Out of the Spotlight: Democracy and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

With the media mostly focused upon Taliban aggression, less attention has been given to an important human rights topic: gender equality and democracy in Afghanistan. Despite a male population of which only 35% believe that women should have equal representation in government positions, and only 51% believe women should be allowed to work outside the home, there are still indications of a growing movement in Afghanistan that is standing up for democracy and the inalienable rights of women.

Afghan Women’s Network by The Institute for Inclusive Security

A 2014 Pew Research Center Poll found that “90% of Afghans agreed that everyone should have equal rights under the law (regardless of gender), and 83% agreed that women should have the same opportunities as men in education—including a strong majority (78%) of Afghan men.” There is also widespread support for democratic institutions, with between eighty and ninety percent of the population in support of electoral accountability, political parties, and peaceful opposition.

While in many post-civil-war societies, successive elections are often marked by a decrease in voter turnout, this has not been the case in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban, the Afghan people keep coming bravely to the polls. Eight million voted in the 2014 elections, 38% of whom were women. This accounts for 60% of the eligible voting population, a 35% increase in turnout from the 2009 elections. It appears that interest in democracy in Afghanistan is steadily increasing, and the 2014 elections were described as the “most vibrant ever” with 74% of Afghans believing that the democratic elections have “improved the country.”

This interest has been accompanied by a public demand for an exchange of political ideas. Tolo News, Afghanistan’s primary media outlet, has broadcast several presidential debates where issues such as security, women’s rights, the economy, corruption, Pakistan, the Taliban, extremism, sovereignty, the Durand Line, and the U.S. Bilateral Security Agreement were openly discussed. Polling sites even ran out of paper due to the increased public participation. Judge Najla Aybui, the Deputy Country Representative of the Asia Foundation Afghanistan, believes that the 2014 elections demonstrated a population that is more optimistic and a media that is more willing to engage women.

Women are steadily becoming more involved at the official level, as well. Zalmai Rassoul, who was a 2014 presidential candidate, chose Habiba Sarabi, a woman, to be his running mate. Ms. Sarabi was previously the governor of Bamiyan, a central province. First Lady Rula Ghani, meanwhile, is unprecedented in her visibility and support for women’s rights, and recently challenged the Afghan Supreme Court’s decision to reduce the severity of sentences of the four men who murdered a woman named Farkhunda.

Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan by CSIS

Where there were none before, there are now approximately five hundred female journalists in Afghanistan. The Afghan Women’s Network now has approximately three thousand members, and seventy-five nongovernmental organizations under its auspices. They have also obtained signatures from both President Ghani and Executive Officer Abdullah pledging to enact thirty recommendations in support of woman’s rights. After the disappointing Supreme Court decision in the Farkhunda murder trial, Director of the Afghan Women’s Network Hasina Safi stated “We are going to begin again tomorrow to organize on social media, and we are trying to take this case up internationally. Justice for Farkhunda is justice for all of Afghanistan’s women.”

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has stated that it seeks “the establishment of an independent, free, democratic and secular Afghanistan.” Additionally, an investigation undertaken by Foreign Policy found examples of religious leaders calling for tolerance by invoking the example of Prophet Muhammad standing up in respect for a Jewish funeral procession; and examples of Tribal elders, in the Uruzgan province, starting a program whereby former Taliban members could reintegrate into society by finding employment. As Aziz Rafiee, Executive Director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, said, “The involvement of Afghan people today in the political arena is remarkable…Never in the history of Afghanistan have we experienced this kind of participation. The state of civil society in the past nine years has changed enormously and dramatically.”

These examples suggest that Afghans, and especially women, will not so willingly abandon the democratic strides they have made since 2001. As female Afghan lawmaker Shukria Barakzai stated, “The past 12 years were the golden era and we don’t want to lose that.” Or as President Ghani said in March 2015, “To date, Afghanistan’s people have rejected the allure of violent movements. We are willing to speak truth to terror…Afghanistan is joining a new consensus that is emerging in the Muslim world, a consensus that rejects intolerance, extremism, and war.” In a reification of his words, on 11 November 2015, tens of thousands of Afghans—of varying age, gender, tribe, and ethnicity—mounted a peaceful demonstration in Kabul to rally against the beheading of seven Zabul residents by alleged ISIS militants.

Hasina Safi, Director of the Afghan Women’s Network by Ministeria van Buitenladse Zaken

The next generation of youths is demonstrating their rejection of Islamic militant groups. Lotfullah Najafizada, the twenty-seven-year-old head of the Tolo TV News Network, said “For the new generation it’s about survival…It has the most to lose if the country reverses.” Or, as twenty-one-year-old blogger Aarya Nijat said, “It is time that we put the future of Afghanistan ahead of our individual ethnic and tribal allegiances.”

Hopefully, these sentiments will increase as the education system in Afghanistan continues to grow. During the Taliban rule, women and girls were completely barred from attending school or university. Meanwhile, there were only one million boys enrolled in school. Today, there are 3.75 million girls in school, and five million boys. Just as importantly, 40% of the teaching staff—which has grown from 20,000 to over 187,000—is now female. A number of universities, such as Kandahar, Nangarhar, Khost, Herat, Balkh, have been created or rebuilt. The American University of Afghanistan offers a number of economic and development courses. Kabul University’s enrolment is up to 11,000 students, and faculties include a Department of Peace Studies dedicated to creating a society without discrimination or violence.

These signs of progress do not suggest that the pervasive gender problems and democratic deficits still adversely affecting the Afghan people should be ignored. It does, however, indicate that a powerful movement is taking shape, signifying a crucial moment in Afghanistan’s history. Those men and women working bravely to advocate for gender equality and democracy must be supported and continue to have a spotlight shined upon them.

General and membership information about the Afghan Women’s Network can be found here: http://www.awn-af.net/index.php/cms/content/57.

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