Factors Impeding Afghan Women from Participating in Parliament

INS330 – Women in Politics Research Assignment

The development of women’s rights, the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 2002 and the introduction of reserved seats for women in the constitution in 2004 have given women in Afghanistan a promising future in politics (Amoo-Adare, 2009). This year, more women are running in the upcoming October parliamentary election than ever with 417 candidates. Candidates such as Dewa Niazai and Zakia Wardak have made headlines and emphasized the importance of women’s contribution regardless of the challenges they may face (The Guardian, 2018; and The New York Times, 2018). In spite of institutional efforts, the number of seats in parliament held by women has been stagnant, at around 27% since 2005, which suggests that the quota system acts as a ceiling rather than a minimum. This denotes that reserving seats for women is not enough to trigger a change in a male-dominated culture and political structure (The World Bank, 2017). This paper aims to show how the internalized gendering of politics contributes to the unchanging number of women representatives in parliament. As a result, the analysis centers on the cultural and historical factors that limit women representation. It is necessary to acknowledge the challenges women face outside the public sphere because a focus on institutional factors alone does not explain why we have not seen any developments since 2005. The paper draws attention to the attitudes towards women participating in politics, taking into consideration differences in education, ethnicity, and urbanization as distinguishing factors in order to comprehend the varying levels of women’s participation in parliament in different provinces. It also explores how these gender-role attitudes translate to gender-based violence in the form of threats or “physical, sexual and physiological harm,” which is aimed to prevent women “from exercising and realizing their political rights” (UN Women, 2017).


  1. Reserved Seats

The parliament in Afghanistan, also known as the National Assembly, is divided into two chambers. The lower house, the House of the People or Wolesi Jirga, requires that 27% of the seats be given to women, whereas they are guaranteed 17% of seats in the upper house, the House of Elders or Meshrano Jirga (Amoo-Adare, 2009). Meshrano Jigra takes on an advisory role rather than a law-making one; however, all legislature must be approved by it. On the other hand, Wolesi Jirga is involved in law-making. The proposed laws can be approved through a legislative decree passed to Meshrano Jigra (Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, n.d.). The lower representation of women in Meshrano Jigra can be linked to the fact that it possesses more power, as it has to approve of all legislations passed by Wolesi Jigra. Jalalzai highlights that women are often underrepresented in offices where they are given more power (Gelb & Palley, 2009). In Afghanistan’s parliament, laws and legislations are passed through majority vote. Although women constitute the minority in both houses, the fact that they have fewer seats in the upper house reflects the reluctance to give more women power.


  1. Challenges Facing Women’s Political Participation

2.1 Attitudes Towards Women Politicians

Amoo-Adare argues that the quota system in Afghanistan acts more like a ceiling for women rather than a facilitator to their involvement in politics; thus, they only compete for the reserved seats without being able to obtain any outside the limit set for them (2009). This can be traced to the attitudes regarding women participation in politics. Women’s presence in parliament is undervalued, mostly by men, due to negative views held against reserved seats. They are seen to have acquired these seats not because they are capable, but because they are required to be there, and hence, women’s abilities as politicians are undermined. For instance, women parliamentarians are sometimes the subjects of jokes by their conservative colleagues (Emadi, 2008). Due to the negative connotations associated with the quota system, unreserved seats are generally perceived to be for men. This perception is validated by the underpinning ideologies rooted in the patriarchal system that shapes familial, social and public relations, and limits women’s role to the private sphere. Thus, critics believe that women are incapable of taking over political responsibilities, which is why they have not been able to achieve more seats (Mussarat, 2014).

As a result, women have often been ignored in the decision-making processes of the country and their involvement in politics is reduced to “symbolic gestures” as they have not been able to change to the inequalities facing Afghani women adequately. Further, Oxfam International states that parliamentarians are divided because several are elected through the support of warlords whom they answer to (2011). This results in having what Jalalzai refers to as a “descriptive representation,” which further impedes women’s participation in politics (Gelb & Palley, 2009). Descriptive representation poses a problem because it is not sufficient to prompt change; rather, it acts as a barrier to women’s progress. The Canadian’s Parliamentary Information and Research Service determined that “Afghan women’s actual influence in parliament was lower than their numbers” (The Civil-Military Fusion Centre, 2012).


2.2   Factors Impacting Attitudes Towards Gender Roles


There have been facilitators to women’s participation in politics who hope to challenge sociocultural norms and long-held ideologies, as some men believe that it is “Islamic behavior” for women to participate in politics (Tremblay, 2008). However, support varies with different ethnicities. Namely, non-Pashtuns are more likely to extend their power to women, whereas, Pashtuns have a tribal law embedded in their ideological teachings. This tribal law consists of “enforceable rules governing social relations and legislated by a political system” (Kakar, 2005). A highly emphasized sub-category of this is Pashtunwali or the tribal code of honor, which dictates that if a man loses his honor, he is no longer considered a Pashtun. Honor is vital to a Pashtun’s identity, and hence, it is crucial to ensure that it does not get tainted; “If a woman earns a bad reputation, her whole family, which includes the men, is sullied.” This is significant because, according to this law, a woman who participates in politics, thus, coming in contact with or sharing the same space as an unrelated man, has ruined her family’s honor (Kakar, 2005).

In order to maintain honor, purdah or rules regulating gender boundaries are fixed, in which the public and private spheres are profoundly divided. Purdah teachings dictate mobility, resulting in the seclusion of women, wherein, within their community, they have to take different routes than men in order not to come in contact with them. In these highly segregated compounds, women’s limitation to the private sphere is guaranteed by barring them from things viewed as fundamental rights such as education and health care (Kakar, 2005).


Socio-demographic Factors

Women involvement in politics is highly debated, and opinions regarding it are divided because gender is highly politicized and is characterized by extreme divisions, wherein men and women have their place. In order to comprehend the challenges women politicians face, it is essential to understand Afghani’s attitudes on gender roles because women’s rights cannot be explained separately from the social structure they live within.

Manganaro and Alozie conducted a survey in order to understand how perceptions of Afghani men and women vary (2011). They found that generally, people who live in urbanized areas, those who are younger and of higher socioeconomic status, hold more liberal views regarding the role of women in society. On the other hand, people who live in rural areas, are older and less educated have traditionally held conservative views (Manganaro & Alozie, 2011). Also, people who live in provinces governed by former warlords are more likely to condemn women participation (Tremblay, 2008).

Age is another factor to consider because younger women tend to support women’s participation in politics, yet, younger men mostly condemn it. However, this does not apply to men in urban areas, as younger ones have expressed their support for women’s rights (Manganaro & Alozie, 2011).


2.3   Education

A 2010 survey showed that one of the most prominent problems facing Afghanistan is poor education and illiteracy due to the lack of formal education institutions, practices such as early marriage and the overall limitation on female mobility. Education is crucial in enabling women, not only through providing them with knowledge, but also by lessening their reliance on men for information. This is because it will allow them to understand Afghanistan’s affairs and interpret the political scene on their terms. Nevertheless, due to high levels of illiteracy, women are not able to act as “informed citizens,” or even consider participating in politics. Their reliance on men for information means that they will only receive ideas that the men around them favor (Liebsch, 2011).

Education and socio-demographic factors are interconnected; namely, women and men in rural areas are less likely to receive an education and are less likely to condemn women’s political participation. Similarly, men in provinces where women commonly receive less education hold less favorable outlooks regarding both women education and employment. More importantly, Manganaro and Alozie found that receiving a formal education does not necessarily increase men’s support for women’s participation in politics, but the opposite is true for women (Manganaro & Alozie, 2011). Here, we can see that education does not only aid women’s understanding of politics, but it can also contribute to a shift in attitudes regarding how they view women in the public sphere. Thus, the lack of education limits women’s perception of the world deprives them of the ability to move past the social structure and drives them to adhere to traditional gender roles.


  1. Gender-based Violence as Tool of Terror

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) defines gender-based violence as “violence directed against a person because of his or her gender and expectations of his or her role in a society or culture.” This violence can be physical, sexual or psychological (UN Women, 2017). In one quarter of 2011 alone, The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) recorded 1,026 cases of violence against women (Oxfam International, 2011). Further, Hawksworth notes that gendered-based violence is used with the intention of intimidating women from participating in politics (2012). In Afghanistan’s recent past, women in the public sphere have been tortured, killed and raped, especially by radical fundamentalist groups. Namely, one of the noteworthy women, Meena Keshwar Kamal, was assassinated in Pakistan for her political activities only ten years after she founded The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) – an organization that fought for the emancipation of Afghani women and the protection of their rights (Pilch, 2018).

Acquiring a political position does not secure safety; instead, the head of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Sima Samar states that high-ranking women are often the most targeted ones, especially by fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban. Candidates often receive threats from these groups alongside ordinary people who reject their involvement in the public political sphere (Tremblay, 2008). For instance, in 2013 a parliamentarian, Fariba Ahmdai, was kidnapped and assassinated by the Taliban. Moreover, women parliamentarians are frequently harassed, which makes it difficult for them to complete their duties because they are unable to “visit their constituencies” regularly in order to voice their views on critical issues. The parliamentarians’ inability to exchange their opinions and participate consistently may also contribute to the demeaning of women’s capability of playing a political role; therefore, women will find themselves in a loop of events that pose as obstacles to their full emancipation.

Consequently, due to risks associated with political participation several women tend to withdraw their candidacy while others choose to campaign under a male relative’s name; “the number of women in civil services dropped from 31% in 2006 to 18.5% in 2010” (Amoo-Adare, 2009; The Civil-Military Fusion Centre, 2012). This violence also extends to women party supports. UN Women notes that in the 2010 parliamentary elections, ten campaign workers for a woman candidate were kidnapped in an attempt to force her to withdraw her candidacy. Five of the abducted workers were killed (2017).

Security remains an issue because there is no priority placed on safeguarding women politicians. In addition, the Afghan National Police (ANP) are neither trained nor empowered to secure the safety of women candidates. For example, in the 2009 elections, the women candidates were only given two bodyguards, but none were militarized. This is because police building after the Taliban regime has not been successful in that there is a lack of proper training, funds as well as police officers. Due to the nature of the job, there is a lack of women police officers as well, which contributes to limiting women’s ability to vote during elections because men are not able to search women, which is part of the protocol for voting. This also raises questions regarding the legitimacy of the elections and whether they accurately represent the populations will or not, since the lack of security acts as a hindrance to both women candidates and voters.



The gender-based violence against women participating in politics stems from the challenges they pose to traditionally held ideologies that shape social structure in Afghanistan, which is exemplified through them being targeted by fundamentalists who have a radical interpretation of Islamic teachings. For this reason, a change in the law itself is not sufficient for creating actual change in Afghanistan. The factors that stand in the way of women are more than the handful mentioned in this paper, which only provides a surface-level understanding of the issues faced by women in Afghanistan. In order to facilitate women’s engagement in politics, changes regarding education, poverty, and security need to be undergone, especially considering that former warlords, as well as Taliban militants, still have power in Afghanistan. Additionally, the political structure remains male-dominated, and regardless of efforts to include women in politics, there is a shared idea amongst men that women politicians are out of place, incapable and not deserving of the reserved seats. It is also important to note that some women such as Zakia Wardak, who made headlines for their candidacy and the brave voicing of their views, are often supported by relatives and do not reflect the reality of many women in Afghanistan who remain marginalized and incapable of voicing their opinions. In fact, many women living in rural areas remain unaware of the realities of the political sphere due to their seclusion from the outside world, limited education and restriction to the private sphere.



Amoo-Adare, E. (2009). Afghan Women’s Representation in Politics: Implementing the Reserved Seats Quota System. doi: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1412.2403

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. (n.d). Women in Afghanistan’s Government. Retrieved from https://www.cw4wafghan.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/pages/cw4wafghan-womeningovt.pdf

Emadi, H. (2008). Establishment of Afghanistan’s Parliament and the Role of Women Parliamentarians Retrospect and Prospects. Internationales Asienforum39(1-2), 5-19.

Gelb, J., & Palley, M. (2009). Women and politics around the world (1st ed., pp. 29-46). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Hawkesworth, M. (2012). Political Worlds of Women: Activism, Advocacy, and Governance in the Twenty-First Century (1st ed.). Westview Press.

Kakar, P. (2005). Tribal law of Pashtunwali and women’s legislative authority. Harvard Islamic Legal Studies. Retrieved from https://beta.images.theglobeandmail.com/archive/00231/Tribal_Law_of_Pasht_231142a.pdf

Liebsch, K. (2011). Female Political Participation in Afghanistan: Social Realities and Internal Security. MARINE CORPS COMMAND AND STAFF COLL QUANTICO VA. Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a600774.pdf

Manganaro, L. L., & Alozie, N. (2011). Gender Role Attitudes: Who Supports Expanded Rights for Women in Afghanistan? Sex Roles64(7-8), 516-529. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9931-6

Mussarat, R. (2014). Women Participation in Politics: A Case Study of Afghan Women. Journal Of Public Administration And Governance4(3), 443-446.

Oxfam International. (2011). A Place at the Table: Safeguarding Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. Oxfam GB. Retrieved from https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/place-table-safeguarding-womens-rights-afghanistan

Pilch, F. (2018). The Potential Role of Women in Contributing to Countering Ideological Support for Terrorism: The Cases of Bosnia and Afghanistan. Partnership For Peace Consortium Of Defense Academies And Security Studies Institutes5(4), 122-126. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26323269

The Civil-Military Fusion Centre. (2012). Women & Gender in Afghanistan. The Civil-Military Fusion Centre.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Preventing Violence Against Women in Elections: A Programming Guide. (New York: United Nations, 2017), available from http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2017/preventingvaw-in-elections.pdf?la=en&vs=2640

Tremblay, M. (2008). Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas (1st ed., pp. 67-82). New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.




10 thoughts on “Factors Impeding Afghan Women from Participating in Parliament

  1. I’m going to read this in it’s entirety in a bit, but I feel like I should point something out and hopefully you haven’t already turned this in: the Afghani is currency. The proper adjective to describe the people is Afghan. They are Afghan women, not Afghani. I know most people won’t get the difference, but just enough will that it might distract them from content


  2. Thank you for the insight, Alyazya. The struggles faced by women in Afghanistan and other countries will continue to confuse me. I’ve never understood how any country or men, in general, would choose to believe that women are somehow lesser just due to their gender. Please keep sharing your thoughts on this very important subject.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I have taught English over the internet to nearly 6500 people in the Middle East. They talk to me because I am neither a politician or reporter. I have found the young men more militant about any subject, especially if they are unmarried and in their 20s. Some young men have said that women shouldn’t even drive a vehicle, especially alone, because men seeing them will lust after them and attack them. I replied I had never heard of that happening in my country but they have their minds made up. (These young men need to control themselves, not the women).

    Education is critical, of course, and I think the Aga Khan organization is working hard to fill that gap. Seems to me a drive for more women to register to vote and to actually vote would provide great gains. I would say that 90% of my Afghan students are men whereas there are a few more women who register to learn English in Iran, Iraq, and Egypt. Anyone can register on the internet to raise the level of their education, so a lot of the problem is the women themselves. Fear? Self-abasement? Disillusionment?

    If the Taliban could be eliminated, that would be a major step forward; they are boils on the skin of Afghans. Convincing Police Departments/Ministries to convict men of attacking women would be a great benefit, instead of believing that the women lure them in with their looks and they couldn’t control themselves. Those men should act like humans instead of animals.

    From what I have heard, the president’s Christian wife has taken an active part in elevating the status of women. An export business could set women up in small businesses; it has worked in other underdeveloped countries. It’s a long, hard road and I am glad you discussed it.


  4. Very informative and interesting. I am sure Afghanistan will democratize womanhood and give them greater participatory status. Anand Bose from Kerala


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