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V. Obstacles Confronting Women Parliamentary Candidates

I don’t think I should run for parliament, most of the women who are running have connections with [General Rashid] Dostum or [Governor Mohammed] Atta. Their men will come at night and make problems for my family so it’s not possible. I have to sit quiet. I think the conditions are not good [for me to run]…. Maybe there will be a problem for me, or for my friends, because they would help me campaign.87
—Human Rights Watch interview with women’s rights activist, Mazar-e Sharif, August 15, 2004

In many ways, parliamentary and local elections planned for 2005 will be a better barometer of political progress and women’s rights than the presidential election. While Karzai is expected to win the presidential vote, the power of local authorities will be directly on the line in the parliamentary and local elections and one can expect more heated political contestation, more coercion, and more blatant manifestations of continuing obstacles to meaningful political participation.

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of Afghan women considering running for office in the 2005 parliamentary and local elections, and almost all of them expect warlords and dominant political factions to intimidate them through violence, workplace harassment, or threats if they decide to run for office. Although some women have committed themselves to be candidates, several indicated they will not run because they are afraid for the safety of themselves and their families, because they feel their efforts would fail against large-scale vote-buying and intimidation of the public by warlords, or because the process is so flawed that their energy would be better spent working on pressing social issues with NGOs.

The constitution guarantees seats for women in Afghanistan’s bicameral National Assembly. Approximately 25 percent of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) are reserved for women and the president must appoint additional women to the Meshrano Jirga (House of the Elders).88

The exclusion of women from decision-making roles and prominent positions in powerful political parties will undermine Afghan women’s equal participation in Afghanistan’s developing political system. Most of the women whom Human Rights Watch interviewed—doctors, loya jirga delegates, teachers, government officials, and NGO leaders—preferred to run as independents. They noted that most major political parties remain allied with military factions with “blood on their hands” and notorious warlords as their leaders. With the exception of the Republican party, few political parties are making systematic efforts to recruit women as candidates in the parliamentary and local elections. An international trainer working on Afghan women’s political participation said:

One of the main ways that the number of women in parliament in other countries has increased has been through the increase of women in parties. Almost all the Afghan women interested in nominating themselves want to be independent…. Women in political parties are like window dressing, the [party leaders] put them in charge of women’s sections which are almost just like NGOs with literacy and tailoring programs.89

A woman whose NGO has helped to promote women’s political participation said, “There are many women from the Constitutional Loya Jirga who are interested in running for parliament. But they are backing out, because political parties have power, and it is hard to be independent.”90 A potential parliamentary candidate said, “I don’t believe in parties now, because most are supported by fundamentalists. Yesterday, they talked about Islam and fundamentalism, today they talk about democracy, who knows what it will be tomorrow?”91

Human Rights Watch interviewed women who are members of political parties or who had attempted to get involved. An Afghan woman working to increase women’s political participation said, “We want to work with political parties so they involve women, but they are not giving meaningful roles to women, just symbolic ones.”92 Afghan women and international donors observed that political parties are only using women to fulfill the parliamentary quotas and are not committed to creating conditions for women to participate equally in party structures or to occupy positions of responsibility. One woman described to us how she was selected by her political party to stand for political office: unexpectedly, they approached her and said, “We chose you.” She recounted, “The elders said, ‘you don’t talk, say yes.’ I can’t [reject] what the elders say, they are mujahid. I said yes.”93

Another woman said that several different political parties had invited her to work with them, mostly ethnic parties. She went to some of the meetings and said, “They wrote something and gave it to me and told me to read it out loud [at a program]. The executive board was all men. I can’t work like that. I see they don’t treat women as equals. Some women were there but they were not thinking independently.”94

Fear of intimidation by warlords

Afghan women who have decided to be parliamentary candidates have already faced harassment from powerful regional warlords. In the north, a woman whom we shall call P.S. has begun collecting the five hundred copies of voter registration cards required to qualify as a candidate. She and her supporters have faced harassment from one of the ruling military factions, Jamiat. She is planning to run as an independent and told Human Rights Watch: “My brother-in-law collected a few cards for me. The police harassed my brother-in-law…. They arrested him at his shop.” P.S. believes that a powerful warlord is responsible for ordering the harassment and the intimidation of another friend who was collecting cards for her. But she cannot confront him directly because of fears of retaliation. She told Human Rights Watch, “I was afraid. I myself was too afraid to go and talk to him because he has weapons and power.”95

In another case, recently deposed Herat Governor Ismail Khan and his supporters pressured a woman whom we shall call F.P, who was considering running for parliament, by demoting and transferring her out of her senior-level position in a government-funded institution. High-level local authorities allied with Khan had directly warned her to withdraw her candidacy earlier in the summer. Local authorities had also threatened F.P.’s supporters, telling them not to help her. F.P. told Human Rights Watch that when she heard that her supporters were also being harassed, “I said I don’t want anyone else to be in danger because of me and now I am not going to [work] anymore, from ten days ago. I think all these things happened to me because of the Herat governor himself and the men and women beside him.”96

Potential women candidates told Human Rights Watch that the control exerted by local warlords prevented them from standing for office. One woman said she would not be able to stand as a candidate in Paghman province because of notorious commander Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. In order to run, she said, “First I would have to have agreement from Sayyaf. But I am not interested in Sayyaf’s ideas…. It is possible I will face a lot of problems.” 97 A woman from northern Sar-e Pol province said she would not run for parliament because she knows she will not win. She explained that because of General Rashid Dostum’s rule in the area, only women affiliated with his military faction, Junbish, would win.98

In addition to intimidation and direct threats through weapons, many potential women candidates had decided not to run because they feared rampant election manipulation, including threats and vote buying.  For example, one woman said, “If I am an independent candidate…. [local military factions] will threaten me directly or indirectly. Indirect blocking—they will support someone’s husband, give him a house, and tell him not to let his wife be a candidate.”99 Another potential candidate told Human Rights Watch, “I am not hopeful that independent women will be successful. In the provinces, all the commanders have collected votes…. Every Friday they kill lots of animals, and feed people, they offer this much money, and land to build a house. Even if it is governmental land. They promise to send children abroad to study.”100

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of women who were interested in being parliamentary candidates, but who wanted more assurances of safety. Although male candidates are also likely to confront problems due to political repression and insecurity, conservative political factions may target women simply because they are women.  Because they are already challenging traditional women’s roles through their political participation, many women felt they were at particular risk of intimidation and symbolic attacks. 

One potential candidate from Jalalabad said, “My [message to] the U.N. and AIHRC is that security is very important....  Every independent woman candidate should be confident that there won’t be any harm to herself and her children. [We] especially [need protection] against kidnapping…because there are warlords.”101 Women from around the country echoed fears about retaliation from regional military factions if they stand for parliament:

  • [Woman from a province in the north] Because I’m independent, if I start campaigning, ten thousand people may come to me, but I should not campaign, because the political factions may come and stop me. It is said we can win by votes, but the reality is that factions will create…problems.102

  • [Woman from a province in the south] I want to run for parliament. People also requested that I do this. I told them that I faced a lot of problems in the Constitutional Loya Jirga and I don’t have the patience to face more problems. Of course I will face problems, because after [speaking out] in the Constitutional Loya Jirga, the political parties view me as a threat.103

  • [Woman from a province in the east] There are warlords, they will create problems for me [if I run]…. They will distribute money, they will buy votes…. They will create security problems for me, they will harass me.104

  • [Woman from a province in the west] If someone is an independent candidate for parliament, and she is not supporting the [current authorities], they will make problems for her, men or women. There is no suitable environment for having campaigns [here] for people who are independent. We have security problems, and women are afraid to go to the rural areas and work there and campaign there…. We need security.105

  • [Woman speaking of conditions nationwide] Women cannot present themselves as candidates. In Kabul it is okay, but in other provinces, security is not good. If there are security problems, maybe armed men will come to their houses, and maybe they will be killed. Not all provinces are unsafe, just some, for example, there is no problem in Kunduz or Parwan. But Ghazni, Kandahar, Uruzgan—these places are dangerous for women.106

  • These fears of harassment are often buttressed by previous threats and harassment the women faced during the loya jirgas or in the course of their everyday work. One prominent women’s rights activist and potential parliamentary candidate told Human Rights Watch, “Women working openly for politics have problems…. Yes I am sure, 100 percent, [military factions] will make problems for me. I will try, what else can we do? For five years, they should take us hostage? If they kill me, no problem, but I will run for parliament. I am 100 percent positive they will try to stop me, because I told you all those stories about how they try to stop me and my projects.”107

    [87] Human Rights Watch interview with A.L., Mazar-e Sharif, August 15, 2004.

    [88] Afghan Const., arts. 83-4.

    [89] Human Rights Watch interview with international NGO official, Kabul, August 26, 2004.

    [90] Human Rights Watch interview with N.K., August 25, 2004.

    [91] Human Rights Watch interview with A.K., August 25, 2004.

    [92] Human Rights Watch interview with international NGO working on elections, Kabul, August 26, 2004.

    [93] Human Rights Watch interview with M.M., Kabul, August 30, 2004.

    [94] Human Rights Watch interview with M.K., August 28, 2004.

    [95] Human Rights Watch interview with P.S., parliamentary candidate, August 16, 2004.

    [96] Human Rights Watch interview with F.P., Herat, September 6, 2004. President Karzai removed Ismail Khan from his position in mid-September. It is still to early to assess how the political environment in Herat may change. Khan’s rule was one of the most politically repressive in the country. See, Human Rights Watch, All Our Hopes are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan,” (New York:  Human Rights Watch, 2002) and Human Rights Watch, We Want to Live as Humans: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan,” (New York:  Human Rights Watch, 2002).

    [97] Human Rights Watch interview with J.R., potential parliamentary candidate, August 31, 2004.

    [98] Human Rights Watch interview with W.H., September 12, 2004.

    [99] Human Rights Watch interview with W.R., Jalalabad, August 31, 2004.

    [100] Human Rights Watch interview with L.J., Jalalabad, August 31, 2004.

    [101] Human Rights Watch interview with L.J., Jalalabad, August 31, 2004.

    [102] Human Rights Watch interview with S.E., potential parliamentary candidate, August 18, 2004.

    [103] Human Rights Watch phone interview with F.M., potential parliamentary candidate , August 27, 2004.

    [104] Human Rights Watch phone interview with Y.O., potential parliamentary candidate, August 27, 2004.

    [105] Human Rights Watch phone interview with S.Z., potential parliamentary candidate, August 29, 2004.

    [106] Human Rights Watch interview with S.N., potential parliamentary candidate, August 22, 2004.

    [107] Human Rights Watch interview with M.M. potential parliamentary candidate, Kabul, August 30. 2004.

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