Afghans' first stab at democracy

The new constitution grants more women's rights than expected, challenging Islamic beliefs of warlords.

A funny thing happened on the way to the new Afghan Constitution. The 502 delegates actually gave women more rights than President Hamid Karzai and his advisers had originally asked for.

Women emerged winners from the three-week constitutional loya jirga. So did President Hamid Karzai, who got the strong presidency and centralized government he had sought. Emerging as weaker were the mostly ethnic Tajik warlords of the Northern Alliance, who found themselves unable to outnumber or out-politic their opponents.

Key to the future, analysts say, will be how those warlords, who helped the US-led coalition oust the Taliban in December 2001, adjust to the democracy that Afghans forged under the big white tent at Kabul Polytechnic University. Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim and other Northern Alliance leaders still have stocks of heavy weapons and have dominated Mr. Karzai's government.

"We'll have to see how they implement the constitution and in what way the warlords adjust to the new reality,'' says Tahir Amin, an Afghan expert at Qaid-i-azam University in Islamabad.

Many competing provisions within the document - such as the equality of women versus the sanctity of Islamic beliefs - will need to be sorted out through an independent - and largely conservative - judiciary.

The new constitution, ratified by acclamation Jan. 4 after three weeks of often fiery debate, represents Afghanistan's first stab at democracy. It calls for an elected president, two vice-presidents, a two-house parliament, and provincial governors appointed in Kabul.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad praised the document as "one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world.''

The deliberations were often portrayed as a battle between the US-backed Karzai, his Western-educated advisers, and the majority ethnic Pashtuns on one side versus the mostly Tajik mujahideen warlords of the Northern Alliance. And, indeed, that conflict dominated - and nearly derailed - the proceedings.

But there emerged from the debate a third force, made up Afghanistan's less- powerful groups: women delegates, ethnic Hazaras, former Communists, and ethnic Uzbeks. It is they who insisted that the definition of citizenship be broadened to include "men or women," with both enjoying equal rights and duties before the law.

And it was their influence that increased the number of seats reserved for women in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, from one to two per province. Women will now hold at least 64 out of 250 seats in the lower house, or more than 25 percent, which is higher than in most Western democracies.

Neither Karzai nor his American backers publicly made a point of emphasizing women's rights during the loya jirga. Privately, Mr. Khalilzad told delegates that the democracies underwriting Afghanistan's reconstruction would not want to fund a state whose constitution avoided equal rights.

The Hazaras in particular have a long history of giving more liberty to women than Afghanistan's other ethnic groups, an issue that separated them from the rest of the mujahideen during Afghanistan's bloody civil war. The Hazaras are twice a minority: They make up 19 percent of the Afghan population, and they are Shia muslims in a country that is 84 percent Sunni.

This difference is apparent in the number of women registering to vote. In Afghanistan's central highlands, where most Hazaras live, women made up 41 percent, or 7,030, of the 17,240 people who had registered to vote by late December, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.

In mostly Pashtun Jalalabad, women made up just 7 percent, or 2,423, of 32,644 registered voters.

Overall, only 1 percent of Afghans have registered to vote, leaving a large task ahead for election organizers operating under a summer deadline. So far, UN-led registration drives have taken place in more stable and accessible urban areas. Whether the sign-ups reach the provincial and village levels depends on money and security.

The new constitution calls for presidential elections to be held in June, and says that parliamentary elections should be held at the same time as presidential elections. But most observers say presidential elections won't be held until September at the earliest, and that parliamentary elections will come in 2005.

As a result, Afghanistan's provinces will have little direct representation in the government for at least a year, making for potential friction with the central government.

The setting up of the judiciary will have wide implications on how the constitution ultimately gets implemented, and the practical extent of Afghan women's newfound equality under law.

"The whole question now comes to the appointment of judges to the supreme court. [Karzai and his allies are] probably going to try to get rid of some of the judges on the court who are very conservative, reactionary, and replace them with moderates, probably before the elections," says Ahmed Rashid, Afghanistan expert and author of "Taliban."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Afghans' first stab at democracy
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today