Afghan Women Braving Death to Enter Politics

June 26th, 2006 - by admin

Declan Walsh / SF Chronicle Foreign Service – 2006-06-26 23:36:08

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (June 25, 2006) — When Raazia Baloch, a mother of four with a 1,000-watt smile, was elected to Helmand’s provincial assembly in October, local authorities congratulated her with an unusual present — a Kalashnikov rifle.

“They said it was for my protection,” she said wryly. “But when I tried to fire it, the bullet was stuck inside. Even that was broken.”

Politics is a rough game in Afghanistan, where last year’s landmark elections produced a crop of budding democrats, retired warlords, drug smugglers and former Taliban fighters. For women, though, it is potentially fatal.

Last month, inside the new national assembly in Kabul, turbaned lawmakers hurled water bottles and bloody threats at Malalai Joya, a firebrand female deputy who criticized the country’s mujahedeen fighters. Now Joya says she stays in different safe houses every night and travels with three armed bodyguards.

The dangers are equally potent in Helmand province, 350 miles to the south. As 9,000 NATO troops deploy to the southern provinces amid the worst Taliban violence in years, courageous women — a small clutch of them — are leading their own campaign, armed with nothing but their voices.

Salima Sharifi was an 18-year-old schoolgirl when she started campaigning for the provincial elections last summer. Months later she won 2,114 votes — enough for the last of four reserved women’s seats and a place in history as Afghanistan’s youngest female politician. “I just wanted to make a difference,” said the bookish young woman, sipping tea in a carpeted room adorned with Persian poetry.

Her father, Muhammad Zahir, sat nearby. “I warned her it would be risky, but she just smiled,” he said.

That risk is very real in an explosive province where zealots torch schools and assassinate girls’ teachers. Sharifi has received several death threats, the most recent of which caused her family to move. Yet she remains undeterred. “Of course I am scared. But I am willing to make any sacrifice, even to die,” she said.

Like Sharifi, 33-year-old Baloch returned from exile in Iran after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She was married at 12 and has four children. Her husband, a police officer, died in a bombing by Islamic rebels against the then-communist government.

She prizes education above all else. “The prophet says women should be educated. This is freedom,” she said.

But her liberal notions are tempered by local culture and gritty necessities — she sought her four brothers’ permission before standing for election, and her eldest daughter got married at the age of 11. “I was on my own, and I couldn’t afford to support her anymore,” she explained matter-of-factly.

Despite progress in areas such as education since 2001, life remains tough and sometimes bitterly short for Afghan women. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate is among the world’s highest. In remote provinces like Badakhshan in the north, 1 mother in 15 dies in childbirth.

The post-Taliban national constitution guarantees equal rights to men and women, although Islamic law holds greater weight. Women account for 68 of the 249 lawmakers in the lower house of the National Assembly, the Wolesi Jirga, elected in September through a quota guaranteeing 25 percent of seats to women. There are 17 women in the Meshrano Jirga, the upper house. Just one woman holds a Cabinet seat — in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Sharifi and Baloch are battling to improve the lot of southern women. Every morning the two friends don their burqas and pad through the dusty streets of Lashkar Gah to take their seats at the provincial council, or shura. But democracy has proved a bitter disappointment.

The four women on the shura say they have met with some resistance from the 11 male councilors — mostly bearded, conservative men who declare certain subjects “not women’s business.” But they say the far greater frustration is the shura’s utter impotence.

“We haven’t done much to help the people,” Sharifi said gloomily. The council has only fig-leaf authority that gets little respect from underpaid and often corrupt officials, she said.

Giving a typical example, Baloch said the council once ordered that a village near Goreshk be electrified. “But when we took a letter of authorization to the power ministry, the desk clerk tore it in two,” she said.

Extending the reach of the Kabul government was a central plank of the American mission to Helmand that ended in May. It is also at the core of a much larger 3,300-troop British mission that has since taken over. But for the province’s women, security is the most urgent priority.

Last month, an unknown gunman emptied his AK-47 into a van that was leaving Helmand province’s Women’s Ministry, which is a stone’s throw from the British base. The van driver died instantly, but the two female passengers survived. Fauzia Olome, the ministry head, believes she was the real target.

“It wasn’t necessarily the Taliban. It could be anyone opposed to the government,” she said. Her ministry, which runs Internet, embroidery and beautician classes for 170 women, was closed after the shooting incident. “Nobody dares come here anymore,” she said, raising her voice as a British Chinook helicopter lifted off next door.

Olome, who has one daughter, now married, is as stubborn as she is fearless. Her husband left Afghanistan 21 years ago for school in Russia, and never returned. She fled during the Taliban years after receiving threats because she was teaching girls. An admiring Western aid worker in Lashkar Gah describes her as “inspirational, presidential material — if only that were possible.”

Now Olome continues her work thanks to foreign support. But without proper security, such help rings hollow — both the deserted Women’s Ministry building and the bullet-pocked vehicle were bought with American money.

Olome’s family is pressuring her to quit her high-profile job. As ever, she refuses, but warns of a worsening situation. “I tell you, our enemies are winning,” she said.

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