Where have all the women gone?

WASHINGTON – The recent shuffle in Afghanistan’s cabinet is more a “shuffling out” of Afghan women. Twenty of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s nominees for the Cabinet and Supreme Court have been sworn in after being approved by the parliament. Yet the single woman nominated (not surprisingly to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs) was rejected, and not one Supreme Court nominee was female.

Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women have made great strides in terms of political participation. Women immediately took advantage of the opportunity to be represented at all levels in the government. Afghanistan’s new constitution requires that 25 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament and 17 percent in the upper house are reserved for women. Masouda Jalal became Afghanistan’s first female presidential candidate and Habiba Sorabi became the first female governor in Bamyan. Also, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Youth and Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled were each lead by female ministers in Karzai’s interim government.

The progress achieved by these women was meant to be a starting point for the increased participation of women, not the end. But since Parliament was elected and became responsible for officially voting on President Karzai’s nominees, not one female minister has been confirmed. The new government’s reticence to confirm any women to power invited speculation that the appointment of the first three women ministers were simply symbolic gestures meant to appease the international community.

Some argue that there are simply no qualified women to fill these posts; but reality proves otherwise. For instance, the many pioneering women who have been involved in the government disprove this claim. Women such as Masouda Jalal, Habiba Sorabi and Sediqa Balkhi are an integral part of a budding democracy.

The dubious qualifications of some male appointees– including warlords, drug leaders and former Talibs– also suggests that this argument is species. Malalai Joya, a 27-year-old female MP who exemplifies the strength of Afghan women, stood up in parliament openly challenging her counterparts. “Every day I look into the eyes of warlords and commanders who have ordered the killings of hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and I wonder how they can be allowed to be the people’s representatives,” argues Joya. Despite receiving continuous death threats, Joya continues to work to improve Afghanistan?s future and demonstrates the critical role Afghan women can play in shaping the country.

One of the real reasons why few Afghan women are being given positions of power in the government is the conservative cultural bias that pervades Afghan society, which makes empowering women taboo. An aide to President Karzai explains, an Afghan woman is not suitable to fill positions in the Supreme Court because “she is thinking as a sister or mother or wife, [although] we have very intelligent Afghan women, they are not strong enough.” To the contrary, if the women in Afghanistan are anything like the Afghan women I know, then they are anything but weak. The women who survived the mercilessness of the Taliban regime and years of civil war are some of the most resilient women in the world.

Despite these setbacks, Afghan women are still in a position to promote democratic change and combat the religious extremism that threatens to reverse their progress. One area where women’s human rights are threatened is within the structure of the judiciary system. For instance, dominant conservative judges on the Supreme Court have passed discriminatory and disturbing rulings that affect Afghan women: They sought to ban a 2004 presidential candidate who questioned whether polygamy complies with Islam; they outlawed women from singing on television; they have called for an end to cable television; and most disturbingly, the Supreme Court ruled that young girls given as brides at the age of nine (despite laws setting marriageable age at 16) cannot get a divorce from abusive husbands.

Fortunately, Karzai recognizes the need for reform and is replacing nine judges on the interim court. Moreover, on May 27, Afghanistan’s parliament rejected Karzai?s nominee for chief justice, Fazel Hadi Shinwari, known for his “ultra conservative” and fundamentalist views. Hopefully, the new Supreme Court will offer moderate views that will counter-balance strict interpretations of shari’a law. This court has the unprecedented opportunity to grant women more equality under the law — not simply on paper, but in practice.

It’s imperative that women in Afghanistan continue to demand full political participation, including positions in the Cabinet and Supreme Court. Afghan women have already made tremendous gains during the past five years that cannot be revoked if Afghanistan is to join the modern world.