Afghanistan elections: the women who gave up

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.

In 2005, only 19 of the 68 women who are now in parliament actually won their seats outright. The rest were the beneficiaries of the affirmative action set up by the legal system. Many women have very little constituency, and are also the focus of resentment from the men who, with higher vote counts, got bumped from the roster to satisfy the gender requirement.

This has hampered women’s ability to exercise their power in parliament.

“It took us four years to be able to get equal time to speak,” Saqeb said. “When a woman raised an issue, the speaker would turn off her mic, or the men would just not pay any attention. If a man raised the same issue, it would be put to a vote.”

Over the past year, however, there have been some changes, she added.

“Women were given a chance, and now they are stronger,” she said. “If you ask Afghans to name the top-10 parliamentarians, I think four would be women.”

There are undoubtedly some female superstars in Afghanistan’s parliament, although Saqeb modestly refrains from putting her name among them. But by any measure she was in the front ranks of those fighting for women’s issues and for a more democratic society.

And there were some triumphs, she acknowledges, most notably the response of female parliamentarians to the president’s attempt to push through the Shia Family Law, which many saw as inimical to women’s rights. Among other provisions, it prohibited a woman from leaving the house without her husband’s permission, and required that she have sex with him at least once every four days.

Led by women lawmakers, hundreds spilled out onto the streets to protest the law, and the bill was softened.

“For the first time in history, women raised their voices against a law,” said Saqeb.

Neither Saqeb nor Ishaqzai is a proponent of negotiations with the Taliban, which, they both say, would set women’s rights back a decade.

“We have paid a lot for the gains we have made,” Saqeb said. “We do not want to lose them.”

But Saqeb sees the parliament as too weak a vessel to carry her hopes for a better Afghanistan. Instead, she plans to continue her work through other means, perhaps as a leader of civil society.

“I still feel a duty to my people,” she said. “I want to keep working for a better future. But I want to put my energy somewhere it can be effective. Five years in parliament was enough for me.”