Afghan women suffer setback as parliament lowers quota for female lawmakers

An official helps an Afghan woman fill her application for a voter registration card in Herat on May 26. Aref Karimi / AFP - Getty Images, file

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan’s parliament has passed a law lowering the proportion of provincial council seats reserved for women.

The Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, this week approved a revised electoral law that included the reduction of the guaranteed proportion of the 420 provincial council seats allotted to females from 25 percent down to 20 percent.

The purpose of guaranteeing some seats for women was to ensure female representation in the male-dominated society where women and girls are still often treated as second-class citizens.

Many worry this is yet another step in restricting women’s rights in a country that has made many strides in this area during the last decade. After the U.S.-led military invasion that toppled the austere Taliban regime 12 years ago, women and girls were given the opportunity to rejoin society. They were given the allocated seats in the country’s legislature to help with the process of integration.

They were also given the right to work outside the home and millions of girls went back to school – privileges they did not have under the Taliban.

But amid reports of possible negotiations with the Taliban and attempts to bring them back into the political fold, the new law makes it clear it isn’t just the Taliban that women need to worry about – it’s their own government.

Human Rights Watch said the decision – one of many similar recent moves by various government bodies – indicated “a broad-based attack on women’s rights.”

“It’s perverse that Afghanistan’s parliament is devoting its time and energies to attacking women’s hard-fought legal protections,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director for HRW. “Afghanistan’s foreign donors should be loud and clear that they won’t stand by while Afghan women’s hard-won rights are swept away.”

Female parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai said that the fact that women kept as many seats as they did was an achievement.

“In the last three years, I should say that [Afghan] women have been lost from the attention of international community and civil society. They are not getting as much support as they had in the past,” she said. “It’s not a good step that the seats were reduced, but on the other hand this 20 percent is still a big deal for us, we risked even losing the 20 percent.”

The latest decision comes after conservatives in the upper house of parliament, Mishrano Jirga, surreptitiously removed a law that stipulated there should be at least 25 percent female representation in the provincial council earlier this year. Female politicians discovered what had happened and fought to have the decision recalled. 

Barakzai said women should not take the decrease in seats allocated to them sitting down, and should campaign harder to win the seats independently.

“They should do the work themselves and not wait for others to give it to them,” she added. “It is their job and their duty.”

Some Afghans agreed with the new law and applauded the decision.

Muhammad Moeen Marastial, a former member of parliament, called the reduction “reasonable” and said that it fairly represented the country’s status quo in regards to gender equality.

“It is dependent on our society’s conditions, and for now it is hard for women to work and represent themselves. So because of the current situation the step taken by the parliament is a right decision.” Marastial said. “Also, if you look at the parliaments around the world, you will be able to find they are only 20 to 30 percent made up of women.”

But Marastial added that he believes parliament should do more in the future to give women more opportunities and create more equality between men and women.

Kabul mechanic Mohammad Daoud said he is fine with the lessening of female representation and added that they should reduce male representation as well.

“They should end the parliament and provincial councils all together,” the 42-year-old said. “What have they done for our society? They are useless and just an extra expense for our government.”