The number of women who participated in Afghanistan’s first democratic elections last April has become a point of discussion, as though the elections themselves were a referendum on Afghan women’s political future. If so, the outlook is cautiously optimistic. Women participated more actively in this year’s election than ever before. On April 5, as President Hamid Karzai stepped down, seven million Afghan voters—among them women from various parts of the country—waited, as pictures circulating on social media showed, in long queues under rainy skies to cast their votes. Women’s unprecedented participation in the election suggests that they recognize their agency in ensuring a more women-friendly government, and that they are willing to transcend traditional bounds in order to make their voices heard. Most importantly, it suggests that an increasing liberalization of Afghanistan’s political and social environment helped facilitate their participation in the electoral process.
Void of context, the numbers can be misleading. Indeed, election statistics seem to depict limited female participation relative to that of men. Of those who voted in the first round of elections, 64 percent were men and 36 percent women. In the second round, 62 percent of ballots came from men and 38 percent came from women. But this focus on proportions masks the reality. In fact, the 2014 election witnessed the highest number of female voters in Afghan history. This increase was consistent across traditional cultural boundaries. In particular, Pashtun women voted in higher numbers compared to previous post-2001 elections.
The elections are proof that, in a new milieu, Afghan women have already begun to feel secure and confident enough to make their political voices heard. Partly as a result of their agency, Ashraf Ghani—a former World Bank economist, academic with an MA and Ph.D. in anthropology, Chief Advisor to President Karzai during the Interim Administration, and Finance Minister during the Transitional Administration—was announced as the winner of the presidential election in September. While on the campaign trail, Ghani had made concerted efforts to involve more women voters. He specifically targeted women from major Pashtun tribes in Paktia and Logar. This came in response to 300 male tribal elders from different provinces who attended a jirga (council) and signed a pact vowing that the women they represented would be permitted to vote. According to the binding pact, non-compliance would lead to a fine of 500,000 Afghanis (approximately $8,800).
Given Ghani’s training in the social sciences and his experience working in the government, Afghan citizens, specifically women, can expect positive changes in the future. For instance, despite criticism, President Ghani has consistently invited Rula Ghani, his Christian Lebanese-American wife, to join him at rallies and other major public events. Ghani’s choice to allow the public to see his wife contravenes a Pashtun tradition that considers it a mark of dishonor for a man to allow the public to engage with women from his household. Former Afghan First Lady Zeenat Karzai, for example, was never seen by the public throughout her husband’s presidential tenure. Ghani and his wife attended an event on International Women’s Day this year in which the newly minted first lady delivered a speech in support of Afghan women—a rare gesture amidst traditions that restrict a leader’s wife from speaking, let alone appearing, in public. Beyond her visibility, President Ghani has also broken with tradition by addressing his wife using her Afghan-adopted name, Bibi Gul, in a society in which it is socially unacceptable for a man to publicly address his wife by name.
With his wife’s support and counsel, President Ghani may be able to bring the necessary developmental changes to Afghanistan that will begin to better promote women’s rights. Although Rula Ghani is a non-Muslim and non-Pashtun woman, her ability to publicly engage with Afghans should not be adversely affected merely by her race or religion. It is not as though no Pashtun or Muslim wife of an Afghan president would ever be publicly recognized by the Afghan public. Indeed, it is both Ghanis’ forward-thinking attitude, demonstrated by the president’s background and his wife’s public agency, which offers real hope for Afghan women.
The political and social advancement of women was of course not a question that appeared on this year’s ballot, and the future of female agency in Afghanistan cannot solely be determined from their participation—or lack thereof—in this election. Indeed, to insist that Afghan women have a bright future ahead simply because their president recognizes his wife publicly would be premature at best. Electoral turnout this year was limited by persistent issues of security that cast a shadow over the democratic process Not only did the Taliban threaten voters, but many women (and men) also refused to vote in polling stations close to a U.S. military base. While such security threats are not gender-specific, they provide a greater obstacle for women because of traditional ideas insisting that women are unable to protect themselves.
Expectations of sudden, radical changes are also unrealistic given Afghanistan’s history in the past few decades of war, corruption, poverty, and militancy. A deeply rooted patriarchal mindset—a consequence of religious and cultural extremism not present prior to the rule of the Taliban—is of even deeper concern, and has greatly exacerbated the issues that face Afghan women. This traditional mentality emerged to limit women’s participation in the most recent election through the Pashtun custom of pardah, which secludes women from public spaces due to patriarchal notions of honor and shame.
Issues of security and tradition that confront Afghan society are long-standing and unlikely to be solved by any one election, president, or first lady. Therefore, any forecasts for the future of Afghan women’s agency must recall that positive change for women is a gradual process. But an increasing number of Afghan women’s choice to raise their voices through the ballot box is certainly a step in the right direction.