Where's their vote?
by Kelly Roache
A deeply-rooted tribal and political imbroglio, the situation in Afghanistan is a daunting case. While over thirty candidates sought the Presidency this year, the election was ultimately a contest between sitting President Hamid Karzai and his former foreign minister, and ophthalmologist by trade, Abdullah Abdullah. Abundant allegations of corruption against Karzai and Abdullah’s stance as a reform candidate fostered additional tensions to the existing national strife. Still a perpetual threat to democracy, the Taliban’s attempts to intimidate the population – such as by threatening to cut off the ink-stained thumbs of voters – were all too successful, depressing voter turnout to an estimated 40-50%; in the 2004 Presidential election, nearly 70% of eligible Afghans came to the polls to cast their votes. As expected, almost immediately following the election, Abdullah began alleging fraud, with reports of stations where more votes were cast than there were voters registered, or of ballot boxes containing votes exclusively for Karzai. The official results are expected on the 21st, but will likely be delayed amid the bureaucracy of sorting out the claims.
While the world will certainly be waiting anxiously for the final tally, perhaps the greatest bloc of disenfranchised voters is already apparent, with reports of disproportionally low turnout among women. Sharia law provides that separate voting booths be operated for men and women to limit public mingling; however, nearly 650 women’s polling stations failed to open nationally, with only six out of 36 available in the Taliban-controlled South – that’s less than 17%. Moreover, a shortage of female staff members at the open stations deterred women from casting their ballots or, worse yet, filing complaints regarding these violations. To avoid the situation all together, many families opted for proxy voting, in which the men of the household cast votes “on behalf of” their wives and daughters. Similarly, women candidates may have faced the worst of the discrimination, denied media coverage and threatened with violence that discouraged other potential candidates and made campaigning impossible.
While a second round election between Karzai and Abdullah (Afghan law mandates this if no one candidate receives over 50% of the vote) initially seemed inevitable, the incumbent appears to have garnered well over the percentage needed to claim victory in early tallies (pending investigation of his challenger’s claims of fraud). While this may spare a country on the brink from more polarizing chaos of a runoff, it bodes about as well for the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan as the election proceedings themselves. In a country where the restrictive burqa is commonplace, Karzai exacerbated women’s status as second-class citizens with this spring’s Shiite Family Law. Ironically a political gesture to shore up the fundamentalist vote that may have won him the election, the law has been interpreted to legalize marital rape, barring a woman from denying her husband sex unless she is ill. Similarly, it placed restrictions on a woman’s right to leave the home, to divorce, and to maintain custody of her children. Surely this is not the “Enduring Freedom” we had in mind.
This summer, “Where’s Their Vote?” was popularized as a cry on behalf of those disenfranchised by the Iranian election. But we cannot afford to overlook the violation of women’s rights in Afghanistan as Americans or human beings, whether for political expediency or fear of complexity. The least we can do is demand that the results of the election reflect the will of the women – and men – whose lives it will shape, and who risked (quite literally) life and limb to say, “This stops here.” If we fail in this way, any progress, such as advances in education for Afghan girls, is slowly eroded. Then, the men and women of Afghanistan are little better off than they were under the Taliban.