(2 of 2)
With more than 48 U.S. troops dead so far in 2005, and another 1,000 Afghans killed in the insurgency, this is turning out to be the nation's deadliest year since the war to remove the Taliban in 2001. The violence may well worsen as polling nears. Already several election workers have been killed by insurgents, along with at least six candidates. Women across the country have received letters and phone calls threatening them with death if they don't withdraw their candidacy, and election officials are investigating rumors of rewards for killing women who are running. Yet even a bomb threat hasn't stopped Noorziyah Charkhi, a 36-year-old mother of four from Lowgar province, from campaigning for parliament. "I have faith in Allah," she says. "I know I am doing good work, and I will continue until the last second of my life."
While most Afghans decry the insurgency's efforts to sabotage the elections, the threats against women candidates are rarely criticized. Men feel jeopardized by the idea of women in government—a discomfort reflected in newspaper columns, public speeches and private conversations across Afghanistan. Some men fear that female representatives will take away the rights of men; others quote a line purportedly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, saying that a country led by women will be "doomed to failure." Veterans of the war against the Soviets ask what women have done to earn a place in government.
In a heated discussion on the subject one late summer morning in Kabul, Haji Abdul Sattar, a former mujahid, declares that neither tradition nor Islam gives women the right to lead men. "We can't stop these women," he says—the constitution ensures that. "But in our hearts and minds we know Islam does not allow this, and we will not listen to these women." Much of the anger is directed at the West, which many perceive as hypocritical for pushing Afghanistan to draft a constitution that gives women more political power than they might have in Western countries. "You say that in America you value women very much," argues parliamentary candidate Commander Daoud, a respected leader in the anti-Soviet resistance, "but if that is true, why are there so few in your own Senate?"
It's a question repeated often in Afghanistan, and one that provokes an uncomfortable pause among the Westerners who consulted on the country's new constitution. Peter Erben, the Danish head of the Joint Electoral Management Body, a group comprising Afghan and international experts overseeing the elections, says it's not so much a question of women's rights as of effective government. In his work with nascent democracies from Kosovo to Bosnia to Iraq, Erben says he has found that strong female participation has consistently had a beneficial effect: "Women are often quite good at playing a constructive and reconstructive role vis-à-vis their male colleagues. They bring new ideas into governance and help young parliaments find a way forward." To Nasrine Gross, an Afghan university professor who has returned from exile in the U.S. to train Afghanistan's future parliamentarians, women legislators and politicians may also provide much-needed inspiration to the nation's youth. "In the U.S., a woman can be a CEO, a movie star or a sports icon," she says. "In Afghanistan, nobody even knows what the President's wife looks like. We need strong role models for the next generation."
Even so, 25% female representation may prove an awkwardly abrupt change for a country that four years ago didn't allow its women to walk the streets unaccompanied by a male relative. Because of the quota system, women candidates with just a minimum of votes can still get a seat in conservative provinces. But that would hardly amount to a mandate, and may hamper their ability to lead. The ICG's Nathan worries more that the quotas don't go far enough to ensure women a role in areas where it really matters—on the special commissions that address national security, foreign affairs or domestic spending. "You can't just load women into parliament," she says. "You have to ensure that they have a voice on these important commissions."
In the meantime, says Gross, it will take more than a government-imposed quota for women to overcome generations of repression. At a recent lecture for parliamentary candidates in Kabul, Gross noticed that the women stayed in their seats during breaks, while the men jumped up for cups of tea. When asked why they weren't getting tea for themselves, the women answered that it was not their place to go first. Gross, who lived in New York for several years, waved her lit cigarette at them in exasperation. "The only way you will be able to serve your country, ladies, is if you learn to serve yourselves first," she told them. None of the women moved. "We still have a very long way to go," says Gross. "We may have women in government, but the next step is getting them to take their places alongside men. Only then will they be able to make a difference."
Mohammadi, the doctor and parliamentary candidate from Bamiyan, is determined to make that difference. Besides fighting for women's rights, her first goal if she wins office is to build clinics and schools in her poverty-stricken province. The final rounds of campaigning are grueling, and she's exhausted, but she keeps knocking on doors, meeting with reluctant tribal leaders, and thrusting campaign brochures into the hands of every stranger she meets. "The constitution may give rights to women," she says. "But it is up to us to take those rights and do something with them." She knows this is just the beginning—and that there is too much to lose if she gives up now.