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Afghanistan elections: the women who gave up

As Saturday's elections approach, female politicians lament lost opportunities.

KABUL, Afghanistan – “I have no trust in the outcome of this election,” said Sabrina Saqeb, one of only three of Afghanistan’s 68 female lawmakers who are not contesting their seats in Saturday’s elections. “That is why I have decided not to run again.”

Five years ago, Sabrina Saqeb captured the hearts of Kabul residents with her youthful enthusiasm and stunning good looks. At 25, she was just old enough to meet the legal age requirement and she had conducted an active campaign in Kabul. Tens of thousands of campaign posters featuring the candidate in a bright yellow headscarf were plastered on walls and billboards throughout the city and quickly became collector's items for her large fan base.

Once in parliament, she soon proved she was much more than a pretty face, becoming an outspoken women’s rights activist, as well as a tireless campaigner for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.

Now, however, she sees no reason to continue.

“I think we will see a weaker parliament after this election,” she said. “I am not optimistic that it will be strong enough to serve the nation. So what does this election mean?”

As Afghanistan heads into its second parliamentary poll since the fall of the Taliban, there are few signs that it will lead to any real strengthening of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy.

Security has deteriorated to such an extent that more than 15 percent of the planned polling centers will not be able to open, effectively disenfranchising people in the most troubled areas. Violence has plagued the campaign so far; at least three candidates have been killed in various provinces, along with several election officials. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the elections by targeting anyone associated with them.

The burden falls most heavily on women, many of whom lack the financial and political resources of their male counterparts.

“Men can pay for bodyguards and guns,” Saqeb said. “Most women cannot.”

In many districts outside the main cities, women have not been able to campaign at all. In Herat province, 10 campaign workers for prominent female lawmaker Fawzia Gailani were kidnapped; five were released, but the others were killed.

“In Badghis province, female candidates are sending out CDs with recorded messages,” Saqeb said. “This is not enough, they need contact with the people.”

Five years ago things were different, she said. Women campaigned openly even in provinces like Kandahar and Helmand.

“I could not believe that women were able to put up their posters in those areas,” Saqeb said. “But they conducted campaigns and they won. Now — forget about it.”

Malalai Ishaqzai is witness to the change in women’s political fortunes over the past half-decade. In 2005 she won a seat in her native Kandahar; now, she says, this is impossible. She is running again, but this time as a candidate from Kabul.

“There are not going to be elections in Kandahar,” she snorted. “There is no security, and everything there has already been decided.”

She declined to elaborate on who was doing the deciding, but it is no secret that Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother and head of Kandahar’s Provincial Council, has enormous power in Kandahar. And judging by Ishaqzai’s rhetoric, she is no fan of the government.

“We have a weak government, and they want a weak parliament,” she said, puffing on a cigarette in her cluttered campaign office. “The government ignores the parliament’s decisions.”

In clashes between the parliament and the government, the government usually comes out ahead.

In February, President Hamid Karzai issued an election decree while the legislature was on recess. Though the parliament later rejected the decree unanimously, it nevertheless remains in place due to a loophole in the law.

When parliament roundly rejected Karzai’s cabinet picks earlier this year, the president simply left them in place as acting ministers until he could muster the necessary votes. There are still several cabinet slots without confirmed ministers; but the parliament, other than holding a “silent strike” in the spring during which they refused to speak at plenary sessions, has been unable to challenge the executive.

Like Saqeb, Ishaqzai is not at all optimistic that the elections will be free and fair.

“Politics and the economy have become too intertwined,” she said. “People are selling their votes for $15, $20, $30.”

So why keep running in a corrupt and ineffective system?

“I believe in the struggle,” Ishaqzai said.

And it certainly has been a struggle, especially for women trying to compete with men.

According to Afghanistan’s Constitution, 68 out of the 249 seats in parliament are reserved for women. This is meant to be a minimum figure — should more than 68 women win at the polls, there is no legal impediment to their entry into the legislature.

But Afghanistan’s women have a very long way to go to reach that state.