Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

AFGHANISTAN: Women Lawmakers Battle Warlords

Anand Gopal

KABUL, Mar 9 2009 (IPS) - Whenever lawmaker Fatima Nazari rose to speak, she says the parliament’s chair snubbed her. Whenever one of her female colleagues made a suggestion, it was brushed aside. Sometimes certain notorious warlords would speak multiple times before a female member of parliament (MP) could speak once.

So one month ago, Nazari, who represents Kabul province, and almost all other female Afghan MPs banded together and proposed a resolution, asking parliament’s leadership to stop the discrimination. It was ignored.

Female lawmakers say that they are still largely excluded from the political process in Afghanistan, where widespread religious fundamentalism and deep-seated cultural conservatism still pose big challenges to women’s advancement.

"They discriminate against every single female MP," says Nazari. "Most of the time, they suffocate our voices."

Due to strong international pressure, Afghanistan has one of the highest percentages of female lawmakers in the world. The Afghan constitution mandates that two seats in every province be set aside for women, meaning that 64 of the 249 lawmakers, or more than a quarter, are female.

But many women MPs say that religious conservatives, who adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, dominate the parliament. "Many of the MPs and especially the administrative personnel of the Lower House (parliament) have an undeserving respect for former Jihadi leaders," says female MP Shinkai Karokhel, from Kabul province. "They can talk for a long time and whenever they want."

Human Rights Watch estimates that 60 percent of MPs have ties to warlordism, and many have been associated with war crimes.

Many of these jihadi leaders use their position in government to try and push their austere interpretations of Islam, female MPs say. Recently, for instance, an Afghan television station aired a programme showing dancing and music. The next day, Islamists in parliament declared that the programme was un-Islamic and the channel should be shut down. The women were not given a chance to make a rebuttal.

"Most of the time women don’t even dare say a word about sensitive Islamic issues," says MP Karokhel, "because they are afraid of being labelled as blasphemous."

In some cases, notorious warlords who could not stand for parliamentary elections four years ago sent their wives to run in their place. "For example, one woman MP, from Daikundi province, is the wife of a former mujahedeen commander," says MP Nazari. "Now she is working in favour of her Jihadi husband."

Even being allowed to run for parliament is a significant hurdle. Females in Afghanistan cannot leave their house and work unless their fathers, brothers and husbands give them permission. In most cases, female MPs are working in parliament only because a male relative has allowed them to do so.

According to the Afghan religious leaders, the testimony of two women is equal to one man. Even some women have come to accept this, since to deny this would be to defy a tenet of Islam. "Women are more sensitive than men," lawmaker Nazari explains. "This is what Islamic theology says, and we cannot oppose it."

But she quickly adds, "We are trying to prove to the world’s men that we are not as emotional as they think."

The female lawmakers’ difficulties pale in comparison to those faced by ordinary Afghan women, women’s rights activists say. The women of the Afghan parliament are educated and wealthy, with lenient husbands and fathers, whereas most Afghan women are mired in poverty and are forbidden from leaving the home. "In this category, women are not even considered human beings (by men)," says Hasina Saafi, director of the Afghan Women’s Education Center, an NGO.

The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a study last week that found Afghanistan to be the second most unequal society in the world in terms of gender, ahead of only Sudan.

To address such problems, Nazari and some other MPs last year formed a political party DATE devoted to promoting women’s rights – the first of its kind here. She says the organisation, National Need, has more than 45,000 registered members, from throughout the country. Her party oversees programmes in some of the most conservative areas in the country, like the southern Helmand province.

The party holds seminars to raise awareness amongst community leaders of the plight of women and at times sends staffers into the villages to speak to women directly and hear their complaints.

But the party has its detractors. "They claim they are fighting for women’s rights, but it is just a symbolic gesture," says lawmaker Karokhel. She says that the party mostly just holds meetings and seminars, and does very little to change the actual lives of women.

"I don’t think that there is a real political party of foundation that fights for women’s rights here (Afghanistan)," she adds.

Afghan activists extend this criticism to the government as a whole, and some say that there should be more emphasis on women in all government sectors. "Of the 18 ministries, there is only one (the Ministry of Women’s Affairs) that is allocated to women," says NGO head Saafi. "If the government really wants to improve the condition of women, it should appoint one female deputy in each ministry to deal with women’s affairs, because men don’t understand the problems women face."

But the biggest challenge to gender equality in government circles is the warlords of parliament, says activists and lawmakers.

"These people use Sharia and Islam as an instrument to weaken women’s rights," says lawmaker Karokhel.

"In no country in the world can you find spiritual leaders holding such power over a parliament," says Narzari.

"I want to ask the US to prevent warlords and jihadi leaders from running for office," she continues. "Otherwise I’ll continue to be constantly intimidated."

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