Suffrage for Afghan Women : Special Kabul Report

An Afghan woman wearing burqa casts her ballot at a polling station in Kabul Saturday, Oct. 9. 2004. Across Afghanistan voters went to the polls in the country’s first-ever direct presidential elections. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
What Do Afghan Women Think About Voting?
Looking at 100 years of women’s rights in Afghanistan

Voices for Creative Non Violence Newsletter from Kabul
February 2018
(to see interesting photos)
View this email in your browser
During the UK centenary for women’s suffrage, we find out what young women in Afghanistan think about voting

“There are many problems for women who want to vote, firstly, many do not have permission, sometimes men in the family do not allow. Secondly, women themselves don’t know their rights, they think it’s just the right which belongs to men. Also they don’t think it is important and many don’t know who to vote for.”“I think for women in Parliament maybe there is a lot of problems. Women are very scared in Afghanistan because all the power is taken, it’s very hard to struggle with men to get power. Parliament is where all the powerful men get together to make decisions, this is a very difficult area for women. Also, people probably won’t vote for women because they believe they can’t be in Parliament.”

Mah Begum age 17
“I intend to vote because it is my natural right, everyone should vote.”
“The people don’t believe that women can do anything, that they are weak so they will not choose [vote] for a woman.” “We believe politics is not good and women always want to do good things. In Afghanistan the politics is not good, women want to do kind and good things, to bring peace.”

Mariam age 25
“I didn’t vote in the last election because it doesn’t make a difference, plus I didn’t want either Afghani or Abdullah to win”
“When the women vote they face many problems, firstly they don’t choose for themselves, someone like their husbands tells them who to vote for. Also the woman is not free to go places, the husbands have to let them go, and also the Taliban don’t want women to vote.”“There are a few women in politics but not at the top, the problem is they can not be with the people in society because security is not good. Now the men have the power in the government and women can’t decide what they want to do, they have to listen to the men, and the men decide what the women should do because they think they know best. Also, if women want to talk about certain things, they are afraid they will lose their jobs.”

Alana age 18
“I will vote in the future because I want to choose someone to become President.”

Farzana age 17 
“I will vote because it is my right.”
“In Kabul it’s better because there are more literate women and they can decide who they want to vote for, but in the provinces it is different situation as women can’t read names so there are pictures or symbols to represent people. I’ve also heard that representatives at the voting stations tell women who to vote for by telling them the wrong names. Then in the house the men tell women who to vote for.”“The problem for women in politics is that it is still very male dominated, so even if a woman gets voted in the men still make the decisions, the opinions of women are overlooked.”“It’s very dangerous for women who speak out, a woman who is a politician must wear a Burqa when travelling so people don’t recognise her. Security is bad for all politicians, but for women it is worse.”

Marwa age 18
“I will not vote because in the past the results have not been good, also I’m not sure who is the good one, will they be a good person.”
“In Kabul it is easy for women to vote but in the provinces it is hard because families don’t let them go, security is hard for women. Sometimes in Kabul families don’t let women vote.”“I don’t know about the problems for women in politics.”

Zarghuna age 25
“I don’t vote because I understand that it is America who will choose who they want to become President. I heard during the Ashraf Afghani campaign that he would let America bring more soldiers to continue the war in Afghanistan, and that made me decide not to vote. Also it seems a poor system when there is a 1% difference in who gets elected”

“In Kabul it is easy to vote, but in the Provinces they kill women or cut their thumbs off so they can’t vote.”“Families don’t like the women to go into the area of politics, it’s not good for women as in Afghanistan men have all the power.””[T]here cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women.”
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Overnight Change
 by Maya Evans in Kabul 

Afghan women were given the right to vote in 1919, just a year after some women in the UK. In fact, the reforms laid down by King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya made Afghanistan one of the most progressive countries of the day in terms of improving equality for women. During the same week in which the UK celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage, I am in Afghanistan, a country ranked “the most dangerous in the world for women”. Conversations with Afghan women make me reflect on the history which shapes their current landscape, and how the fate of women can literally change overnight depending on who the controlling leaders are.

 On a personal level I have recently become a lot more interested and active in party politics after being selected to stand as a Councillor in my home town of St. Leonards on Sea. Admittedly, in the past, I’ve been something of a reluctant voter, feeling it made no difference, and often voting across the board; in fact I’ve voted for exactly 3 different political parties since turning 18. 

 My decision to stand as a local Councillor was directly influenced by a very deliberate stated ambition to achieve 50% of the positions within local councils and parliament occupied by women. I was personally talked into standing by a fellow member who said: “If half the people running this country were women, that would truly be revolutionary.” My local Party purposely organised meetings to encourage women to step forward, and, recently, put on a speaking assertiveness training course for prospective women councillors. 

 My Afghan friends ask me, “What have you been doing lately?” When I try to explain to them, “I am standing to become part of my town’s Jirga” (a traditional Pashtoon Afghan council normally consisting of men) – the response is a look of astonishment and then a burst of laughter…

 Looking at the history of women in Afghanistan, it’s astounding to think that 1920’s Kabul and London were relatively level pegging in terms of women’s liberation. It’s important to point out that rural Afghanistan was and still is a very different scene to Kabul, with deeply traditional and conservative attitudes. However, as is the general trend of progress, movements and ideas normally start in big cities and then proliferate.  

 Within 10 years King Amir Amanullah Khan made great gains for women’s rights. In 1923, he created Afghanistan’s first constitution which abolished slavery and forced labour. He guaranteed secular education and equal rights for men and women. He also granted women the right to choose their own husbands. Unfortunately his roll of progressive reforms was cut short when in 1929 his wife Queen Soraya was depicted without a head scarf, the final straw for conservative tribal leaders who were already angered by his modernising reforms. The couple were forced to flee and live in exile. Mohammed Nadir Shah claimed the throne and quickly abolished many of Khan’s reforms, returning Afghanistan to Sharia law and a monarchy for the next 40 years. By 1933 King Nadir Shah was assassinated and his son Zahir assumed the throne; his reign was defined by a period of stable but gradual modernisation.

The fate of Afghan women under Russian occupation is a mixed bag. Women were very much encouraged to further their education and take jobs, often within the government, though in the same stroke those who resisted the Communist regime were rounded up, imprisoned, sometimes horrifically tortured and killed. The Communist PDPA did not represent the wishes or attitudes for the majority of the country, especially those in the rural provinces which were still deeply conservative.

Afghanistan become a major Cold War pawn between the U.S. and the Soviet Union with the CIA pouring millions of dollars into training and arming the Mujahuddin, who were, broadly speaking, rural guerrilla fighters. It is during this time foreign fighters such as Saudi born Osama bin Laden travelled to Afghanistan to help fight the Jihad (holy war) against the godless Russians. 

 After the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 the same fundamentalist and misogynistic Mujaheddin warlords, who only 5 years previously, had freely used widespread rape and murder of women, were reinstated within a government which was, and still is, backed by the US/ UK and the international community. It is therefore no surprise that within the last 17 years few political gains have been made for women generally. 

 The overall situation for Afghan women has improved in the last decade, particularly in the major urban areas like Kabul, but for those living in the rural provinces, there are still major problems. It is no revelation when you look at some of the rules passed post Taliban, for example the “code of conduct” endorsed by President Karzai in 2012, said that “women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices.”

 In 2014 the Afghan government passed a law which limits family members to testify as witnesses of domestic violence, while in the previous year the UN published a statistic showing a 20% increase in violence towards women. In 2015 Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27 year old Afghan woman, was publicly beaten and slain by a mob in Kabul under false accusations of Quran desecration.

 Today 20% of the MPs in the Afghan government are women. Recent famous female politicians have included Malalai Joya who bravely spoke out for the rights of women, however the intensity of stress and poor security means her time within Parliament was short, and today she lives in secrecy and under protection.

 While reflecting on the parallel histories of Afghanistan and the UK it’s both painful and heartening to see how the extent of women’s participation within politics can be turned around almost overnight, depending on the political leaders in control. Having become involved in local party politics, I can see the UK still has a very long way to go in terms of real political equality. However, like in Afghanistan, the changes need to happen from the grassroots; women need to be brave, to make good use of any chance to use their intelligence, to seek out opportunities and carve new paths wherever possible. Indeed this is what many of the young women of the Afghan Peace Volunteers are currently doing. They are finding their feet, they are gaining confidence, they are expanding their knowledge, and like the women who are currently putting themselves forward as councillors, they are striding towards revolution from the grassroots. 

 Historical citations

Facts of Life for Afghan Women
According to the World Bank, in 2014 Afghan women made up only 16.1% of the labour force in Afghanistan

21% of students at University are women

Literacy rate for women is 24.2% In the area of agriculture, where women make up 30% of the workforce, they often earn three times less than men  

Under the Taliban, women and girls were discriminated against in many ways, for the ‘crime’ of being born a girl.

The Taliban enforced their version of Islamic Sharia law. Women and girls were:

Banned from going to school or studying

Banned from working

Banned from leaving the house without a male chaperone

Banned from showing their skin in public

Banned from accessing healthcare delivered by men

 Banned from being involved in politics or speaking publicly.


FOUR STOP THE ARMS FAIR protestors were found “not guilty” last week for blocking the road last September during a week of action to stop DSEi.

One of the protestors Henrietta Cullinan has visited the Afghan Peace Volunteers twice over the last few years and talked about her experiences in the witness box:

“I talked about how the arms fair has to sell more weapons to promote war, that I’ve been to Afghanistan twice and seen the long term effects of war on young people, that i’ve met women my age with injuries from Russian airstrikes, met refugees, how there’s no infrastructure to help refugees. For ordinary people war doesn’t just stop when it’s over…
The judge was very impressed that i’d been to Afghanistan,”

The defense lawyer, Raj Chada, said – “On the day after the actions of the suffragettes were lauded, it is apt that today’s generation of direct action protestors do not have to wait 100 years to be vindicated. These defendants seek to bring to our attention the evil of the arms trade – it is to that cause that we must focus.”