Few women allowed to participate, says human rights group. Men still rule their lives despite boasts of progress
October 8, 2004
By Carol Harrington
Farida's forlorn voice is muffled under her blue burqa, yet her message is clear.
"My husband and his family, they say I cannot vote," the 24-year old mother of three said in her native Afghan Dari tongue. "All I am allowed to do is work at home, cooking and cleaning for my children and my husband, who when he does not like me, he beats me with a stick."
Afghanistan goes to the polls tomorrow against a backdrop of threats by the ousted Taliban to disrupt the election. Today, a rocket exploded in the air above the U.S. military compound in Kabul, but there were no casualties, a spokesman for the international peacekeeping force said.
Even though U.S.-led forces toppled the oppressive Taliban regime almost three years ago, millions of Afghan women like Farida still face conservative social and cultural barriers. Some are forced into marriages to men two or three times their own age, they are jailed for running away from abusive homes, courts almost always give fathers custody rights in rare divorce cases and young girls are exchanged to settle feuds.
Yet U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly boasted that his country has liberated Afghan women. As he desperately seeks re-election, Bush frequently points to Afghanistan's first democratic vote as a foreign policy triumph. Several times, he has said that almost 42 per cent of Afghan women have registered to vote in tomorrow's presidential election.
But that number doesn't tell the whole picture. In fact, the number, according to various reports and election experts, is grossly inaccurate.
"Pronouncements by Afghan and international officials boasting that 40 per cent of registered voters are women ignores the likelihood that tens of thousands of women have been registered more than once," states a Human Rights Watch report. Some Afghans sold their voting cards to political factions aiming to rig the vote; others believed their cards would entitle them to money, prescription drugs or food rations.
Women had greater opportunity to receive multiple voting cards, because, unlike men, they were given the choice of opting out of having their photographs taken and instead using their thumbprints. Even if they did agree to photos, many did so under their cloaked burqas.
Human Rights Watch also reported that few women will turn out to cast ballots, as hard-line Islamic Taliban insurgents are threatening and attacking women to scare them away from polling booths. In the south, where the Taliban has a stronghold in many areas, less than 10 per cent of those registered are women. Even in the capital, only 40 per cent of voting cards carry women's names.
Several election officials in Kabul told the human rights group in late September that the number of Afghans expected to vote in Saturday's first presidential election could range as low as 5 to 7 million — not the 10.6 million voters officials are touting.
Hadi Sharma and her two sisters won't be taking part in the historic polls even though they registered in their eastern home province of Laghman. Their brother, Abdullah, burned their cards after finding them hidden in their shared room. Then he told his father about his sisters' secret.
"Our father hit us so hard, I can still feel the pain," said Hadi, 20, a high school student. "We really wanted to participate in Afghanistan's first election, but I don't think we will be allowed to vote — ever!"
In an opinion poll of women throughout Afghanistan, 87 per cent of those surveyed said they needed to ask their husbands' permission to vote.
The head of the Afghan National Association of Women said even though females received equal gender rights when the Constitution was signed last January, the newfound right has had little effect.
Suraya Parlika said she was so dismayed by the way men are treating their women relatives during the registration process, she is protesting by refusing to vote.
"The election is premature, the country isn't prepared, particularly women," she said. "Most don't know what a vote is and few understand what democracy is all about."
Ever since the mujahideen took over from the Russian communists in 1992 and removed women from top government jobs, women have never recaptured those positions, she said. Most women with office jobs have menial positions, she said.
Massouda Jalal, the underdog in the field of 18 presidential candidates, plays up her greatest strength and weakness — she's the sole female running. Her slogan used to be: "Vote for your sister," but in the past couple of weeks, that has changed to "Vote for the mother." A pediatrician, she has three children.
Like Bush, the U.S.-backed Karzai frequently touts women's so-called cultural and political progress.
"The Afghan women have taken charge of their lives," he recently told reporters. "They are participants now. They are 42 per cent of the registrars. That's a power that is now in Afghanistan and no one can deny that."
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited