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Afghan Women's Movement Enters Political Arena

Some observers have expressed concern that a new women's political movement led by influential lawmaker Fawzia Koofi (pictured) could be used as an electoral tool by its male backers.
When Wave of Change, a female-led political movement, was unveiled last week in Afghanistan, it was greeted with applause by women's rights activists.

The movement, led by influential female lawmaker and outspoken rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi, was hailed as an important step in consolidating the fragile gains made by Afghan women and inspiring them to take part in public life.

But skeptics say the movement, which was launched as candidates register for next year's crucial presidential election, could be used as an electoral tool by the movement's male backers to gain wider support both at home and abroad.

Wave of Change, or Mawj-e Tahawal in Dari, was launched in a ceremony in Kabul on September 26. During a passionate speech in front of hundreds of supporters, Koofi promised to take Afghanistan "out of the days of darkness and bring about change."

"We will not let those who have stayed in power and still want to rule us to contest the elections," said Koofi, a 38-year-old mother of two. "We will fight against gender discrimination and increase women's participation in the elections."

Amina Zia Masud is a human rights activist and daughter of Ahmad Zia Masud, a potential presidential candidate who is a former vice president and brother of legendary Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masud.

According to her, the creation of the female-led political movement has the potential to inspire future generations of women to run for leadership positions in the country. "I think because Koofi has created such a movement and she's willing to become a [presidential] candidate, it paves the way for a lot of other girls and women in the future who do have political ambitions," she says. "It's a very important step."

A Cunning Ploy?

Under Afghan election law, presidential candidates must be at least 40 years of age, which would apparently prevent Koofi from running in the upcoming election slated for April 5.

Koofi, the country's first female deputy speaker of parliament, has braved numerous death threats over the course of her political career in becoming a champion of women's rights, a leader in the fight against corruption, and a vocal critic of the possible return of the Taliban.

But while Koofi's headline name provides legitimacy, skeptics note that powerful, male backers stand behind the movement. And this, they say, raises concerns that they intend to use the movement as an electoral ploy to win the support of young people and women and increase their standing with the international community.

Waliullah Rahmani, the director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, says Koofi has close ties with influential politicians from the country's north, including Ahmad Zia Masud; Abdullah Abdullah, the 2009 election runner-up; and Yunus Qanuni, the former speaker of parliament.

Koofi herself hails from the northern Badakhshan Province, an impoverished, remote region bordering Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan.

Rahmani suggests that certain political figures could have their own designs on the movement. "Fawzia Koofi is an influential and famous figure," he says. "If she supports figures like Ahmad Zia Masud it means that he has the support of a leading women's rights activist in Afghanistan. It could give a very strong signal outside of Afghanistan that he supports women's rights and human rights."

While attending the launch of Wave of Change, potential presidential candidate Ahmad Zia Masud praised Koofi and said major changes were needed in Afghanistan. "Unfortunately, we have not yet witnessed a major social or political evolution," he said. "We are still facing ethnic issues in the country and the political arena still revolves around tribal and ethnic allegiances."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.