Real hopes for Afghanistan

Emma Bonino
7 November 2005

I first went to Afghanistan in 1997, when the Taliban were still holding sway with their oppressive, grotesquely misogynistic regime. I returned in 2002 during the Constitutional Loya Jirga, and again this year to follow the first Parliamentary and Provincial elections since 1969, as chief observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM).

From my first trip I remember Kabul as a devastated city in the hands of armed fanatics, without any trace of a female presence. From time to time a woman would pass by like a ghost, hidden beneath a burqa. This time, I found a bustling city, with streets streaming with people, girls in white head scarves and black gowns heading for school, and one could again hear the sound of music in the air and see kites flying in the sky.

Yet the signs of change hide a more complex and contradictory situation. It suffices to travel a few kilometres outside the capital to see how hope fades. Lack of security remains the main concern: the insurgency seems to be strengthening, leaving the country hanging between stability and chaos. Both the Afghan people and the international community will have to work together to avoid the nightmare recently threatened by the Neo-Taliban movement, that Afghanistan will become ‘a hub of instability, killings, looting and drugs’.

This article contains excerpts of previous articles written by Emma Bonino in The Cape Times of 27 August 2005 and for "EurAsia Bulletin" November 2005 issue of the European Institute for Asian Studies.

Votes and violence

While I was there in September I travelled extensively, meeting Provincial Governors, elders, tribal and religious leaders, local candidates, and election administration staff. I collected firsthand insight on local issues. In Kabul, I was able to get the wider political picture. I met with President Hamid Karzai, both vice-presidents, Ahmad Zia Massoud and Karim Khalili, cabinet ministers, party leaders – but also with women candidates, members of the Kuchi nomad community, non-governmental actors, in particular civil rights movements, academics such as Ashraf Ghani, international stakeholders, NGO workers and members of the media.

I would venture to say that today the people of Afghanistan have more hope for the future than at any time during the last 25 years. Afghanistan has a Constitution, an elected president, and will soon have a Parliament and Provincial Councils. Though the process is still undoubtedly fragile, the people have an unprecedented chance to take the destiny of their nation into their own hands.

On election day I visited several polling stations in Kabul. I was moved to see men and women going through the procedures: dipping their index fingers into the ink, and disappearing behind screens to peruse a seven-page long ballot sheet. 6.6 million Afghans, 43 percent of them women, voted throughout the country, courageously defying a Taliban call for boycott, intimidation from militant groups, and acts of violence.

Of the 12 million Afghans who registered to vote this September, 44 percent are women, up by 35 percent from last October's Presidential elections. This increase occurred even in the most backward and conservative regions of Uruzgan, Helmand, Paktia, Khost and Kandahar.

Of 5,800 candidates, more than 600 were women. I have met many of them in Kabul, including a woman from the nomadic Kuchi tribe. I also met my friend Sima Simar, President of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, who in 1998 donned a burqa to participate in an international convention in Brussels. Then there was the Minister for Women's Affairs, Masooda Jalal, who commented: ''Men say a woman's place is in the house, and they are right: the Houses of Parliament.''

But centuries-old discrimination makes campaigning very difficult for women in this country. For some it is un-Islamic for a woman to participate in public life at all, and in many rural areas women cannot leave their homes unless accompanied by a man. Threats and intimidation – slashed posters send the message that women should not reveal their faces – join with the difficulty and danger in accessing certain places from which women are banned. Only consider the paradox of self-promotion behind a burqa.

While the high number of registered voters, particularly women, is a positive indication of the eventual legitimacy of the election, it is impossible to overlook the risk of fraud at various levels, the range of possible forms of intimidation (many very difficult to verify), as well with a number of grave incidents that have already occurred, such as the killing of three candidates and one supporter and various beatings.

What is most alarming with regard to security is not the strictly military preoccupation of the 'War on Terror’ as to whether the Taliban can win the war or not, but rather the risk of high or low intensity attacks intended to undermine the process, the primary target being the electoral apparatus. Unfortunately, given the many hiding places found full of weapons, and the complete porosity of the border with Pakistan, a large scale strike can never be ruled out.

Democracy’s balancing act

Beyond the eventual outcome, September's elections will have been successful only if the Afghans recognise their value and their fundamental importance to the future of the country; or at least, if they can see the overall process as a positive one with regard to the country's political inertia, the state of permanent war, and the sense of bitterness about the present and pessimism about the future.

Parliamentary candidate Ustad Muqim Khan, a high-school teacher of mathematics and physics, has a positive view of democracy and what it could offer Afghanistan, which he feels needs a multi-party system. He is, however, pessimistic about the future of the country because he fears that today's dysfunctions will simply be perpetuated in tomorrow's institutions. Much of the hope raised after the country was rid of the Taliban four years ago is now in danger of being shattered. The process of rebuilding Afghanistan since then has been slow. In the eyes of many ordinary Afghans, far too slow.

It is clear that the newly elected bodies will have among their members former mujahidin commanders and former Taliban who have joined the amnesty scheme under a national reconciliation process. Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights activist and candidate herself, referring to the composition of the future Parliament, commented, ‘Fundamentalists plus former warlords plus drug dealers plus former leaders is not good news for Afghanistan’.

This is a realistic enough view, but I wish to be, if not optimistic, at least more hopeful. Whatever the final outcome, the legislature will have a significant female presence, even by “western” standards. The electoral law establishes a minimum quota of 68 seats out of 249 for the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) and 25 percent of all Provincial Council seats reserved for women. Also the Kuchi nomads will have ten seats allocated to them in Parliament, of which three are for women.

This significant achievement will be reached thanks to a quota system of which I am not usually an enthusiastic supporter – far from it – but which at times is necessary as an interim measure, to ease the transition to more plural and open societies. Women were about 10 percent of the total 5800 candidates which is a very satisfactory result per se – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they procured many votes from men as some of them candidly admitted to us that ‘women don’t have blood on their hands’. Clearly such was the case for Malalai Joya, who openly criticized the presence of warlords in the Constitutional Loya Jirga: she has come second overall in the Wolesi Jirga race in Farah Province.

The election of a new Parliament and of Provincial Councils is an important step but will not, alone, solve the problems facing a country still emerging from decades of war and destruction. Several provinces have been outside the central governments’ control for over two decades. Life expectancy is 43 years, illiteracy affects 70 percent of the population, corruption and impunity are part of daily life. Afghanistan’s infrastructure is practically non-existent (roads, sewage, energy power), the health system is among the worst in the world and the lack of universal schooling and education – most children are still doing their lessons in the dust beneath canvas tents – is at the root of many challenges facing Afghan people today. Given the overall picture, expectations must be managed carefully. But I am hopeful that positive momentum created by the elections will carry forward into sustainable social and economic reforms.

I also believe that the presence of women in the Parliament will in itself constitute a major breakthrough for gender equality and that the creation of a women caucus can be helpful to fight the repressive culture still so predominant in Afghanistan. Often societies in these parts of the world, but also in western ones, have leaped ahead thanks to the empowerment of women. Here, women are gradually gaining new space in which to exercise their rights – a space that will bring about change. Women need to become full partners in Afghanistan.

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