Afghanistan's parliament has rejected most of President Karzai's new cabinet picks, including two of three female nominees. The vote reflects the presence of ongoing political challenges to Afghan women and their aims.
Thanks to a gender quota, Afghan women in 2004 gained the right to one-fourth of the seats in the lower house of parliament
President Hamid Karzai's nomination of a record three female candidates to cabinet posts was a short-lived victory for women in Afghan politics. In rejecting the majority of Karzai's nominees for the second time, Afghanistan's parliament dealt a blow to both the president and women's advocates around the country.
Only one female nominee was approved during Saturday's parliamentary vote, with lawmakers rejecting 10 of 17 candidates from Karzai's second cabinet list, including two women. The only woman among Karzai's first round of nominees also failed to gain approval during a previous vote two weeks earlier.
A spokesman for the president said Karzai would not submit a third list until lawmakers return from a parliamentary recess in late February.
Karzai's revised picks included Amina Afzali, who was approved to head the ministry of work and social affairs, and two candidates rejected by parliament: Palwasha Hassan for the ministry of women's affairs, and Suraya Dalil for the ministry of public health.
Although critics claimed that some nominees were inexperienced or aligned with warlords, women parliamentarians and political experts generally praised the female candidates' qualifications ahead of the vote of confidence. Palwasha Hassan, the rejected nominee to replace outgoing Women's Affairs Minister Husn Bano Ghazanfar, is widely known as a dedicated women's rights activist.
The results are a setback for those Afghan women parliamentarians who supported the new cabinet picks. Though Karzai opted to include three female nominees only after his first candidates were rejected on January 2, the president's decision was seen as a response to mounting criticism from women's rights advocates - and the latest victory in a slow push to raise the political profile of Afghan women.
The Afghan parliament's rejection of Karzai's cabinet picks was a serious blow to the president
Women's rights defenders challenge Karzai
Late last year, a press conference was held at the offices of the Afghan Women's Network to voice the panelists' "serious rejection" to the first appointments. "Unfortunately, in the new Afghan cabinet recommended by the president, no positive step for women's inclusion has taken place," their statement read.
Afghan parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhail also helped organize a news briefing with fellow female lawmakers after Karzai chose a woman to head only one of more than 20 government ministries. She told Deutsche Welle that the initial nominations, characterized by the president as a "mirror" of Afghanistan's people, were seen as a disappointment - and not just for women in parliament. The near-exclusion of female names from Karzai's initial set of nominees underscored just how far women have to go in their ongoing struggle to clinch top leadership roles in politics and policy-making in Afghanistan.
For Shukria Barakzai, who has been a member of Afghanistan's parliament since 2005, Karzai's nomination of women to only three of 25 ministry posts was not nearly enough.
"What I really want is to see women in Afghanistan not only be a symbol," she told Deutsche Welle. "I want women to be decision-makers, not only for the ministry of women's affairs."
Karzai did pledge to name several women to deputy minister posts. But Theresa de Langis of the United Nations women's fund UNIFEM said such positions signify a kind of "glass ceiling." De Langis told Deutsche Welle that more must be done to mentor female deputy ministers and other qualified Afghan women.
Afghan women's rights defenders protested the lack of female candidates on Karzai's first cabinet list
Political progress by the numbers
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in December 2009, women accounted for less than 22 percent of civil service positions in Afghanistan that year, a more than nine-percent drop over 2006. The country's Supreme Court Council also has no female members.
The Afghan parliament, by comparison, is more gender-balanced: About one in every four officeholders in the lower house is female, thanks to a quota established under the Afghan Constitution in 2004 to give women a legal claim to seats in the country's legislature.
Dr. Citha Maass, a senior associate and Afghanistan expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle that women's political prospects in Afghanistan have generally brightened since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
"There is a clear improvement for women, which was supported by the international effort," she said.
During the 1960s, when political change was generally confined to the Afghan capital in Kabul, enlightened members of the royal family and the educated intelligentsia were among the few segments of society open to the concept of women's advancement. Maass noted a "broader social basis" for female politicians today.
"Personal Status" in public life
Still, for many Afghan women considering a foray into politics, securing support from a husband or other male family members still constitutes an important part of the process. The first version of the Shi'ite Personal Status Law, which was signed by President Karzai in March 2009, required Shi'ite women to ask for their spouses' permission when leaving the home.
According to Maass, the law was "even more restrictive than any of the worst Taliban decrees." As a written interpretation of Islamic law for Afghanistan's Shi'ite minority, the document enacted restrictions on women's mobility in public life and was seen as a bid to shore up Shi'ite support for the Afghan government. It also defined a man's right to demand sexual intercourse with his wife, which critics said legalized marital rape.
"It's now the legal basis for a husband to prevent his wife from becoming socially active, from engaging in politics, from applying to higher positions," Maass told Deutsche Welle. "The difference is now, that due to the law, there is now a legal basis to resist the advancement of women."
The law triggered an outcry among members of the international community and Afghanistan's female parliamentarians, who spearheaded efforts to revise the law's most restrictive elements. The article on a woman's right to leave the home was amended to include exceptions such as employment, education and medical treatment.
Afghan lawmaker Shinkai Karokhail was among those who opposed this section in the first version of the law, which hampered a woman's ability to run for and hold political office.
"If you cannot represent yourself, by yourself, how can you represent others?" she told Deutsche Welle.
Read more on the struggle Afghan women face in politics