They came, they voted, but did they conquer?
By Mona Sarika

“On the election day, I went to vote. I went with my husband … his sister Naseema, and my babysitter Nafis Gul. … While I was at the polls there were no other women there besides us,” wrote Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, on Aug. 20.

Although the August elections may have been a democratic step forward for Afghanistan, they were ultimately a step backward for Afghan women. In a war-ravaged country, where women have few rights, millions of Afghan women were denied their chance to vote in the presidential election.

Gretchen Birkle, who runs a non-profit organization and served as a monitor for Afghanistan’s August presidential and provincial council elections, writes that according to Ruqiya Nayel, an Afghan member of parliament from Ghor, “about 40 percent of women were registered to vote, however the final numbers on how many women actually voted are not expected for several days.”

According to the New York Times, women voted in higher numbers in the northern region of Afghanistan — Bamiyan and Kabul — compared with Taliban-dominated southern areas like Kandahar. From the numbers coming out of these elections it appears that women voted in fewer numbers than in previous elections. Nahal Toosi and Noor Khan of the Associated Press estimated overall turnout ranged from 40 to 50 percent, down from 70 percent in the last presidential election in 2004.

This should come as no surprise considering the additional obstacles those women voters had to face: In addition to Taliban violence and intimidation that threatened the entire population, including the killing of election officials and threats to any Afghans with ink on their fingers, there were other insurmountable obstacles that contributed specifically to the low turnout among women.

Due to everything from lax security conditions at polling stations to a lack of female staff members at women-only polling stations to hundreds of closed women’s voting sites, voting was made even more difficult for women. (According to Free and Fair Elections in Afghanistan, the largest watchdog of Afghan elections, almost 650 women’s polling centers did not open, especially in the southern cities like Kandahar.) The lack of female staff to operate the strictly segregated stations, and more importantly, the absence of female searchers to frisk women voters as they arrived at those stations, deterred burqa-clad women from voting, and conservative men across the country banned their wives and daughters from taking part as a result.

These problems continue in the aftermath of the elections as this lack of female staff has fueled fears of proxy voting. In places like Gardez, men were registering wives, mothers, and daughters in absentia, with no guarantees that the votes accurately represented the wishes of the women voters. Organizations like MAS never received safe transport to bring women, who otherwise were not allowed to leave the house unescorted to the polls.

Despite these obstacles, the women of Afghanistan have emerged with an unusual boldness in the recent elections to participate in democracy and fight for their rights. “Why should we be scared?” said Nurzia of western Kabul, a mother of four who brought her daughter and nieces to vote despite the four small bombs that exploded in the morning. “We came to have a say in our future and for our children.” The election has demonstrated their bravery and strong determination to defy the oppressive rule of the Taliban and gain more rights.

Zainab, a 40-year-old voter from the southern city of Kandahar, told the New York Times, “I am happy to use my vote, and I hope things will change and peace will knock at our door.” NPR News reports about another brave woman from Kandahar, Sapnah, who defied her family in her quest to vote when she slipped out of her house with her two young sons despite orders from her husband and family to stay at home. She said she was determined to re-elect President Hamid Karzai and that neither security woes nor the cultural taboo of defying one’s male relatives would have kept her indoors.

Recently, the outrage of women’s rights activists against Afghanistan’s controversial marital rape law (the most oppressive statutes are that women should get their husband’s permission before leaving the house, and husbands have the right to have sex with their wives whenever they wish — to legitimatize marital rape) has emboldened Afghan women to fight the law. Despite the restrictions and the threats, these burqa-clad women have openly confronted the conservative attitudes in the country and have demanded their rights in public demonstrations. Salma Fedayee, a resident of Kabul, told the Christian Science Monitor in April, “We’ve been silent for all of these years, but we can’t tolerate this anymore.” Their defiance in countering protesters’ stones and insults ultimately forced the government to relent and allowed their nominees to enter the parliament.

A great solace lies in the fact that despite the country’s volatile security conditions, Afghan women not only cast their votes, but also made their foray into Afghan politics. Two women ran for the presidency, five sought the vice presidency, and some 300 women ran for election to provincial councils. The desire to work on Afghan women’s issues was so strong and powerful that despite the fact that their posters were torn down and there was fear for their safety, these brave women still contested elections. Kudos to these brave women of Afghanistan, who defied the Taliban and ventured out to vote. Kudos to the female election workers, who carried ballot boxes despite fear of attack. As Hasan Bano Ghazanfar, the sole woman minister in Karzai’s cabinet, who motivated women at the jirga (bringing together activists from around the country, the jirga was designed to put women’s issues back on the agenda) to make their voices heard at the ballots said, “Don’t believe your vote does not matter. A single vote can change your family’s fortunes. …  It can change your life.”

Women contesting elections in Afghanistan, braving the repression by family, society, and in some places the Taliban to vote in this election, however imperfect and small, is a welcome change in this patriarchal conservative Afghan society. The women of Afghanistan are gradually learning how to obtain their political rights in a society dominated by men. To push their agenda forward Afghan women need to come together to mobilize their votes and raise awareness of their rights. Ultimately the need of the hour is for them to be unified so that their voices can be heard. Afghanistan needs more women leaders and activists to come together and speak in one voice to bring women’s issues to the forefront.

As Shinkai Karokhail, a member of parliament in Afghanistan said to Al Jazeera, “Men will realize we have a voice. We need more women ministers, more diplomats, and for those who are there to come together and speak in one voice.”

Mona Sarika blogs for the Huffington Post.


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