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Afghanistan elections: the women who gave up

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

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.”