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Image: Political Participation
 Photo: Diane Saqeb (film maker)
Photo: Diane Saqeb (film maker)

Political Participation

Despite what many may believe, women’s political participation is neither a new phenomenon nor was it first introduced through Western influence in Kabul after 2001. However, in a reactionary society, which generally frowns upon female participation in activities outside the home, politically active women face routinely face threats to their life.

Urban women more politically active

In 1964, Afghan women received the right to vote and became eligible to stand in parliamentary elections. This was introduced in King Zahir Shah’s new constitution, along with other civil rights, but met with strong opposition from religious and conservative powers in the Afghan society. The following year 3 women were elected to the parliament and Kubra Nurzai became minister for health. In 1969, Shafia Zayai became minister without portfolio. Both served for two periods.

Women’s participation continued unabated under communist rule in the 1980s. Although female participation in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was considered controversial, the communist ideology and the influence of the Soviet occupation granted women more freedom and rights than they had ever had, - at least in the cities. In the countryside, there was vehement opposition against communist ideology and legal decrees, not least the effort to enhance the rights of women.

Although the civil war between the mujahideen and the communists restricted the social development, many urban women were able to keep working outside the home until the Taliban took control in Kabul in 1996. Under Taliban rule, 1996-2001, all women’s rights were seriously curtailed, and political participation was all but impossible.

Fragile progress since 2001

After the Taliban were toppled in 2001, international society has led a significant improvement in women’s situation in Afghanistan. The country now has a constitution that requires that women are 27% of parliamentarians, it has a Ministry for Women’s Affairs, and has ratified key international agreements to protect the rights of women. However, many of these advances remain only formal. The Ministry for Woman’s Affairs struggles to achieve real progress. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is often dismissed as Western or anti-Islamic propaganda. Although the Convention was ratified in 2003 and formally protects the right of Afghan women, it is such a far cry from the real situation of women in Afghanistan that its significance remains negligible.

Afghan civil society, on the other hand, has flourished. A myriad of organisations, many led by women, are working and lobbying for women’s rights. According to researcher Torunn Wimpelmann, their “advocacy is slowly becoming more organised and strategic. The national umbrella network for women’s organisations, the Afghan Women’s Network, has upped its game in recent times, spearheading several lobbying wins.” Sadly, women who engage actively in politics, whether as a part of the state or civil society, often receive threats to their life or are subjected to violence or even death by the opponents of women’s rights.


On women's situation since 2001:

Wimpelmann, Torunn (2012) “Promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan: a call for less aid and more politics”, NOREF Policy Brief. Oslo: Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, October 2012.

Norwegian Afghanistan Committee
Addresse:  Nawai Watt, Street # 03 •  Postal addresse:
work # 148 Shahr-i-Naw, KabulAfghanistan

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