x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Afghan women risking their lives for votes

Voting in Afghanistan means risking one's life. However, most Afghan women are willing to brave the polling booth despite deep-seated disenchantment with the electoral process.

A burqa-wearing female voter waits to be handed a ballot at a school in Mazar-e Sharif Photo by Iason Athanasiadis
A burqa-wearing female voter waits to be handed a ballot at a school in Mazar-e Sharif Photo by Iason Athanasiadis

Dressed in a figure-hugging black skirt and blazer ensemble topped off by a canary-yellow headscarf, Melihe Ahmadzai is not your typical Pashtun candidate.

Ahmadzai billed herself as the "youth" candidate and used campaign rallies, colourful posters and her broad network of relatives to make herself as publicly visible as she could on the dangerous streets of Afghanistan's northernmost city, Mazar-i-Sharif.

In a country where most women still don a heavy blue cloak with a grille over the face to go out, the striking-looking Pashtun 20-something even ventured - burqa-less - into the lethal countryside for campaign appearances. But as the voting neared, Taliban affiliates confiscated voter ID cards and assassinated polling officials, and the government imposed a daylight curfew in many areas. It all contributed to a record low turnout (an estimated 25 per cent of registered voters), 32 dead and 95 injured. On election day, September 18, more than 100 polling centres remained closed.

"The people regret trusting the members they elected to parliament five years ago because they didn't fulfil their promises, they didn't better the villages," says Ahmadzai.

Ultimately, Ahmadzai failed to get elected. The heavily contested results returned mostly allies of incumbent Governor Noor Muhammad Atta, a former warlord who has been rearming his former comrades in recent months in preparation for an ultimate showdown with the government of President Hamid Karzai.

But her running, alongside a number of other young candidates (albeit several of them proxy candidates or the children of prominent businessmen, warlords or politicians), proved that despite being heavily disillusioned with the process, the next generation of Afghans is willing to contest their country's future.

Though preliminary election results were announced in October, the final count was announced only on November 24. A total of 24 winning candidates, about 10 percent of the total parliament, were stripped of their seats after it emerged that they had run fraudulent campaigns. They mostly belonged to the majority Pashtun ethnic group, as do most of the Taliban.

This time the fraud was masked by more sophisticated cheating, with the deal-making finalised and the polling station chiefs bought off by the time voters went to the polls. The country's Independent Election Commission says 1.3 million votes were thrown out for fraud.

For Samira, an Afghan housewive proudly showing off her ink-stained finger after coming back from voting for only the second time in her life, voting is essential:

"It is not so much about the future of women in Afghanistan," she said, "as about the future of all of us Afghans in this benighted country."