With elections scheduled for Saturday in Afghanistan, women are finding new reasons to be hopeful about the potential outcome. Their history under the fanatical Taliban has left them so faceless as to warrant a saying that if an Afghan woman were kidnapped, nobody would know what she looked like and she would have to be found by her voice. Luckily, now some of those who were forced to wear burqas in public are now having their faces printed on ballots.
Not only are 300 women running for council seats across the country, but for the first time the vice president on the leading national ticket is a female, Habiba Sarobi, who was previously the governor of the Bamiyan Province and in 2005 became the first woman elected to the office. While she says that death threats are constant, she plans on moving forward with the same initiatives that hired 21 women as police officers in her province, compared to none before, as well as strive towards equality that allowed girls to account for half of the school-age children.
In what is still an intensely repressive society, the Afghan women are viewing any power as a step in the right direction, but they worry that their work to achieve so much with these elections could be nullified if extremists return after Western aid vanishes. They are trying urgently to move towards this landmark and are hopeful about international support, but it is all being tied to the protection of a government which is known to be corrupt and police who have not been capable of halting the violence brought against them by the Taliban.
At one point a political rights advocate, Fawzia Koofi, had intended on running for president, but unfortunately she was a year too young to meet the minimum age requirement of 40 for registered candidates. With vice presidential running mate Sarobi, the stigma of female politicians is being ameliorated in part due to her ability to stir the crowds with her speeches. She has also helped to gain notoriety for her male counterpart, presidential hopeful Zalmay Rassoul. Over recent years, international funding for equality has propelled organizations such as the Afghan Women’s Network to become better united, and to force the support of gender sensitive projects as well as guaranteed employment with measures required by donors.
Surprisingly during these democratic elections, the wives of prominent male candidates are being given the chance to speak, likely for the purpose of rallying the vote from their gender. Though the outgoing president’s wife, Zeenat Karzai, was kept in seclusion for the past decade despite being a gynecologist, with the current surge for women’s rights, 20 percent of the overall parliament seats have been set aside for women and a tenth of the candidates in Kandahar are female.
It is a great sign that mainstream politicians are speaking out about women’s issues, something that has never occurred before to the men of Afghanistan, but this hopeful outlook is battling with pessimism amid concerns about whether or not this is just lip-service and political posturing. Women are quick to state that outside of the cities they are still being treated like property by their families, and the rate of women who are registered to vote has not changed much from the 35 percent from previous elections. With most Afghan females living in rural areas, they are counting on advancements in voting regulations to make proxy casting illegal, which was a serious issue created by men who were stealing the ballots allotted to their women. Either way, the cause is gaining all the momentum it needs to make history this Saturday, and hopefully it will bring lasting change to a country that desperately needs reform.
By Elijah Stephens