Afghan women make political gain

At least 64 women will be part of next month's national assembly, which will shape the country's constitution.

They slipped the letter under Nafesa Baha's door one night. It read: "Warning. If you continue in this process of trying to elect women to the loya jirga, you will be targeted."

But Mrs. Baha decided the show must go on and got herself a gun. In the face of such threats, she oversaw a new kind of election this week: one for women only. Here in Logar, two women were chosen to represent this deeply conservative province in a nationwide assembly, or loya jirga, which will shape Afghanistan's constitution - and its very future - when it meets in Kabul next month.

Thursday marked two years since the fall of the Taliban, who used an extreme interpretation of Islam to force women and girls to stay home and wear the all-encompassing burqa. Two years on, such limitations have been loosened, but have hardly fallen away. In this province, an hour and a half south of the capital, every woman who arrived for the election at this heavily guarded and gated compound wore a burqa - though the polyester blue shrouds disappeared once inside. Some said they had to lie to their families in order to attend.

Baha, who heads the women's division of the constitutional loya jirga committee for the province of Logar, says that she brought the threatening letter to the local military commander. He issued her a Kalashnikov and sent her on her way.

"I patrol around my house at night, and I keep it with me for security," says Baha, letting loose a toothy grin that stands out against her deep brown skin. "I decided that I'm going to keep doing this no matter what, even if they try to kill me."

Important barometer

The concept of having women vote at women-only elections was intended to get around the obvious difficulties women would otherwise face in being elected to the loya jirga. The constitutional assembly, which will convene Dec. 10, is meant to define what Afghanistan's future government and system of justice will look like, providing an important barometer of true regime change.

While a proposed constitutional draft, released last week, attempts to strike a balance between being an Islamic republic and a democratic one, rights advocates say the document doesn't go far enough to ensure women will have better standing in a future Afghanistan.

"In the new constitution, it says men are still allowed to have four wives, and we want to end that," says Najiba Said, who was a delegate to the last national assembly, citing one issue some women want to change. Others are equal rights in such matters as divorce and inheritance.

Of the 500 seats, a minimum of 64 of them are reserved for women, allowing for the election of two delegates from each of Afghanistan's 32 provinces. But women can also be chosen in general elections, and by President Hamid Karzai - who will personally appoint 50 seats. Women might also be elected in other categories reserved for minorities - such as the seminomadic Kuchis and refugees in Pakistan and Iran - raising hopes among women's groups that close to a 100 women could participate.

Small cross section

Those who do participate tend to represent a rather minuscule cross section of society. Only the literate may serve on the constitutional loya jirga, and by most estimates, that's only about 10 percent of Afghan women.

Those invited to register for the vote were leaders in nongovernmental aid groups, or were school teachers and principals. Even among them, some had to fight to attend, while others skirted the issue by not informing their husbands.

"I would love to participate in a loya jirga in Kabul, but my family would never let me," says Rosia Abassy, a third-grade teacher. "They would not have even let me come here today, so I just pretended I was going out to teach school this morning."

There were some 60 women at this election, falling short of hopes for a broader turnout. In some provinces there were more than 200, according to a United Nations official who came to observe.

But the deeper one gets into territory where the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups are said to be regaining ground, the more difficult it is to get women out to vote.

In Paktika, a largely Pashtun province in the far southeast, "We have no women registered for the elections at all," says Firouza Nawabi, who is monitoring all of Afghanistan's elections for women. "We were supposed to have an election on Nov. 3, but no women showed up."

Other areas have also been problematic. The commissioners are still struggling to hold a valid election in the province of Parwan, north of Kabul. No women from the Panjshir district - the heartland of the Northern Alliance militia, which the US assisted in overthrowing the Taliban - came to the election last Saturday.

"The mullah in the mosque announced that women cannot participate in the elections," Nawabi sighs, before striding off to explain the election ground rules for the women gathered in cliques on the carpet.

They were still getting congratulatory kisses when a rash of blue blossoms sprouted from almost nowhere. Burqas emerged from bags and were quickly refitted on the crowns of heads. The voters flipped their flaps down and went home.

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