" over the initiative.

"We are aware that the [Afghan] parliament is considering...election legislation that would remove the requirement that 25 percent of provisional council seats be reserved for women," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said earlier this month. "We urge the Afghan government to uphold the rights previously granted to women in an effort to protect their political participation."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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