Women and Warlords: Letter From
by Ann Jones
The Nation magazine, May 22, 2006
To the Bush bunch, an election seems to
equal "democracy." Yet five months after elections in
Iraq, that country has no government. And nine months after parliamentary
elections in Afghanistan, it's unclear who the new legislature
represents and where it's headed.
I recently visited the Afghan Parliament,
just finishing its third month in session, to interview twenty
members of the lower house who seem to many Afghans to be the
last, best hope for a democratic future. They are certainly not
typical. Standard issue parliamentarians are familiar mujahedeen
commanders and cronies previously defeated, discredited and driven
from the country. But these twenty parliamentarians are different:
Trumpeted as "the first democratically
elected Parliament in over thirty years," this one was planned
at the December 2001 Bonn conference that followed the fall of
the Taliban, and was brought into being at fabulous expense by
an army of some 130,000 internationally paid election workers.
The United States' inexplicable pressure to invite those mujahedeen
commanders to Bonn plays out now in a Parliament where every other
member is a former jihadi, and nearly half are affiliated with
fundamentalist or traditionalist Islamist parties, including the
The presence of so many of the country's
notorious bad guys is certainly the most peculiar feature of this
"democratic" Parliament (another is the new Parliament
building itself, which has plenty of room for prayer mats but
no office space). One international analyst reports that among
the 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) are forty commanders
(warlords) of armed militias, twenty-four members of criminal
gangs, seventeen drug traffickers and nineteen men facing serious
allegations of war crimes and human rights violations. The deputy
chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission charges
that "more than 80 percent of winning candidates in provinces
and more than 60 percent in the capital, Kabul, have links to
armed groups." Plenty of parliamentarians parade around town
in armored cars packed with bodyguards flourishing automatic weapons.
"How can I stand up to that?" asked one woman delegate.
"I am only one small lady arriving on the bus."
Warlords and criminals got into Parliament
by the usual tactics: intimidation, bribery, theft and the occasional
murderous assault. Many spent lavishly on campaigns, running up
six-figure bills despite an official spending cap of about $15,000
(750,000 afghanis). Many gave away coveted products--from cell
phones to motor bikes--to inspire voter loyalty. Some allegedly
stuffed ballot boxes, using voter-registration cards confiscated
from women. The highest percentages of women's votes were recorded
in precisely those provinces where women are not allowed to leave
the house. In Kandahar province, brimming ballot boxes were returned
from women's voting centers, although few women had been seen
visiting the polls.
The presence on the ballot of the usual
suspects--especially the commanders who wrecked the country--kept
many voters from last September's polls. (The low voter turnout,
also attributed to widespread disillusionment with President Hamid
Karzai, further dims the democratic credentials of the new Parliament.)
But many voters filed a protest vote that produced Parliament's
other startling statistic: Better than one in four members of
the Wolesi Jirga is a woman.
What made that result possible is a national
policy of "affirmative discrimination," a quota system
endorsed and encouraged by the international community. The Afghan
Constitution of 2004 provides that "from each province on
average at least two female delegates shall have membership to
the Wolesi Jirga." That's a total of sixty-eight women, or
27 percent of the lower house, a figure that catapults Afghanistan
into the ranks of nations with the highest proportion of female
representation. Sweden is number one, with 44 percent, and Afghanistan
a respectable number twenty. (The United States, at roughly 15
percent, is a conspicuous disgrace.)
Surprisingly, when the votes were counted
last September, nineteen women had received enough votes to win
seats even without the quota system. In Herat, Fauzia Gailani,
a political unknown who runs a gym for women, took first place,
though she faced rivals backed by the former mujahedeen commander
and provincial governor (and current Cabinet minister) Ismail
Khan. In Farah province, second place went to Malalai Joya, the
young woman who, as a delegate to the constitutional loya jirga
in 2004, became dangerously famous for denouncing the warlords
and war criminals in President Karzai's Cabinet.
The performance of female candidates for
the provincial councils, elected at the same time, was even more
amazing. Women won the most votes in three provinces (Balkh, Ghazni
and Kunduz) and won seats in eighteen of thirty-four provinces.
In Kabul women won ten seats, two more than the quota prescribed.
And this despite the fact that most female candidates had little
money or time to spend on campaigning, while husbands and social
customs kept many from campaigning at all. Many reported death
threats. A rival parliamentary candidate attacked Dr. Roshanak
Wardak's home in Wardak province with automatic weapons and rockets.
A local warlord is suspected in an attack in Nuristan that seriously
wounded parliamentary candidate Hawa Nuristani and three of her
staff just days before the election. Both women won.
From the time the election results were
announced last fall, commentators worried aloud about what would
happen when women met warlords. The smart, cynical money was on
the warlords, while international NGOs and UN agencies hastened
to offer the women coaching and technical support. But after the
Wolesi Jirga was in session three months, its chairman (and former
presidential candidate), Yunus Qanooni, told this reporter that
there are strong and outspoken parliamentarians on both sides
of the gender gap. He thinks the women are doing just fine. On
the whole, the women members are better educated than the men,
many of whom are illiterate; and most have careers as teachers,
doctors or civil servants, while taking care of five children
(on average) at home.
Qanooni argues that because Parliament
is a new institution, both men and women should receive international
training. Maybe in communication skills: Men complain that women
interrupt them. Women say men need lessons in "democratic
During the first full-scale parliamentary
debate--on the issue of whether women parliamentarians would be
allowed to travel abroad without mahrams (male escorts)--women
held their own. "We no longer cross the desert by camel,
you know," said Shinkai Karokhail. "We take airplanes."
Warlords asked, "Why are these women yelling at us?"
Qanooni quickly sent the issue to an administrative committee.
Women parliamentarians, who were expected
to quail before the warlords, already claim to be changing them
for the better. Unfortunately, the female quota system gave warlords
the chance to buy loyalty in exchange for protection and financial
support. One female parliamentarian claims off the record that
"half the women in Parliament belong to some warlord."
So when a female parliamentarian reports that some well-known
war criminal has become "a very good man," it's hard
to know what to make of her opinion.
Nevertheless, the independent Kabul member
Karokhail says it's possible to work with the commanders. "They're
called warlords," she says, "but they've survived by
being very shrewd factional leaders. Politicians. They won't oppose
women or liberals on everything. They will pick their battles,
and we will pick ours." And Roshanak Wardak notes that the
ground has shifted. "The commanders could be outside running
around with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but they're inside talking
to us," she says. "They used to be gunmen, but what
good is a gun in the Parliament?"
That's the hopeful view. But skeptics
in the international community note the ease with which Afghan
thugs adopt Western vocabulary. Armed militia commanders talk
peace and democracy, and fundamentalist mullahs spout feminism.
Internationals say, "The leopard doesn't change its spots."
In the parliamentary cafeteria, women members caucus over cups
of tea. In the corridor strolls gray-bearded parliamentarian Abdul
Rasul Sayyaf, Islamic cleric and scholar, militia commander, leader
of the Wahhabi fundamentalist faction, friend of Osama bin Laden,
accused war criminal and the purported choice of President Karzai
(read Bush) for chairman of the Wolesi Jirga. Optimists take his
narrow loss to Qanooni (himself a former mujahid and right hand
to the assassinated national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud, but no extremist)
as a sign of political change.
But the strolling Sayyaf is trailed day
after day by fellow parliamentarians from the provinces. They
parade in cloaks and shawls, their turbans tightly wrapped or
trailing tails, their beards dyed jet black or bright red in the
fashion of this or that part of the countryside. Unmistakably,
they are drawn to the scent of power. But if Sayyaf lost, why
are they still following him?
The answer lies outside the walls of Parliament,
in the countryside. There, in the south and east, where warfare
that followed the American bombardment of 2001 has never stopped,
violence increases every day. Schools have been attacked; teachers
beheaded. It is estimated that in Kandahar 200 schools have closed;
in Helmand 165; in Zabul all but five of 170. Murders are reported
almost every day: police officers, village officials, former political
or military leaders. Americans say the attackers are Taliban,
though many Afghans say the Taliban are busy working as drivers
or translators for Americans who don't know their history. Others
say the attackers are drug smugglers, inciting insecurity to cover
their illegal operations. But many Afghans say that the same familiar
militia men are behind the violence, settling old scores.
In a sense, the countryside is supposed
to belong to parliamentarians. Every Thursday they're expected
to visit their constituents and report problems back to Kabul.
Women members generally have less money and more obstacles to
travel, but most of them go. Dr. Gulalai Noor Safi sets off by
car over the arduous Salang Pass. Safora Yalkhani boards a battered
bus to Bamiyan. Roshanak Wardak takes me into the mountains of
Wardak in a Russian jeep for meetings with village elders and
Kuchi nomads huddling around grass-fed fires. At Abdura, twenty
male elders recite the needs of the village. A school.
More than 250 boys meet daily in a field, weather permitting.
A like number of girls stay home. A clinic. Pregnant women
walk all day to reach Dr. Roshanak's surgery, and then they walk
back with their newborns. Jobs. Twenty-five able-bodied
young men have gone to work in Iran, leaving families behind.
This village is lucky enough to have water, supplied most of the
year by mountain snowmelt. They've terraced and cultivated small
plots, but the rocky soil yields only enough food to last the
villagers fifteen days. Then men must find paid work to feed their
families. Looking out across the rocky, high-desert waste, one
"Why don't they pool their resources
and build a school?" I ask Dr. Roshanak. "They have
no resources," she says. "I think you cannot understand
what it is to have nothing."
Making justice for such villagers throughout
the country--who so far have seen no benefits of the reported
billions in foreign aid to Afghanistan--is the job that many women
parliamentarians are undertaking. As more and more posh palaces
of drug lords and corrupt officials rise in the capital, women
members speak in Parliament of the deep and widening chasm between
rich and poor. Warlords claim benefits for their own fiefdoms,
but women--and Chairman Qanooni--press for equality among all
regions and ethnic groups.
Current power struggles don't bode well.
In late April President Karzai--Afghanistan's own "unitary
executive"--won confirmation for twenty of his twenty-five
Cabinet nominees, including a previously unknown personal adviser
to replace veteran Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Among the
losers were the culture minister, attacked for permitting women
and "racy" Indian films to appear on state TV, and Suraya
Raheem Sabarnag, named to be women's affairs minister--Karzai's
only female nominee. An anonymous Karzai aide explained that women
don't need "special appointments" to the Cabinet or
the courts because they're already represented in Parliament.
Clearly, the only effective challenge
to Karzai came not from Yunus Qanooni and colleagues but from
right-wing jihadis who'd like to do away with female TV performers
and ministers altogether. Karzai bowed to them (again) in naming
the over-aged Islamic cleric Fazl-e Hadi Shinwari to continue
as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and effective head of the
judiciary system. (Shinwari, who is on record opposing women on
TV and equal education for girls, forced the first women's affairs
minister from office by charging her with blasphemy, an offense
punishable by death.)
How can women parliamentarians stand up
to that? Maybe they're not meant to accomplish something like
justice--or democracy--for Afghanistan. Maybe the new Parliament
is just another foreign invention, like Kabul's new luxury hotel,
designed to gratify the international community while serving
no constructive Afghan purpose. Or maybe the new Parliament, such
as it is, simply belongs already to the bad old boys.