By Ahmad Shah*
Women activists in the southeastern province of Khost complain that they being excluded from communal occasions, accusing local officials of having no interest in anything more than a token female presence at public events.
This lack of representation extended to important consultative meetings, said Kamila Akbari, the head of a women’s capacity building organisation in Khost.
She said that when the president visited the province a few months ago, only male representatives were invited to meet him.
“As far as I know, the governor of Khost and the tribal leaders raised issues people face in the province, but there was no woman there to present gender concerns in Khost to the president,” she continued, adding sarcastically, “No-one provided any information to the president about the problems faced by women in Khost, so I think that the president might have thought that the people of Khost are very good and behave perfectly towards women and respect all their rights.”
Khost activist Zohra Jalal noted the example of a video conference call the president held with the Khost governor and other public figures earlier in 2015 to discuss challenges facing the province.
Women were neither invited to attend the meeting nor were any issues related to gender equality raised in the event, she continued.
This meant that women who voted in the presidential elections last year now felt betrayed.
“The president has forgotten us, and he hasn’t asked the former governor what kinds of problems the women of Khost face,” Jalal said.
Nadia Bawari, head of the local women’s union, added, “Unfortunately, I have to say that there is a great deal of discrimination towards women in Khost.”
Social affairs expert Ershad Raghand said that any meeting that did not include women was a waste of time.
“Half of human society is missing in such gatherings as well as in their conclusions. [Women’s] needs, problems, and opinions remain unsaid.”
Women in the province have long complained that they are shut out of public life. Only a tiny proportion of civil servants are female, despite attempts to introduce positive discrimination into local government hiring practices.
According to official figures, just 240 women work in government offices in Khost province, compared with close to 8,000 men. Six more women work with the Afghan military there.
Civil society activist Naat Bibi said that this exclusion extended to local celebrations as well as political meetings.
She highlighted the festivities held each year on August 20 to mark Independence Day and the defeat of the British army in a landmark 1880 battle.
These were attended by thousands of men, but women had little involvement and only a handful of female representatives were invited to the official ceremonies, Bibi said. This was particularly galling as it was a female folk hero who played a central in the decisive battle the celebrations commemorate.
“Malalai of Helmand had the major role in independence,’ she said, explaining that this young Pashtun woman had carried the Afghan flag and rallied the troops as they fought in the battle of Maiwand, before she was mortally wounded.
“However, the men have forgotten this. They still discriminate against us. But why? are we not from this homeland? Don’t we have rights? What does the law say? Not inviting women to these gatherings is a cruel response to the sacrifice made by Malalai.”
Mubarez Mohammad Zadran, the spokesman of the Khost governor, said such allegations were without foundation.
“Every week, the head of the provincial department of women’s affairs, along with other departmental heads, meet with the governor and share information on the development and problems of the women of Khost,” he said.
The two female members of the provincial council also held monthly meetings with the governor, Zadran said, adding that the governor’s door was always open if women had problems they wanted to raise with him.
Malalai Wali, head of the department of women’s affairs in Khost, also said that she was invited to events.
“If female members of civil society are not invited to the meetings, this is not the responsibility of the department of women’s affairs,” she continued.
However, the dozens of female activists working in Khost say that the token presence of women official at official meetings was not enough.
“Women are seen as having no value in this society,” said provincial council member Waghma Arzo. “People still have this belief that women were created to stay inside the home and men to work outside the house.”
“I am upset with the authorities,” she continued. “They ensure the support of young men in every gathering, however young women…are neither invited to meetings nor supported by anyone. Isn’t this evidence of biased behaviour?”
Women also complain that tribal leaders also exclude women from decision-making processes, even when they are directly relevant to their lives.
Khost resident Rahima noted that several huge tribal gatherings had been held to decide on restricting or eliminating the payment of dowries.
These sums are often so large that young men must delay their marriage for years and some never marry at all.
Not a single female representative was invited to these gatherings, she continued, which meant that the rulings on the dowry were bound to fail.
Mothers insisted on the payment of a hefty pride price, she added, “so they violate those tribal decisions”.
Zeba Barakzai, head of the Khost branch of the Afghan Women’s Network, said that her organisation’s central office was very keen for her to participate in high-profile events and so raise awareness about gender equality issues. The problem is that she was not invited, Barakzai explained.
“Our administration wants a monthly report about meetings held by the women’s network, the problems and issues we recorded, and in how many events have we participated. However, no one invites us to the events and so we are unable to report back.”
Bostan Walizai, head of the Civil Society and Human Rights Organisation in the province, was also concerned.
“Women’s insignificant representation in Khost government offices, men not valuing women and low capacity have led to women being denied even more rights,” he said.
Legal expert Najibullah Alokhail said that gender equality was, in theory, enshrined in Afghan law.
He compared female participation in social affairs with a bird in flight.
“Man and woman are like the wings of the bird; if one wing of the bird is missing, it will never be able to fly. Similarly, the development of society without women’s participation is impossible.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan and published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 533.