Afghan delegate
One of the Afghan delegates shows her finger, which was stamped with ink after she voted in the first round of elections on April 5.

Credit: Hajer Naili

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s eNews recently hosted a delegation of 11 Afghan women, including journalists, activists and public officials. We asked them about a number of issues, including the legacy of the United States’ longest war that has claimed 2,224 U.S. fatalities and the lives of at least 17, 500 Afghan civilians, according to a U.N. report.

Afghan Women Reflect on U.S. Women’s Rights

Women’s eNews recently met with a U.S. State Department-sponsored delegation of Afghan female journalists and activists. Here are some of their views on the status of women in the United States in comparison to Afghanistan. Most participants’ names are withheld for their protection.

  • "I was surprised when I came here and saw so much discrimination, such as the lack of equal pay. The editor of The New York Times, she left because she was not paid the same as the men. I saw your House of Representatives and Senate and the women are not equal there. They are deprived of a leader."–Somaia Ramish, recently elected to the provincial council in Herat, one of the most dangerous places for women in Afghanistan.

  • "We are told in Afghanistan that U.S. women are the model; that women have a lot of freedom. What I see is they have about 50 percent of their freedom. They work in the same place and are not paid the same."–A delegate from Mazar-e Sharif, one of the safer regions for women in Afghanistan.

  • "Women have more rights in Afghanistan: I am on personal leave and I get paid. I am out for one month and I won’t lose my job. It doesn’t matter if it is personal or sickness. Maternity leave is three months, paid. Most men are very kind to women. Yes, there is violence against women [in Afghanistan]–it is true–but it is because they have no education. Each region has its tradition and laws. Equal opportunity is in the Constitution. In my job (on the faculty of the university) there are nine faculty: five are men and four are women."–A second delegate from Mazar-e Sharif.

Due to the safety concerns associated with participants involved in the U.S. State Department program, most of the women’s names are withheld.

They arrived just as President Barack Obama announced the schedule for the withdrawal of most of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan, more than 12 years after the United States launched an invasion of Afghanistan on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

At the time of the invasion, the administration of President George W. Bush put the focus on removing the Taliban as a safe haven for al-Qaida. However, Afghan women’s vulnerability to the extremist group was also used to justify the invasion.

"Good morning. I’m Laura Bush, and I’m delivering this week’s radio address to kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women," the president’s wife said in a Nov. 17, 2001, radio address.

The two presidential candidates in the June 14 run-off elections in Afghanistan–former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani–have both vowed to support women’s rights if elected. However, one of the women in the delegation, a radio reporter from Herat, in the western part of Afghanistan, took a skeptical view of such avowals. "Such promises were made by other candidates during previous elections but none of these promises have been fulfilled," she said.

The woman, wearing a black abbaya, or cloak, and a blue headscarf, said that she herself covered the presidential campaign and the first round of elections on April 5. "We don’t know if he [future president] is going to have any control over the status of women," she said. Results of the second round will be released on July 22.

Strong Turnout

While the prospects for Afghan women are uncertain after President Hamid Karzai leaves power, the reporter emphasized the strong turnout by women in the election. "Almost 35 percent of women in my province of Herat participated in the election, which was a big turnout," she said.

The mood of the delegation rose at the topic of voting. When asked how many of the women had voted April 5, everyone nodded yes, of course. Some held up fingers to show the ink still left on their nails by poll watchers who stamp voters in this way to prevent voting more than once. One woman joked that if she worked harder and did more dishes the stamp would have washed off by now.

Election ink is an effective method for countries where identification documents for citizens are not always standardized or institutionalized. All the women said they would vote again on June 14.

"For the first time, the women came independently to vote, not under the influence of their husband or elderly in the village," said the Herat radio reporter, "which shows the women want their voice to be heard and want an active participation in the society to determine their own future."

In the April 5 polling voter participation was about 50 percent higher than in 2009 and 36 percent of voters were women, according to the Afghanistan Election Commission. Although no women ran for president, 308 women out of 2,713 candidates contested in the provincial council elections, where 458 candidates, including 96 women, have been elected for the provincial council seats, Khaama Press reported.

One of the women in the delegation, Somaia Ramish, said she had won a seat in the provincial council of Herat in the April election and had learned the news while in the United States on this three-week State Department visit. Ramishi, a women’s rights advocate who works for Naw Andishan, a safety organization in her province, said she could be identified in this story.

Voting Optimism

A woman who works for the governor of Parwan, a province north of the capital city of Kabul, emphasized the significance of the large turnout by women in the first round of voting. "This has created an environment for the women of Afghanistan where they feel they are important," she said, "where they feel their voices are being heard and that they have a place in the society." She expressed optimism that women would continue to vote heavily in the second round.

As in the past, the Taliban threatened violent disruption of the vote, but a news presenter from Balkh Province, in the far northern part of the country, said law enforcement and national security forces did a good job protecting polling places. "They provided the security for women," she said. "I myself reported from the lines of women who came in numbers and they were standing in lines and cast their vote and part of it, it was because the security was provided for the women. This factor played in favor of the big turnout."

The women also said the news media played a big role in helping to reach voters with neutral information about the elections.

Long before the U.S. occupation, one journalist noted, Afghan women had seen "a lot of ups and downs." When asked about the main changes she had witnessed for women since the U.S. occupation she pointed to an expansion of female office holders.

In addition to gaining 69 seats out of 249 in the last parliamentary elections in 2010, several women have taken positions as cabinet ministers and Habiba Sarabi became the first female governor in Afghanistan when she won the office in Bamyan, a province at the center of the country, in 2005.

Several recent media reports have also noted the growing number of female military and police officers. Last year, Nilofar Rahmani became the first female pilot to fly solo in the Afghan Air Force pilot training program.

Another gain for women in the past 12 years has been expanded access to education, said a journalist who works at the media center of the International Security Assistance Force. "We see a good number of women going to colleges and even accessing unusual jobs such as traders." She added that 40 percent of students are female at the journalism faculty at Balkh University where she teaches.

Violence Still Prevalent

However, she was quick to add that Afghan women still face a lot of violence, often from within their families.

Last year, conservative religious lawmakers blocked legislation to strengthen women’s safety. The Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women has been in effect since 2009 but only by presidential decree. It was brought before parliament to cement it with a parliamentary vote and prevent any future presidents from reversing it under pressure from hard-line religious parties.

The law criminalizes, among other things, child marriage and forced marriage and bans "baad," the traditional practice of exchanging girls and women to settle disputes. It also makes domestic violence a crime punishable by up to three years in prison and specifies that rape victims should not face criminal charges for fornication or adultery.

The visit by the delegation of Afghan women came a couple of days after Obama announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2016. The U.S. president explained that only 9,800 troops would remain at the beginning of 2015.

The United States will be striving to negotiate a security deal to ensure continued international support to Afghan security forces beyond 2014. Karzai has refused to sign the deal, but both presidential candidates, Ghani and Abdullah, vowed to sign the accord.

When questioned on the future of Afghan women after the U.S. withdrawal, one of the journalists said that Afghan women are divided on that matter. Some fear losing recent gains while others are fairly sure that they can hold on to their current status.

When asked about the best form of international assistance, she emphasized the importance of "teaching women how to fish instead of giving them the fish."

"Women want to be provided with tools such as training to continue building on the progresses even after the withdrawal," she said. "Women then would be self-sufficient instead of being assisted."

The role of the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal is one of the largest concerns of the international community and Afghan government. Secret negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban during the past few years have so far failed to yield any tangible results.

The woman from the Parwan government said the Taliban will only be seen as political partners if they renounce violence and recognize the Afghan constitution that included women’s rights along with the other laws of the country.

Women are concerned by the presence of Taliban in any kind of deal, she said, but if they are ready to follow the conditions that the government will state then they can be around the table. "They also need to accept the laws related to the exercise of activities of the civil society and the law of violence against women."

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