National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel)


The travails of the Afghan woman

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by Paolo Maligaya, Mazar-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan

As Afghanistan goes to the polls to elect its parliament representatives, attention is once again focused on the rights of women in the country. For today’s Wolesi Jirga election, 68 seats (or 25% of the 249 parliament seats) are set as minimum quota for women, being contested by about 400 female candidates all over the country, an increase from 344 in the last parliamentary election in 2005. Other countries might look at this 25% quota for women negatively, as it would seem very limiting, but in the context of Afghanistan, this is a significant step in achieving equality in a country where women have limited rights.

We have spoken with several women candidates, and they complained about how difficult it was to carry out their campaign. There is constant threat and intimidation, either from bandits or from the camp of male candidates, that made going to certain areas to campaign extremely risky or impossible. (The same is true for female election observers; we learned of a case of a FEFA long-term observer beaten up by thugs in a remote area). Mullahs and male candidates badmouth them, telling people not to vote for women. The women candidates also complained that, since they are women, they have a lot less money than their male counterparts to use in campaigning.

But perhaps the worst of all these challenges is the candidates’ claim that female voters do not support them. Most women in Afghanistan are reportedly illiterate. They depend on the male members of the family to make decisions for them, including whom to vote for (of course, the males would usually prefer male over female candidates). Afghanistan is a male-dominated society, where males usually do errands that would require being in public — including shopping in the bazaars — while the women are kept hidden inside the house, or if in public, prefer to be covered by their burqas. (A note on the burqa: according to some women we talked to, it is their choice to wear the burqa. They said they wear it to keep the prying eyes of men away. Plus they could also eat if they prefer to while walking. We tend to agree also on the fact that the burqa is a practical piece of cloth in Afghanistan, as it keeps away the heat of the sun and the ubiquitous dust).

However, it was not always this way. As late as the 1980’s, prior to Taliban rule, Afghanistan was a liberal society where women were not covered and males and females could co-mingle. A clip from the documentary “Afghan Star:”

During their time, the Taliban outlawed the education of females, including little girls. The campaign against women’s rights, the misinformation, the brainwashing was so strong that it affected the women’s behavior and how they see themselves. I am reminded by renowned Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2001 documentary “The Afghan Alphabet,” in which an Afghan female student (a refugee in Iran) refused to do a school activity because it would require her to expose her face. When asked why she didn’t want to uncover her face, she replied, “It is a sin to uncover my face. Mullah Omar said that our prophet made a big box and he kept his wife inside it. If he wanted he would go in the box to smell her and then he would come out again. He wouldn’t let his wife go out in the streets.” Although it has definitely relaxed a bit, this extreme conservatism still persists among many women in Afghanistan.

Which is a shame. When they emerge from their veils, Afghan women are very articulate and opinionated. When given the opportunity to make themselves heard, the women are more candid and fearless than their male counterparts. Right now in Afghanistan, leading the way for this reinstatement of their social status are female teachers, like Nafisa Zaki in Badakhshan who kept her female school open during the Taliban rule (Badakhshan was the only province the Taliban was not able to penetrate), ensuring that a generation of girls was continuously educated. Strong women currently head NGOs, they run for public office, and volunteer to observe elections. All throughout the country, school girls walking down the streets in their uniform of black pantsuits and white headscarves is a positive sign that the women of Afghanistan are re-emerging from the shadows. Here’s hoping they don’t go back inside Mullah Omar’s box, and instead burn it and run away.

Written by namfrel

September 18, 2010 at 8:53 am

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