Afghan election: Legitimate for whom?

A group of women gather at the National Stadium, where Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke at a rally in Kabul. Photo by Nikki Kahn – The Washington Post

Tomorrow, Afghanistan goes to the polls — and many people are questioning whether it’s even possible to hold a “legitimate” election given the potential for low turnout due to recent threats of violence by the Taliban.

But, as Jeanne Brooks reminds us at Women’s eNews, it’s not just violence that threatens democracy in Afghanistan — it’s the disenfranchisement of women. President Hamid Karzai recently signed a law that severely restricts women’s rights. Among many other appalling provisions, it prevents Shia women from casting a vote without their husband’s permission.

As Rachel Reid writes in the Washington Post,

Things got much worse recently when President Hamid Karzai officially promulgated legislation that would make the Taliban proud. Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern: As Karzai’s government has grown weaker he has increasingly turned to some of society’s most conservative elements for support.

In other words, Karzai has shored up his own power at the expense of women. Among Afghans who are risking their lives to vote, he is seen by many to be the only “real choice” in tomorrow’s election.

We’ve got a feminist Secretary of State who has professed her commitment to keeping women’s rights central to her agenda. And yet, Brooks points out, the U.S. and British governments decided not to raise a political uproar about the latest restrictions on women’s rights “out of fear of disrupting the election.” But if women’s voting rights are restricted, the election is already disrupted and illegitimateviolating several articles of the Afghan constitution and international treaties that Afghanistan has signed.

MADRE (an international women’s rights group) has created a survival fund that “supports an underground rescue network of women committed to providing shelter and secret transport to women who have been targeted because they dare to speak out for human rights.” Click here to donate to the fund.

Alternatives to Military Escalation in Afghanistan
An On the Ground Perspective on Afghanistan
What do the Women of Afghanistan Want?
The military’s disingenuous talking points on women’s rights

Join the Conversation

  • Ariel

    I’d argue that the U.S. State Department is largely staying out of the way of Afghan elections. The ISAF forces and Gen. Petraeus’ staff have been meeting with ALL opposition candidates, including Abdullah Abdullah.
    In addition to the disgusting restrictions on Shia womens’ votes, voter registration forms (essentially ballots) cost approximately $10 each. You can buy as many as you like. Sarah Chayes, working with ISAF, is located in Kandahar and reported on that on TRMS in early August. There is no legitimacy in this election, and it’s doubtful that even Afghans will take it that seriously.

  • aleks

    Both western-style elections and western-style human rights are foreign concepts that would take a full imperial commitment to even try to establish. The British and Soviet empires tried to establish their ideas of modernity and civilization there too.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Some might (and I’m not) even argue that we have no justification to impose full scale Western-style human rights in a culture which would probably reject them wholesale. We can hold Afghanistan’s feet to the fire somewhat through diplomatic pressure, but thousands of years of women being subordinate to men is going to take a long long time to reverse altogether.
    They’re going to have to do it themselves, for the most part. Anything else can be easily painted in terms of the victor imposing its will on the vanquished. We can participate or donate our money to this Underground Railroad-like set up, but I just know how difficult it’s going to be to reverse what has been such a strong cultural bias.

  • cattrack2

    I wouldn’t be so quick to say that. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve seen the governments of each become more conservative with respect to women and gays than the gov’t that preceded them. Women at one time in Afghanistan went to school, went to university, and started careers. Now they’re mutilated for attending kindergarten. There are a number of reasons for this & I don’t pretend a resolution is simple but when we’ve shed the blood of as many Americans as we have, we owe it to the dead and wounded not to squander their sacrifice. Clinton, Gates, and Obama need to step up to the table here.

  • cattrack2

    by “gov’t that preceded them” I meant the Soviet propped gov’t, not the Taliban (obviously).

  • aleks

    I’m not speaking to Iraq, which has had much more exposure to modernity and in recent years has been dragged backwards. Saddam was a particularly brutal dictator, but not a theocrat or a medievalist. Some previous governments had some element of democracy and weren’t particularly “socially conservative.”
    In Afghanistan, the strides made for women’s rights were imposed by occupiers, the British, the Soviets and ourselves. They were beautiful when they happened, but they vanished when the invaders gave up and went home. Karzai, who is an educated and worldly man and who always seemed to see himself as a modernist and enlightened reformer, clearly sees the writing on the wall. I’m not saying get out now, but the momentum is clearly against us and as our control over the country fades so does our ability to pressure Karzai, while conservatives who might support the Taliban’s leverage grows.

  • aleks

    I thought you meant the NATO/Karzai government of 2002.

  • LSG

    On NPR this morning, the reporters on the ground in Afghanistan said that not only was there low turn-out, but that vastly more men than women were voting. Obviously, their current information is almost entirely anecdotal, but for what it’s worth, it seems like in some places women are being kept from the polls, whether it’s by fear, economics, or a direct husbandly order.

  • LSG

    I hear what everyone’s saying about the cultural bias, and women have definitely been subjugated in one way or another for many centuries. This is particularly true in the rural, more conservative areas of the country.
    However, it’s not true that all reform attempts have come from the outside. In the late 1800s, Abdur Rahman, the “Iron Amir” considered by many to be the creator of “modern” Afghanistan, made some significant reforms improving the lives of women, including banning child marriage and giving women divorce and inheritance rights. His son and grandson continued this effort, establishing primary schools for girls and trying to break some of the tribal power over women. This is one of the most important examples of internal reform, but it is not at all the only one. Many men and women in Afghanistan have worked heroically for women’s rights, and had successes of which we in the United States are largely unaware.
    The Journal of International Women’s Studies had an article on the history of women in Afghanistan that I found very illuminating:
    I think everybody should read it!

  • LSG

    Am I being modded? My last two comments haven’t gone through, and both were extremely inoffensive. Informative, even!

  • LSG

    I’m sorry, clearly my internet was being stupid again! Is it possible for the author of a comment to edit or erase it?