By Pamela Constable
KABUL, Aug. 30 — Five years ago, with the country at peace, traditional taboos easing and Western donors pushing for women to participate in democracy, millions of Afghan women eagerly registered and then voted for a presidential candidate. In a few districts, female turnout was even higher than male turnout.
But on Aug. 20, when Afghans again went to the polls to choose a president, that heady season of political emancipation seemed long gone. This time, election monitors and women’s activists said, a combination of fear, tradition, apathy and poor planning conspired to deprive many Afghan women of rights they had only recently begun to exercise.
With insurgents threatening to attack polling places and voters, especially in the rural south, many families kept their women home on election day, even if the men ventured out to vote. In cities, some segregated female polling rooms were nearly empty, and many educated women who had voted or even worked at polling stations in previous elections decided not to risk going out this time.
“Everywhere I went before elections, I urged women in the villages to vote. But when the day came, even professional women in the city who normally felt free to go to work and shops and weddings stayed home. I was shocked,” said Safia Siddiqui, a legislator from Nangahar province. “There has been a lot of talk about women’s civic life and political movements, but security comes first.”
Although no official turnout figures are available and the election results are not yet final, election monitoring groups and political activists from Taliban-plagued provinces report that in dozens of insecure districts, almost no women voted. Nationwide, they say, women’s participation was much lower than in either the 2004 presidential or 2005 parliamentary elections.
The sense of eroding political rights for women did not begin with this election. In the past several years, Taliban attacks on prominent women have sent a powerful message to others who dreamed of entering public life. In the southern province of Kandahar alone, a female legislator, a women’s affairs official and a female prosecutor were gunned down by terrorists. Others have received constant threats, travel with armed guards or rarely visit their constituencies.
When rural women did vote in this election, it was often by proxy, which lent itself to fraud, monitoring groups report. Monitors and others said that across the south, women’s voter registration cards, which often had no photographs because of conservative taboos on women’s faces being seen, were taken to the polls in batches by male relatives or tribal elders.
In some cases, they said, those same cards were used by officials or partisans to stuff ballot boxes, either for President Hamid Karzai or his top challenger, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, as well as for candidates for provincial council seats. With about one-third of the vote counted, Karzai now leads Abdullah 46.2 percent to 31.4, leaving both short of the 50 percent-plus-one-vote needed to avoid a runoff.
“Our constitution gives all men and women equal rights to vote, but in most areas that were not safe and secure, men did not let the women leave home and voted for them,” said Sabrina Saghib, a member of a parliamentary committee on women’s rights. “That is against the law and those votes should not be counted as women’s votes.”
Abdullah and Karzai have accused each other’s camps of widespread election fraud. More than 2,000 complaints of fraud have been sent to the internationally led Electoral Complaints Commission, reportedly including some that describe the use of women’s voting cards for ballot-box stuffing. The commission has not released any details, and it could take weeks to finish investigating the most serious claims.
A contributing factor in the low female turnout was that in many insecure areas, not enough women were willing to work at the polls as monitors or staff, so men were sent instead. That meant many families would not allow their female members to vote at those sites.
Accounts of low participation by women came from female activists and politicians in Kabul and a dozen provinces. Some described voting in short lines and empty rooms, or said they were unable to vote because of Taliban threats. Some tried to encourage local women to vote but found them afraid, confused and subject to strong family pressure to stay home.
Sahira Sharif, a women’s rights activist from the southeastern province of Khost, said that in 2004 and 2005 she traveled freely across the province, talking to women about the importance of voting. This time, she said, she received support from the International Republican Institute to undertake a similar campaign but had to arrange her meetings in secret to avoid detection by the Taliban.
“It made me sad to see how far backward things have gone for women in my province in just a few years,” Sharif said, adding that long distances from villages to polling stations made it especially risky for women to vote. In an ironic twist on the abuse of women’s voting cards, she also said that a female candidate for Khost’s provincial council took several thousand unused cards and stuffed ballot boxes for herself.
Shahazad Akbar, a staff member of the Free and Fair Election Foundation in Kabul, said her mother, a teacher, had worked as a polling official in the last election but was too fearful even to go to the polls this time. Akbar’s sister knocked on doors as a campaign worker and found that most women had little idea about the election. Akbar toured several polling places in the capital and found almost no women there.
“Women feel special pressures in our society,” she said. “Even in areas where you’d think women would face less obstacles, they could not get permission to go because of insecurity.” In Kandahar, she said, female election observers from her organization did not tell their friends or neighbors what they were doing.
Many urban women who did go to the polls expressed a strong sense of defiance, saying they were determined not to be cowed by Taliban threats to cut off their ink-dipped fingers. But others said they were fed up with national leadership and saw no point in risking physical harm to participate.
“I voted for Mr. Karzai last time. We were all so excited then, and we thought peace would come. But now things have gotten much worse, and I decided not to vote at all,” said Shuqufa, 38, a mother of five in Karte Nau, a Kabul district where suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the police station on election day. “These political leaders bring us nothing but fighting and rockets. We are fed up with the Taliban, and we are fed up with them.”
The major candidates did little to appeal to the women’s vote, campaigning without their wives in deference to conservative traditions. At the last moment, Abdullah and Karzai brought their wives out to vote with them, but the gesture seemed like a belated photo opportunity. Abdullah’s wife was the only female voter in her polling room.
Some rights activists said the election-day chill signified a wider, continuing setback for Afghan women’s role in social, political and economic life after a brief period of hope for change after the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001. They noted that domestic violence against women is increasing, that the Taliban has attacked and shut down hundreds of girls’ schools and that most women remain economically in thrall to their fathers and husbands, even when they are abused.
“Things are reverting, and it’s because of a mix of insecurity, economy and culture,” said Soraya Sobrang, a physician and member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “For a few years when security was better, women could participate in public life and the new constitution gave them political rights. But then the attacks started, and people were warned not to send their daughters to school, not to send their wives to work. All their new rights came under threat, and nothing really changed in their lives.”
Now, Sobrang said, many Afghan women have lost hope.
“We have lost a lot of the ground we made. Women still face forced marriages, still work in the fields, still depend on men who beat them every day,” said Sobrang, who voted on Aug. 20 in a very short line of nervous, unsmiling women. “We can give a card to a woman and tell her to vote, but that does not protect her from danger, and it does not give her any real rights at all.”