AFGHANISTAN: Afghan Poll Candidate 'on the Front Line of War for Women'

Sunday, September 12, 2010
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Fawzya Gailani says her husband beat her when she won a seat in Afghanistan's parliament.
He was jealous that she won more than 14,000 votes in the country's first parliamentary election in 2005, while he only polled 160.

"He hadn't really beat me very often before then," she told AFP of the man she was forced to marry at age 14.
"But he was so jealous that he beat me a few times. I left soon afterwards and I've never been back."
Sitting on orange floor cushions in the spacious living room of a relative's home in the western city of Herat, Gailani cuts a glamorous figure in flowing black robes and silver nail polish on her fingers and toes. A black patent-leather designer handbag holds her ever-ringing phone.

She is one of around 2,500 candidates who will contest 249 seats in the lower house of the Afghan parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, in the country's second parliamentary elections scheduled for September 18.
In Herat, the second biggest city after Kabul, 150 candidates are vying for the province's 17 seats.
Gailani is confident of retaining her seat but her victory will have come at huge personal cost.
In late August, five of her campaign workers were kidnapped by the Taliban, she said, and shot dead. Four were relatives -- three cousins and a brother-in-law. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
The Taliban have been waging an insurgency in Afghanistan for almost nine years and this month said anyone associated with the elections is a target. At least three candidates have been killed since campaigning began in June.
Election authorities have said about four percent or around 1,000 polling stations will not open because security cannot be guaranteed.

In Herat the Taliban control a number of districts, notably those populated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, who make up the bulk of the insurgency.
Officials say women are the most vulnerable to Taliban violence, many receiving regular death threats, and New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week: "Women candidates are facing the highest level of intimidation."
While grieving the loss of her team members, Gailani is unwavering in her commitment to the cause that elevated her to political power -- that of Afghan women, whom campaigners say are among the most oppressed and abused people in the world.

While the post-Taliban constitution guarantees women such rights as education and employment outside the home, in reality many continue to be treated as chattels and slaves in the name of religion and tradition.
-- On the frontline of a war for women's rights --
Anecdotal examples abound of young women betrothed as toddlers, exchanged for animals or to pay debts, beaten and raped by their husbands, jailed by their families for refusing arranged marriages, murdered for the family's "honour", becoming mothers as soon as their bodies are ready, barred from leaving their homes.
The Taliban's five-year rule, which ended with a US-led invasion in 2001, was marked by general repression that was particularly brutal to women.

Girls were not permitted to go to school -- and even now are sometimes attacked and their schools destroyed by extremists.
Women were not allowed out unless accompanied by a male relative and wearing a burqa. They were attacked in the street for such perceived crimes as wearing white shoes and rape victims were publicly executed as adulterers.
Even today, women who become politically active face death threats and some have been murdered or forced into exile.
Gailani likens the fight for women's rights to a war in which the other side, men and mullahs, have all the firepower.
"From the first day I decided to enter politics, I have felt I have been on the frontline of a war for women's rights," she said, tears welling.

"This is a very emotional issue for me because women in Afghanistan suffer so much. If a woman is killed or kills herself, is locked up by her family or sets herself on fire because things are so bad, it is all the same -- she dies.
"Being killed is normal for Afghan women. If I am killed because I am a woman politician, it is all the same."
Gailani, 40, was her husband's second wife and had her "first child at 15 and one every year after that. I had ten children, six are still alive".

During the civil war of the 1980s, her family fled to Iran, where she realised her dream of attending school and decided that education held the key to her future, and that of Afghan women.

When she returned to Herat, she opened a women's gym and set up literacy, computer and English courses for women before deciding in 2005 to run for parliament so her voice could be raised for all Afghan women, she said.
"If I was in another country, I would have a loud voice and people would understand what I am talking about. But here it is difficult to make people understand why I am talking women's rights," she said.
She shares fears that after nine years of insurgency, President Hamid Karzai's plans to pursue peace talks with the insurgent leadership could see women's rights traded for an end to the war.

"If the Afghan Taliban accept our constitution, respect the law and equality between men and women, then this will be acceptable. But we know that won't happen. It is not possible for such animals to suddenly become human beings.
"If Karzai wants to play political games, using women's rights and human rights as his toys, then this will not be acceptable. I do not trust either Karzai or the Taliban and I have said so in parliament," she said.

"My request is that we live like all human beings, that women have the same rights under the law as all people.
"It is my duty to keep on fighting, and if I die doing it, then that is just the fate of a normal Afghan woman," she said.