On September 18, Afghanistan will go to the polls to elect 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga, the nation’s lower house of parliament. Campaigning is in full-swing, but the election itself has not been without its difficulties (Read on-the-ground feature report by Diplomat correspondent Karlos Zurutuza: ‘Afghan Parliamentary Election’).
As problematic, and often dangerous, as elections are for Afghani society at-large, it seems that much of the anger has been directed at female parliamentary candidates. Ironically, women’s rights have slowly made their way back onto the political agenda following the fall of the Taliban and, institutionally at least, there are greater opportunities—the nation’s constitution states that a quarter of seats in the Wolesi Jirga must be given to women.
However, resistance from the remaining Taliban, along with pockets of resistance from those with a more traditional outlook, are staunch in their belief that women have no place in public affairs.
The story of Najila Angira is just one example of the dangers faced by women politicians in Afghanistan now. As a businesswoman running a successful logistics firm, Angira was already acting contrary to the Taliban outlook, but choosing to run for parliament led to a raft of threatening phone calls. As The Guardian reports, ‘during one recent call, a Taliban commander…denounced her and said he would kill her.’
There is also Nima Suratgar, whose campaign has followed a similar path. She’d just submitted her name as a parliamentary candidate when an email titled ‘The Famous Afghan Prostitute For Parliament’ and attacking her personal life was widely circulated. Suratgar has stated to the press that on top of that she receives daily emails and phone calls ‘from men threatening to kill me if I don't stop running for parliament.’
And tragically, last month, five people campaigning on behalf of female candidate Fawzia Gilani were killed by armed men.
It’s easy to see the negatives of the situation. Current conditions for women running for parliament, as well as their supporters, are simply atrocious.
However, despite serious and growing dangers, there are nearly 25 percent more female candidates this year than in the last 2005 election—a record number. And only a handful has so far withdrawn as a result of intimidation. The Taliban poses a very real threat to these women, and yet they continue with their campaigns.
According to Suratgar, she continues with her campaign because: ‘I love my country and my people. I can't sit here and be quiet and do nothing after seeing what is happening to my country. I also urge other women to get involved.’
As a feminist, I find it encouraging seeing women fighting for, and exercising, their rights in the face of oppression. Institutional barriers to female political participation have already been greatly reduced at the constitutional level, but only prominent, public action by and on behalf of women can change deeply ingrained social attitudes.
Not content to stay at home and be quiet, despite violent and sometimes fatal opposition, these candidates have seen problems with their society and recognised the impact they could have in changing it for the better. It is heartening to see that the spirit of standing up for one’s beliefs is still alive and well.
Amy Green is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat. She begins studying for her MA in East Asian studies at the London School of Economics this fall.