Afghan women put lives on line to run for office
CHARKH, Afghanistan-The note slipped under Mahmoud Shah’s front gate was written in a tidy, graceful hand. But the message brimmed with venom: “If you don’t stop campaigning for Noorzia Charkhi, your life will be in danger. Also tell Noorzia Charkhi that she should give up her candidacy. Aren’t you ashamed to put up posters of your family’s women in the bazaar?”Charkhi, 36, is a journalist based in the capital, Kabul, who is campaigning for a seat in Afghanistan’s new parliament. But in this mud-walled village in Logar, the home province she hopes to represent, Charkhi’s candidacy is such a challenge to tradition that she and her relatives, including her cousin Shah, have faced repeated threats. “I’m not going to quit, because I want to show people that a woman should be able to do these things. But definitely I fear for my life. … The people who did this already have blood on their hands,” Charkhi said during a visit to Shah’s home, 50 miles south of Kabul. “I’m even more afraid that they will smear my reputation,” she added. “That would be worse than death.”Charkhi’s situation underscores both the difficulties facing female candidates running for office in the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections and the determination many have expressed as they embark on an unprecedented bid for political power. Even though many Afghan families still prohibit wives and daughters from showing their faces in public, 328 women are running for the lower house of parliament, where 68 of 249 seats have been set aside for female representatives. An additional 237 are running for seats on provincial councils that will in turn appoint a third of the upper house. Despite the traditional restrictions on women, the guaranteed quota of legislative seats for them has given political parties, tribal leaders and powerful families an incentive to promote female candidates whom they might otherwise have ignored – or even banned from running.
“There is quite a bit of support for women running in the parliamentary elections – much more than we expected,” noted Rina Amiri, a U.N. political affairs officer who is monitoring the elections. Yet female candidates in provinces across the country have complained of receiving phone calls and letters threatening them with death if they don’t withdraw. In southern Helmand province, U.N. officials are investigating reports of letters circulating that offer a $4,000 reward for killing female candidates. In southeastern Zabol province, unknown gunmen tried to hijack a car belonging to Zarmina Pathan, a candidate and employee of a local aid organization. Afghan and U.N. officials said they are investigating whether the attack was a routine crime or an attempt to intimidate her. In Logar, Charkhi is not the only female candidate to face threats. Zobaida Stanekzai, 52, a school supervisor running for parliament, said she has little doubt about the motives of whoever set fire to the door of her mud-walled home several weeks ago. “They were trying to scare me into dropping out,” said Stanekzai, whose home was also attacked with a grenade last year when she took a job registering women to vote in the presidential election. “But my decision to be a candidate is unshakable.”Despite the large number of female candidates, women are still seriously underrepresented in the coming elections. They make up 12 percent of candidates for parliament and 8 percent of candidates for the provincial councils.
In remote, conservative Uruzgan province, not a single woman signed up to run. And in the past several weeks, 50 female candidates have dropped out. In Paktika province, a desolate tribal area without a single girls’ secondary school, an election monitor told of a village teacher who traveled to the provincial capital to register as a candidate–and made a second arduous trip there just four days later to resign her candidacy. The monitor, Peter Murphy of Britain, said the teacher recounted that a group of religious leaders “had seen her sign up and had gone to her village to tell the elders that it would be wrong for her to run. I tried to talk her out of withdrawing, but she was really terrified. She said people in the market were already saying bad things to her husband, and she was convinced that they would be totally ostracized.”Much of the animosity toward female candidates appears to reflect a traditional discomfort with women in public roles, a view that was further entrenched during the 1990s, when the country was controlled first by warring Islamic militias and then by the extremist Islamic Taliban movement. Officials from the election management commission, which is composed of both Afghans and foreign nationals, said the complaints they receive about female candidates frequently assert that the woman in question should be disqualified because she has loose morals or a “notorious character.” Still, observers said, it is not always clear whether female candidates are being targeted because of their gender or whether that issue is being used by adversaries who oppose them for other reasons.
In Charkhi’s case, for instance, opposition to her candidacy may be tangled up in both family and religious politics. She believes the threats have originated with Shah Mohammed Yousafzai Charkhi, a burly, bearded rival candidate and distant relative from her home village. Yousafzai Charkhi’s brother-in-law is the fugitive former Taliban governor of eastern Nangahar province. Noorzia Charkhi and other villagers claim that Yousafzai Charkhi was a powerful Taliban subcommander in his own right. She said relatives told her that at a recent tribal gathering, Yousafzai Charkhi called her candidacy shameful and said someone should kill her. “He’s totally against women candidates,” Noorzia Charkhi said. “During Taliban times, he would go after women with a whip in his hand. Now he’s still going after us.” However, she also acknowledged that her family had a long-running feud with Yousafzai Charkhi that predated her candidacy. For his part, Yousafzai Charkhi said he had never been active in the Taliban movement. He charged that Noorzia Charkhi was simply trying to get attention by denouncing him. “I don’t have a problem with women running,” he said in an interview at a gas station his family owns, just down the mud road from Shah’s house. “According to Islam, women are given a lot of rights, including participating in elections.”His expression darkened, though, as the discussion turned to the quotas guaranteeing women seats in parliament. “The government should let the people decide who they want to represent them,” he said with a scowl. “It’s very unfair.”