KABUL – Fearing that a Taliban-like fundamentalist government may return, many women in Afghanistan are determined to vote in the upcoming presidential polls to defend their hard-won rights enshrined since the collapse of the Islamist regime in 2001.
Activist Muqadasa Ahmadzai, 25, was a child when the Taliban ruled the country for five years from 1996. She doesn’t have many memories of that era but that has not prevented her from dedicating her life to promote women’s rights and avoid a possible reversal of the country’s democratic values.
Ahmadzai works for women in Nangarhar, one of the most dangerous provinces in eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Islamic State insurgent groups dominate vast territories.
“Today women are teachers, doctors, pilots, they have the right to drive, take part in elections, and advocate for their civil and fundamental rights,” Ahmadzai told EFE, explaining the progress made in the past 18 years.
In contrast, she said, under the Taliban regime “women were killed, flogged in public for not wearing burqa, schools abandoned and hospitals destroyed.”
She said she has heard from her mother that women even gave giving birth to their children on the streets due to lack of access to health care.
“Although women still have challenges, the progress we have made is significant,” she said.
After starting almost from scratch, women now occupy 27 percent of civil service posts, and dozens of them hold senior positions in the government as ministers or ambassadors in the country where 39 percent of over nine million school students are girls.
But many Afghans fear that there is a possibility of the Taliban returning to power in the war-torn country as part of an agreement with the United States. This has triggered concerns that all the democratic achievements made in the last 18 years may go down the drain.
To prevent that, Ahmadzai is asking women not to remain silent and mobilize through democratic means, especially during the elections set for Sept. 28.
“To protect their achievements and defend their rights, women need to take an active part in upcoming elections and should elect a president who can truly defend their rights against the Taliban in the peace talks,” said the activist.
“By electing a competent president, women can ensure not only their own future but also the future of their children and country,” she added.
There are 18 candidates in the fray for the presidential post. These include incumbent president Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking a second term, his CEO Abdullah Abdullah, former insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and former intelligence chief Hanif Atmar.
But none of the contestants is a woman even as three female candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for the vice presidency, an indication that their political representation still has a long way to go.
The number of female voters is also not high. Out of the 9.6 million registered voters, only 3.3 million, or 34.5 percent, are women, despite the efforts by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to increase female participation.
“Women’s participation in urban areas is good, but due to family and cultural restrictions, insecurity, and lack of awareness, the number goes down as we move from cities to rural and remote areas,” Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, IEC spokesperson, told EFE.
The Taliban has also threatened to disrupt the polls and asked citizens to refrain from participating.
Shafiqa Almas, 38, a resident of eastern Laghman province, said she won’t be voting this time because of the fear “of militant attacks and bomb blasts.”
“I saw several polling stations were attacked in the last parliamentary elections,” said Almas, adding she voted in the previous two rounds of presidential elections.
But for women like Lina Faiz, the Taliban’s threats were not enough to deter them from exercising their democratic right.
“Taliban threats should not stop us. We should use ballots against the Taliban’s bullets,” Faiz said.
“This way we can protect our rights and save our future against extremism,” said Faiz, who also lives in Laghman, a relatively secure region in the east.
Activist Ahmadzai shares Faiz’s sentiments.
“We should defy all security threats and vote for a person who can ensure our share in peace talks and defend our rights against the Taliban and other extremists,” Ahmadzai said.
She was referring to the Afghan peace process currently being discussed between the US and the Taliban.
The two sides have agreed “in principle” on a draft deal that will enable withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and open the door for intra-Afghan talks.