What Afghan women think about voting

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Afghan woman voting
An Afghan woman wearing burqa casts her ballot at a polling station in Kabul Saturday, Oct. 9. 2004. Across Afghanistan voters went to the polls in the country’s first-ever direct presidential elections. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The following is an essay written by Maya Evans from Kabul which focussed on what Afghan women think about voting.  This essay first appeared in the Voices for Creative Non-Violence Newsletter.

Afghan women were given the right to vote in 1919, just a year after some women in the UK. In fact, the reforms laid down by King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya made Afghanistan one of the most progressive countries of the day in terms of improving equality for women. During the same week in which the UK celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage, I am in Afghanistan, a country ranked “the most dangerous in the world for women”. Conversations with Afghan women make me reflect on the history which shapes their current landscape, and how the fate of women can literally change overnight depending on who the controlling leaders are.

On a personal level I have recently become a lot more interested and active in party politics after being selected to stand as a Councillor in my home town of St. Leonards on Sea. Admittedly, in the past, I’ve been something of a reluctant voter, feeling it made no difference, and often voting across the board; in fact I’ve voted for exactly 3 different political parties since turning 18.

My decision to stand as a local Councillor was directly influenced by a very deliberate stated ambition to achieve 50% of the positions within local councils and parliament occupied by women. I was personally talked into standing by a fellow member who said: “If half the people running this country were women, that would truly be revolutionary.” My local Party purposely organised meetings to encourage women to step forward, and, recently, put on a speaking assertiveness training course for prospective women councillors.

My Afghan friends ask me, “What have you been doing lately?” When I try to explain to them, “I am standing to become part of my town’s Jirga” (a traditional Pashtoon Afghan council normally consisting of men) – the response is a look of astonishment and then a burst of laughter…

Looking at the history of women in Afghanistan, it’s astounding to think that during the 1920’s Kabul and London were relatively level pegging in terms of women’s liberation. It’s important to point out that rural Afghanistan was, and still is, a very different scene to Kabul, with deeply traditional and conservative attitudes. However, as is the general trend of progress, movements and ideas normally start in big cities and then proliferate.

Within 10 years King Amir Amanullah Khan made great gains for women’s rights. In 1923, he created Afghanistan’s first constitution which abolished slavery and forced labour. He guaranteed secular education and equal rights for men and women. He also granted women the right to choose their own husbands. Unfortunately his roll of progressive reforms was cut short when in 1929 his wife Queen Soraya was depicted without a head scarf, the final straw for conservative tribal leaders who were already angered by his modernising reforms. The couple were forced to flee and live in exile. Mohammed Nadir Shah claimed the throne and quickly abolished many of Khan’s reforms, returning Afghanistan to Sharia law and a monarchy for the next 40 years. By 1933 King Nadir Shah was assassinated and his son Zahir assumed the throne; his reign was defined by a period of stable but gradual modernisation.

The fate of Afghan women under Russian occupation is a mixed bag. Women were very much encouraged to further their education and take jobs, often within the government, though in the same stroke those who resisted the Communist regime were rounded up, imprisoned, sometimes horrifically tortured and killed. The Communist PDPA did not represent the wishes or attitudes for the majority of the country, especially those in the rural provinces which were still deeply conservative.

Afghanistan become a major Cold War pawn between the U.S. and the Soviet Union with the CIA pouring millions of dollars into training and arming the Mujahuddin, who were, broadly speaking, rural guerrilla fighters. It is during this time foreign fighters such as Saudi born Osama bin Laden travelled to Afghanistan to help fight the Jihad (holy war) against the godless Russians.

After the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 the same fundamentalist and misogynistic Mujaheddin warlords, who only 5 years previously, had freely used widespread rape and murder of women, were reinstated within a government which was, and still is, backed by the US/ UK and the international community. It is therefore no surprise that within the last 17 years few political gains have been made for women generally.

The overall situation for Afghan women has improved in the last decade, particularly in the major urban areas like Kabul, but for those living in the rural provinces, there are still major problems. It is no revelation when you look at some of the rules passed post Taliban, for example the “code of conduct” endorsed by President Karzai in 2012, said that “women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices.”

In 2014 the Afghan government passed a law which limits family members to testify as witnesses of domestic violence, while in the previous year the UN published a statistic showing a 20% increase in violence towards women. In 2015 Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27 year old Afghan woman, was publicly beaten and slain by a mob in Kabul under false accusations of Quran desecration.

Today 20% of the MPs in the Afghan government are women. Recent famous female politicians have included Malalai Joya who bravely spoke out for the rights of women, however the intensity of stress and poor security means her time within Parliament was short, and today she lives in secrecy and under protection.

While reflecting on the parallel histories of Afghanistan and the UK it’s both painful and heartening to see how the extent of women’s participation within politics can be turned around almost overnight, depending on the political leaders in control. Having become involved in local party politics, I can see the UK still has a very long way to go in terms of real political equality. However, like in Afghanistan, the changes need to happen from the grassroots; women need to be brave, to make good use of any chance to use their intelligence, to seek out opportunities and carve new paths wherever possible. Indeed this is what many of the young women of the Afghan Peace Volunteers are currently doing. They are finding their feet, they are gaining confidence, they are expanding their knowledge, and like the women who are currently putting themselves forward as councillors, they are striding towards revolution from the grassroots.

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