Women in the Afghan Parliament

In Search of Allies

In Afghanistan's new parliament one in four members are woman. But this figure does nothing to tackle the multiple problems female politicians have to deal with. Martin Gerner reports from Kabul

Afghan parliament members hold copies of the holy book Quran during their swearing-in ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan (photo: AP)
Under pressure - male MPs use religion and established traditions to argue against their female colleagues

​​Shinkai Karokhail is a mother, a member of parliament and comes from Kabul province. She is wearing a thick woollen overcoat and sits by a coal stove; there is another power cut this morning in Kabul. She describes her working conditions: "We still don't have individual offices in parliament, as members, or our own staff, or a PC."

Shinkai Karokhail calls herself a "woman's activist". In exile in Pakistan she founded an organization for women's rights. This afternoon she will be drumming up support among her female colleagues for a meeting with President Karsai. The women will be asking for his support to ensure that a woman is voted into the country's highest judicial body.

Under pressure

"Insults from male colleagues are the order of the day in parliament", Shinkai Karokhail says. "Some call me a prostitute as soon as they hear me speak." She estimates that around half the men in parliament are not in a position to deal with the new situation.

"The worst thing is to watch the women in parliament fighting each other," complains Shukria Barakzai. A former editor of a woman's magazine, after the fall of the Taliban she helped write Afghanistan's new constitution. Now she sits in parliament, in the human rights commission. It is composed entirely of women. The defence and drug-related-crime committees on the other hand consist solely of men.

A series of female politicians have been exploited. They are put under pressure before votes with false arguments such as, "How can you agree with a Tadjik when you are a Pashtun?" or "How can you betray the solidarity of our clan and simply abandon your honour?" Shinkai says.

Thwarted expectations

One female observer notes that women do not always campaign for election as free individuals; in some cases family or clan members have pushed them into politics for tactical reasons.

It is hard to get a clear picture; certainly not all expectations from abroad have been fulfilled. "At first the international powers were under the illusion that the women in parliament would form a bloc, a shared-interest group against male domination," said one western female observer. "There they disappointed us. Instead jealousy is rife among the women because some get to travel abroad and give interviews, while others never get the chance."

Things become difficult in parliament when men use religion and established traditions to argue against the women. For instance forced marriages and domestic violence are both seen by conservative thinkers as legally and socially legitimate.

"Allies? - A handfull of poor intellectuals"

Shinkai Karokhail on the other hand has experience of how Islam can be used to further the women's argument. "Various organizations including the Heinrich Böll Foundation brought us together with politicians from Egypt and Malaysia. There a woman wishing to divorce can keep her children till they are fifteen. In Afghanistan she would risk losing them after they turn seven." The knowledge and practices of other Islamic countries give her female colleagues courage, she believes.

Who are the women's allies in the struggle? "Allies?" Shukria Barakzai smiles. "A handful of poor intellectuals and democrats in the parliament."

The largest interest-groups in the house are the blocs surrounding the speaker of parliament, Younis Qanooni, and around former Mujahideen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an eloquent arch-conservative who many would prefer to see in front of a tribunal because of his war-time past.

Can the warlords in parliament be got rid of? "They are part of the system," says Shinkai Karokahil. "The international community should be supporting president Karsai. It is the coalition forces led by the USA, and not him, who are responsible that these people remain in positions of power."

Every step an exercise in building trust

There is a separate women's training centre for the sixty-eight female members of parliament, behind the parliament building. The training courses are mostly run by subsidiary organizations of the United Nations or by the US foreign aid programme. Courses include English, internet research, basic information about the workings of parliament, and initiating or drafting new legislation. Some members of parliament complain that the international training programmes are not well co-ordinated.

Shinkai Kaorkhail: "Not all of the courses are particularly useful. As a member of the budget commission I have still had no specific training for my work there." German training initiatives however are given top marks by those questioned.

The parliament will meet again at the end of January 2007. "If woman are chairing more than three committees that will be significant," says one foreign diplomat, and takes a critical look at her own role:

"The West does not really understand how Afghanistan's society functions. Many people thought, 'we can simply export our experience from own parliaments'. But it doesn't work like that; it didn't work in Bosnia. It is important that people have the impression they themselves are introducing something new. Every step is an exercise in building trust."

The female parliamentarians have a doubly hard task ahead of them, if they wish to gain the trust of either their male colleagues or their foreign helpers.

Martin Gerner

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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