Insights and Analysis

The Evolving Role of Women in a Politically Uncertain Afghanistan

December 7, 2016

By Idrees Ilham

On June 14, 2014, 2.4 million Afghan women voted in the country’s presidential run-off election—38 percent of total turnout—making it the highest level of women’s electoral participation in Afghanistan’s history. This year, the first women’s university opened in Kabul, Khost province opened its first women’s park, and more women graduated from the army cadet school and the police academy than ever before.

A woman sits in a crowd of graduates at Kandahar University.

An overwhelming majority of Afghans say that women should be allowed to vote in elections, with support for voting high at all levels of education and across regions of the country. Above, a woman graduates from Kandahar University. Photo/Gulbuddin Elham

Amid these incredible achievements, the horror of Farkhunda Malikzada, who was beaten to death by a mob in public last year, shocked the nation and the world. In June, Nafisa Nouri, a young mother, was doused in acid while walking in Kabul during Eid. It seems implausible that such hope and horror can exist in the same reality, in the same society. But that is the story of the Afghan people, and particularly one of Afghan women.

The findings from The Asia Foundation’s just-released Survey of the Afghan People echo this story of hope and struggle. This year’s survey of 12,658 Afghan respondents from 16 ethnic groups across all 34 provinces reveals that 69.8 percent of Afghans report feeling fear for their personal safety, the highest level in over a decade. Just under 23 percent of respondents cited unemployment as the biggest problem facing women in their area, up significantly from 11.3 percent in 2015, and domestic violence was cited by 22.1 percent, an all-time high. It’s not surprising, then, that anxiety is rising that the deteriorating security situation, including Taliban territorial advances and waning international attention, will put at risk the modest but hard-won progress in advancing women’s status in the country.

Even still, after decades of battle with patriarchy and misogynist norms, we’re seeing an increase in awareness of women’s constitutional and natural rights, and the role of women in the political and economic spheres of Afghanistan is gradually evolving. Although the survey reconfirms that challenges such as cultural norms, fear for safety, and low levels of education among women continue, the opportunities women have had since 2004 have been quite remarkable.

In the past, particularly during the Taliban, women rarely had a say in politics, neither were they allowed to work outside of the home. After 2004, some women began leaving the home to work and were able to contribute to family income. However, those numbers were small, and only those women who had some level of education could work as teachers and low-paid government employees, and this usually only happened in big cities for women from open-minded families. Those women who lived in rural areas were not allowed to work.

Twelve years later, a record number of Afghans in the survey say women should be able to work outside the home. It seems that a weakening economy is driving this progressive sentiment: after 2009, as donor funding began to shrink and security conditions deteriorated, businesses began to flee from Afghanistan, driving down the fledgling economy, but pushing more men this year (65.5 percent) to agree that women can contribute to family income, an average for both men and women of 73.9 percent. We again see the relationship between education and employment come through strongly, as support for women working outside the home rises slightly with education, with 81.9 percent of university graduates saying women should be allowed to work outside the home, compared to 71.6 percent of those with only informal schooling.

The significant turnout of female voters in the 2014 elections showed they are realizing their self-determination and are capable of shaping power along with their male counterparts in society. And not only are women voting—they are also winning elected positions. In legislation, women hold 69 of the 249 seats in in the lower house, while the upper house includes an additional 27 female members of parliament out of a total 102 members. (Representatives of both houses are voted for by the people.) Women are holding key positions as governors, entrepreneurs, and directors across government and non-government institutions in Afghanistan. In 2016, a woman was appointed to a leadership role in the Attorney General’s Office, and Afghanistan appointed a woman as its representative to the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Approximately 22 percent of public service employees are female.

There is more good news on women in politics in 2016. An overwhelming majority of Afghans (88.2 percent) say that women should be allowed to vote in elections, with support for voting high at all levels of education and across regions of the country from both men and women (56.8 percent nationally agree that women should decide who to vote for themselves, although urban respondents tend to be more in favor than rural, and women still favor this higher than men).

No longer is the prevalent perception that women representatives only represent women and only gain their seats through women’s votes; instead, the perception is slowly shifting, and people are beginning to understand that women in power represent society as a whole. As women’s role in society evolves, so too will the story of the Afghan people, and the country’s future.

Idrees Ilham is The Asia Foundation’s director for Governance and Law in Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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