Women in politics in Afghanistan

Files from Exile: MP Farzana Elham Kochai on Women, Inequality and Politics in Afghanistan

Women and Politics in Afghanistan

Starting with the codification of women’s right to vote in the 1920s by Emir Amanullah Khan[i], and the institutionalisation of equal rights for women in the 1964 Afghan constitution[ii], various heads of state[iii] have attempted to introduce the notion of gender equality into the political and social systems in Afghanistan at different points in recent history. However, the question of women’s role in society has proven a highly politicised and volatile topic in Afghanistan[iv]. As a result, the pendulum of politics would swing forcefully back into a period of conservatism in response to such modernisation policies. With each tentative step toward modernisation in recent history being met with public outrage and social upheaval, ultimately resulting in regime change, none of these attempts achieved any long-term success until the 2000s.

After the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, the US-backed government constructed a constitution which re-introduced women into every aspect of society, following years of suppression under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule[v]. Under the new constitution, men and women were recognised equally. Women were introduced into the political structure of Afghanistan, with the constitution reserving 25% of the 250 seats of the lower chamber of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, for women[vi]. There was also a requirement for 50% of the seats in the ‘upper’ house of parliament, the House of Elders, to be filled by women[vii].

Farzana Elham Kochai became a Member of Parliament in the Afghan Wolesi Jirga in 2018, prior to the fall of the democratic government in August of 2021. Similarly to many other members of the 2018 parliament, Farzana was forced to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. She now lives in exile, using her voice to support the women who remain trapped in her home country. I sat down with Farzana to discuss her experience working as a woman in the Wolesi Jirga, her views on the wider relationship between politics, reform, and women in Afghan society, and her goals to continue the Wolesi Jirga’s work from exile.

Being a Woman in Politics

I tried to make the government entities and institutions as accountable as they could be toward women, gender balance and equality.

Farzana explained that during her childhood and years as a young adult, the structure of civil society meant that there was a stark disconnect between the Wolesi Jirga and people in the lower levels of society, particularly women. “I never met an MP before I became one, because they were completely inaccessible to people like me”, she explained “if you were at the middle or lower rungs of society, you had no way to contact your MP.” After University, Farzana began a career providing financial support and advice to members of her community in an attempt to alleviate the struggles they faced. However, she quickly realised that the structural issues that plagued her community required a different approach. “We were trying to fix things from the lower level, but it wasn’t going to work”. As a result, she decided to pursue a career in politics, and attempted to tackle the inequality that ravaged Afghan society from the top-down.

Once elected into the Wolesi Jirga in 2018, Farzana fought for the proper implementation of equality legislation and reform on behalf of her constituency, the Kochis. In Afghanistan, the Kochi people are a nomadic tribe who assume a marginalised and ostracised place in modern civil society[viii]. Historically, the Kochi people have been the subject of heated political debate, due to their unpopular reputation amongst traditional Afghan society and their activity in rural areas[ix]. “As an MP, I had two jobs, the first was to represent [my constituency] and become a bridge between them and government institutions”,  Farzana explained. “The second part of my role was facilitating progressive legislation”.

During her time in parliament, Farzana played a key role in discussing and designing reforms to the legislation established during Daoud Khan’s presidency, prior to the Marxist and Taliban regimes[x]. Farzana lobbied laboriously to expand the rights of women and children. One such priority for Farzana was pushing for longer paid maternity leave for mothers working in the public sector, which was far below the international standard laid out by the International Labour Organisation.[xi] [xii] Similarly, Farzana fought to eliminate the legal barriers which prevented some Afghan women from passing along their citizenship to their children, and the processes blocking women from being appointed high-ranking government positions. These were only a few examples of the many reforms she worked towards during her time in the Wolesi Jirga.

“I tried to make the government entities and institutions as accountable as they could be toward women, gender balance and equality.” Speaking at the national and international levels, Farzana made sure to utilise her position and her voice to vouch for women and minorities who found themselves marginalised and overlooked.

Limitations of the Post-2001 Democratic Reforms

Certain rights were guaranteed to women by law, but the implementation was problematic.

Speaking on the struggles faced by women and Kochis during the 20-year period of democratic rule in Afghanistan, Farzana highlighted the shortcomings of the Post-2001 modernisation reforms[xiii]. “Even before the Taliban took over, I spoke of how forgotten and marginalised Kochi women have been in the last two decades”, she insisted. “These women were as forgotten and marginalised then as they are now [under the Taliban]. They never had the chance to benefit from the progress of the last 20 years”. Farzana criticised the government’s lack of concern for the Kochi people and their failure to put in place frameworks to support them in their particularly vulnerable circumstances[xiv].

Farzana went on to explain how despite two decades of development, the reforms put in place by the US-backed governments failed to achieve the long-lasting and widespread improvements in women’s quality of life it had hoped to. Although the government constructed dedicated channels to further the status of women in Afghanistan through the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA)[xv], which launched a 10-year ‘National Action Plan for the Woman of Afghanistan’[xvi], these reforms were limited in their reach. According to Farzana, the MoW’s action plan omitted any reference to the Kochi women specifically and did little to benefit women in rural areas.

It has been well-recorded that despite ground-breaking reforms being introduced to progress the position of women in society and ensure the upholding of women’s rights, the implementation of these reforms was extremely limited in rural areas[xvii]. Outside of Kabul, which is commonly perceived by Afghans as a Western-biased and liberal hub, the tribal traditions of the rural areas prevented the proper facilitation of these reforms[xviii]. This has historically been the case for modernisation reforms in Afghan history, whereby the rural areas have contested the modernised hub of Kabul[xix]. Although women were introduced to political decision-making, and pointed legislation was put in place, in practice life remained largely unchanged for the majority of women in the rural and marginalised communities of Afghanistan.

Implementing More Effective Reforms

Social change is not something that will happen in only 20 years, not when you have a society that is struggling from the grassroots.

In response to the question of whether the introduction of female participation in parliament led to any significant change for Afghanistan, Farzana was cautiously optimistic. “I believe it opened the door to change”, she confessed. “Social change is not something that will happen in only 20 years, not when you have a society that is struggling from the grassroots.” Citing deep-rooted structural issues such as low education rates, high levels of unemployment and the ongoing economic crisis, Farzana appreciated the difficulties hindering the successful implementation of long-term progress in Afghanistan.

In Farzana’s eyes, the key ingredient that was withheld from them was time. “We had the base to build the rights, the constitution and the legislation, but we were not given enough time”. She is of course referencing the 2021 Taliban takeover, which saw the country once again dive into re-ignited uncertainty and face the active removal of the rights that women like Farzana had fought hard to implement over the past two decades[xx].

Pondering the conditions which would need to be met for a future democratic Afghan government to succeed in facilitating long-term change and enduring equality for women, Farzana emphasised the importance of education reform. Farzana explained that during her time in the previous democratic government, 70-80% of the national budget was allocated toward security matters, leaving limited funding for development and education. Over the past two decades, security funding has tended to account for at least 50% of Afghanistan’s annual budget[xxi]. “We would need to re-allocate these funds into development and education if we wanted to see long-term change”, she affirmed.

For Farzana, the value of education and employment opportunities cannot be overstated. She believes that the foundations put in place by the previous democratic governments can be built upon to reconstruct an Afghan society which is more conducive to gender equality through a more educated population. Farzana believes that addressing these two structural issues is fundamental for long-lasting change.

According to Farzana, these reforms were on the horizon for Afghanistan. She believes that the unfortunate security and economic conditions which resulted in the reintroduction of the Taliban into the political landscape prevented Afghanistan from entering into a new, modern, ‘phase’ of its history. She conceptualised the period between the 2000s and 2021 as a ‘developmental phase’, and a rational pre-requisite to the evolution into a liberal society, as seen in Western countries. “Each society goes through this phase, we just weren’t given enough time to progress beyond it”.

Continuing the Wolesi Jirga from Exile

There are different categories of responsibilities that we still have.

After the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in 2021, women were systematically removed from all areas of public life, including politics. The constitution, which codified female inclusion in government, was unwritten and replaced with strict gendered policies which once again confined women to the domestic sphere, banning them from educational, political and professional spaces[xxii]. The Taliban also actively removed the branches of government dedicated to the protection of women, notably replacing Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice[xxiii].

Whilst members of the Wolesi Jirga have since dispersed, fleeing persecution by the Taliban for their role in the democratic development of the country, Farzana hopes that these MPs can come together remotely to continue their work in helping their constituents back home. As the last democratically elected representatives of the Afghan people, Farzana feels that it is their responsibility to continue to represent and advocate for Afghans in any way they can. “We have thousands of people who are trapped in Afghanistan, they are now hostages”, Farzana insisted, “and there are different categories of responsibilities that we still have”.

Despite voicing her desire to host virtual meetings of the Wolesi Jirga from exile, she explained that this has so far not been possible in practice. “It was such a fragmented and such a divided government that we had”, she admitted. The ideological and political differences between delegates have been exasperated further by the Taliban takeover, preventing any effective and productive remote cooperation so far. Despite this, Farzana remains hopeful that the Wolesi Jirga can set aside their differences to come together one day. “All of us are doing things individually” she stated, “so why can’t we do it collectively?” She firmly believes that it is important to continue together and present a united front, emboldened with female voices, against the Taliban’s terror campaign against women, to show that they cannot truly erase women from politics in Afghanistan.

[i] Garde, S. (2023) What’s happening in Afghanistan? evolution and conflict in women’s rights – part I, StAndrews Law Review. StAndrews Law Review. Available at: https://www.standrewslawreview.com/post/what-s-happening-in-afghanistan-evolution-and-conflict-in-women-s-rights-part-1
[ii] Sassano, A.M.M. (2022) The end of an era for women in Afghanistan, Human Rights Pulse. Human Rights Pulse. Available at: https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/the-end-of-an-era-for-women-in-afghanistan
[iii] Ahmed-Ghosh, H. (2003) “A history of women in Afghanistan: Lessons learnt for the future,” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 4(3). Available at: https://doi.org/10.2458/azu_acku_pamphlet_hq1735_6_a36_2003.
[iv] Sassano, A.M.M. (2022) The end of an era for women in Afghanistan, Human Rights Pulse. Human Rights Pulse. Available at: https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/the-end-of-an-era-for-women-in-afghanistan
[v] “Afghanistan 2004 Constitution” (2022). Constituteproject.org. Available at: https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Afghanistan_2004.pdf?lang=en
[vi] ReliefWeb (2004) Constitutional guarantee of equal rights for Afghan women so far brings little change to everyday life – Afghanistan. ReliefWeb. Available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/constitutional-guarantee-equal-rights-afghan-women-so-far-brings-little-change.
[vii] Ibid
[viii] Tapper, R. (2008), Who are the Kuchi? Nomad self-identities in Afghanistan. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14: 97-116. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2007.00480.x
[ix]ReliefWeb (2007)  Afghanistan: Clashes over pastures threaten to ignite further conflict – Afghanistan. ReliefWeb. Available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-clashes-over-pastures-threaten-ignite-further-conflict
[x] Afghanistan Online Khan (2018). Biography of Sardar Mohammad Daoud. Available at: https://www.afghan-web.com/biographies/biography-of-sardar-mohammad-daoud-khan/
[xi] International Labour Organization (2011) Afghanistan – maternity protection – 2011, TRAVAIL legal databases. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/travail/travmain.sectionReport1?p_lang=en&p_countries=AF&p_sc_id=2000&p_year=2011&p_structure=3.
[xii] World Health Organisation (2021) Maternity protection: Compliance with International Labour Standards.. Available at: https://www.who.int/data/nutrition/nlis/info/maternity-protection-compliance-with-international-labour-standards
[xiii] Astri Suhrke (2007) Reconstruction as modernisation: the ‘post-conflict’ project in Afghanistan, Third World Quarterly, 28:7, 1291-1308, DOI: 10.1080/01436590701547053
[xiv] Latifi, A.M. (2013) Afghanistan’s Kochis: Nomads No More, Features | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2013/5/15/afghanistans-kochis-nomads-no-more
[xv] The Library of Congress. (2019) Ministry of Women’s Affairs – Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Available at: https://www.loc.gov/item/lcwaN0015958/
[xvi] UN Women (2007) National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (Eliminating Women-directed Violence in Public and Private Spaces). Global database on violence against women . UN Women. Available at: https://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/en/countries/asia/afghanistan/2007/national-action-plan-for-the-women-of-afghanistan-eliminating-women#:~:text=The%20National%20Action%20Plan%20for,in%20public%20and%20private%20spaces
[xvii] Hilda, G. (2019) “Restoring Women’s Status in Rural Afghanistan by Building a Sustainable Livelihood through Education and Capacity Building to Overcome Poverty (Case of Afghanistan),” The Asian Conference on Education & International Development 2019. https://papers.iafor.org/wp-content/uploads/papers/aceid2019/ACEID2019_45222.pdf.
[xviii] Nehan N. (2022) The Rise and Fall of Women Rights in Afghanistan. LSE Public Policy Review. 2(3): 6, pp. 1–10. DOI: https://doi.org/10.31389/lseppr.59
[xix] Ibid
[xx] OHCR (2023) Afghanistan: UN experts say 20 years of progress for women and girls’ rights erased since Taliban takeover, OHCHR. United Nations. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/03/afghanistan-un-experts-say-20-years-progress-women-and-girls-rights-erased#:~:text=Women%20and%20girls%20have%20been,public%20office%20and%20the%20judiciary.
[xxi] Afghanistan 2011 National Budget Statement Draft (2011) TRAVAIL legal databases. International Labour Organization. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/travail/docs/552/Islamic%20Republic%20of%20Afghanistan%20-%201390%20National%20Budget%20Statement%20Draft.pdf
[xxii] OHCR (2023) Afghanistan: UN experts say 20 years of progress for women and girls’ rights erased since Taliban takeover, OHCHR. United Nations. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/03/afghanistan-un-experts-say-20-years-progress-women-and-girls-rights-erased#:~:text=Women%20and%20girls%20have%20been,public%20office%20and%20the%20judiciary.
[xxiii] Taliban replaces Ministry of Women’s Affairs with Ministry of Virtue and vice (2021) Firstpost. Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/world/taliban-replaces-ministry-of-womens-affairs-with-ministry-of-virtue-and-vice-9975461.html.

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