A record number of women are running for the Afghan parliamentary elections, including an Olympic sprinter and women’s rights advocates. But many hurdles lie along their emerging political tracks.
In her signature green veil, modest yet trendy Iranian-style suits complete with high-heel shoes, Robina Jalali has added a dash of celebrity to the Afghan parliamentary elections.
Posters of the 25-year-old candidate for the Sept. 18 Afghan parliamentary elections smile down from billboards and storefronts across downtown Kabul.
- Second parliamentary elections since 2001 - 249 seats in wolesi jirga or lower house - More than 2,500 candidates - 68 seats reserved for women - More than 10.5 million eligible voters - Total 6,835 polling centers in final list - More than 1,000 expected not to open due to security concerns
Her story is an Afghan fairytale: She was the only Afghan female athlete to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and though she finished last, the image of Jalali sprinting in track-pants and a veil captured international attention.
Now, she’s running again, for one of 68 seats reserved for women in the 249-seat wolesi jirga, or Afghan lower house of parliament.
Her tale has been seized as a metaphor for the formidable strides Afghan women have taken in the nine years since the collapse of the most conservative, misogynist regimes in recent world history.
The statistics speak for themselves. Females make up more than 400 of the approximately 2,500 candidates contesting the 2010 polls, that’s 16 percent of all candidates. By contrast, they were 12 percent in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
‘It’s difficult for men, it’s worse for women’
For Shinkay Karokhail, a firebrand parliamentarian running for re-election in her native Kabul province, the biggest challenge has been reaching out to female voters.
“The security situation seriously limited our mobility. It’s difficult for men, it’s worse for women,” she told FRANCE 24 by phone from Kabul.
In the lead-up to the Sept. 18 elections, Karokhail received a number of threats, which forced her team to restrict her movements while campaigning.
She is not sure how many of the threats were serious, nor does she know how many came from the Taliban and other insurgent groups or, as she jokes, from her political opponents.
What she is sure of though, is that she was unable to reach out to her core constituents and rural women, the most down-trodden of Afghanistan’s marginalized, in particular.
‘A high proportion of female votes is a huge red flag’
For women who are often illiterate, unaware of their rights or their candidates and under the control of their husbands and fathers, it’s difficult to make a political decision, explained Karohail.
And women are at the centre of another major concern for election observers: electoral fraud.
“In conservative areas very few females vote. Observers, if they are there, typically report back that turnout was low and all the voters were men. Often when the results come in later, suddenly a high proportion of the total votes are female votes,” said Martine van Bijlert of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, before adding, “Having a high proportion of female votes in an insecure or conservative areas is a huge red flag.”
Female votes are particularly susceptible to proxy voting. Male voters often manage to compel electoral staff to allow them to vote in place of their womenfolk.
Another rampant Afghan electoral problem is voter over-registration, which dominated the headlines in the lead-up to the 2009 presidential elections.
In some districts in the conservative Pashtun belt, more women were registered than the total count of female residents. Female voter over-registration is particularly easy to devise since, under Afghan law, photographs are not mandatory on female voter registration cards.
Is the clock ticking on Afghan women’s rights?
Still, Afghan women are widely expected to go to the polls, especially in the more secure urban areas such as Kabul and Herat.
Their lot has undoubtedly improved. Female employment and literacy rates are climbing and more women are participating in the political process, to name just a few indicators.
But recent political developments have shaken the confidence of many Afghan women’s rights advocates.
“They’re looking at all the signs: international troops are looking to leave, the moves toward talking with the Taliban. There’s a fear that some of the achievements, some of the spaces that have opened up for women will close,” said van Bijlert.
Looking back on her five years in parliament, Karohail says she’s not unhappy with her track record.
A fierce critic of a controversial new Shiite family code, a legal system that critics allege contains Taliban-style restrictions on women, Karohail was unable to bloc the law. It was approved by Afghan President Hamid Karzai last year during a parliamentary recess.
Still, she says she put up a good fight. “I did my best especially on articles on women’s rights,” she said. “I was not always successful, I was not always treated well by the men, but I was strong enough to deliver my message whatever it was.”