Women Candidates in Afghanistan Travel a Dangerous Campaign Trail
By Heather Somerville
Afghan women running in the country’s parliamentary elections in September face security threats that make campaigning difficult, and at times impossible. Female candidates have reported receiving verbal threats and “night letters” from the Taliban that threaten violence if they don’t stop their efforts, according to nonprofits working in the country.
The threats haven’t discouraged women from running for office, though. Of the 2,550 candidates in the country’s second-ever parliamentary election, 406 are women.
“The women who are brave enough to do this thing — it’s sort of a self-selected group,” said Gretchen Birkle of the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit advocating democracy abroad. “They’re resilient.”
There has not yet been a reported violent attack on a female candidate, but incidents in the more rural areas often go unreported, nonprofit workers said. Tension is expected to increase as the Sept. 18 election date draws near.
The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan postponed the original May election date last January, citing security concerns and a lack of money.
“Unfortunately I’m sure we’ll hear stories,” said Michelle Barsa, who does human rights advocacy work in Afghanistan through the private foundation Hunt Alternatives.
Compounding the challenges is the Islamic holiday Ramadan, which begins Aug. 11 and could potentially halt campaigns during the final, critical weeks. The holiday interruption adds to the challenge of conducting an effective campaign in a war-torn country where religious and societal codes have excluded women from government.
Western nonprofits have been working in Afghanistan since early spring to teach female candidates and their staffs campaign strategy and safety. The nonprofits offer candidates instruction on public speaking, financing a campaign, interacting with voters, using the media and protecting themselves. Birkle said more than 150 women have participated in her organization’s training, which is based in Kabul.
“They are very curious and interested and hungry for any kind of information they can have about how they can have an impact in their community,” Birkle said.
Still, only about 30 percent of the female candidates have been able to publicly campaign, according to Abdulla Ahmadi of the Cooperation Center for Afghanistan, a nonprofit based in Kabul. Most of the women who are campaigning have the support of their familes and can travel more freely than others.
Candidates from the southern and eastern provinces, where the Taliban still has influence, are often pressured to drop out by their family and community. Many women must have permission from the men in their families to campaign and must travel with a male chaperone.
Escalating conflict associated with the U.S. surge in the south, and increasing violence in the northern highlands and western province of Herat, have made travel prohibitive for many women who already had limited mobility. Social condemnation of women who have their photographs taken has further hampered some candidates’ efforts, Barsa added.
The Afghanistan constitution guarantees women at least 68 of the 249 government seats, and a few additional seats will be given to representatives from nomadic groups. Women may win more seats, but their success largely depends on their freedom to campaign, said Scott Mastik, director of Middle East programs at the International Republican Institute.
Afghanistan’s first parliamentary election, in 2005, included 328 female candidates. The election was marred by fraud, and some of the women elected served the interests of male authorities instead of advancing women’s rights, according to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Women are some of the strongest advocates for reconciliation in Afghanistan, and with proper representation in parliament, could be active in the discussions for conflict resolution.
“Women are desperate for a seat at the table,” Tzemach Lemmon said.
The Afghanistan Ministry of Interior promised to provide every female candidate with two bodyguards, but never followed through because it lacks the resources, Birkle said. The government hadn’t anticipated so many female candidates. Some women have asked Afghan police or security forces to escort them during campaigns, a tactic that is usually successful but one that few women use because of social pressures.
“There are big, cultural hurdles to overcome,” Birkle said. “It’s really something that’s going to take years and years.”