Women At The Forefront Of Afghan Elections Two women — Shahla Atta and Frozan Fana — are among more than 30 candidates taking on incumbent Hamid Karzai in today's presidential elections in Afghanistan. But who are these women, and how are their candidacies being received in a country where 80 percent of women are illiterate and the role of women in society is a hotly contested issue. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mariam Atash Nawabi, an Afghanistan native now living in the U.S. Nawabi is co-founder of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group, an organization of Americans interested in policy regarding Afghanistan.
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Women At The Forefront Of Afghan Elections

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Women At The Forefront Of Afghan Elections

Women At The Forefront Of Afghan Elections

Women At The Forefront Of Afghan Elections

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Two women — Shahla Atta and Frozan Fana — are among more than 30 candidates taking on incumbent Hamid Karzai in today's presidential elections in Afghanistan. But who are these women, and how are their candidacies being received in a country where 80 percent of women are illiterate and the role of women in society is a hotly contested issue. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mariam Atash Nawabi, an Afghanistan native now living in the U.S. Nawabi is co-founder of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group, an organization of Americans interested in policy regarding Afghanistan.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, headlines followed when one of Bollywood's biggest stars was detained for questioning while trying to enter the U.S. last week. That's nothing, says a Connecticut poet who is Indian-American. How about being arrested and jailed for a weekend. We'll hear his story of driving while brown in a moment.

But first, in our international briefing, we want to talk about the elections in Afghanistan. Afghans go to the polls today to vote in the presidential election. Incumbent Hamid Karzai is the best known name on the ballot and the frontrunner. But more than 30 other candidates have campaigned for the presidency including two women: Shahla Atta and Frozan Fana, who are they? And how are their candidacy is being received in a country where 80 percent of women are illiterate and the role of women is a hotly contested issue?

For insights, we called Mariam Atash Nawabi. She is an American who is born is Afghanistan and is co-founder of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group. That's an organization of Americans interested in policy regarding Afghanistan. And she has also worked for the Untied Nations to help incorporate women's rights in the new Afghan constitution. Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARIAM ATASH NAWABI (Co-Founder, Afghanistan Advocacy Group): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Tell us about each of these candidates in turn, if you would. First, Shahla Atta, who is she?

Ms. NAWABI: Yes, Mrs. Atta actually lived in the United States for about 18 years in the Washington area before she returned to Afghanistan after 9/11. She did run for parliament and has been a parliamentarian who's represented Kabul province. She is a widow with five children, all who live in the U.S. But she is in Afghanistan and has been part of the Afghan political scene for the past few years. And, you know, she is also saying she wants to bring change for there to be less corruption in the government, more rights for women, more economic development, more programs, a lot of these things that the other candidates are also saying.

MARTIN: What about Frozan Fana, tell us about her?

Ms. NAWABI: Dr. Frozan Fana is actually an orthopedic surgeon. She's 40 years old and her husband Dr. Rehman in 2002 was the minister of Aviation. And he was killed and allegedly was a political assassination. So, a part of her campaign rests on the concept of justice. And that Afghanistan will not see peace without rule of law. She does have - and both of them do have male vice-presidential candidates running with them. So, it's interesting to see two female candidates, but both of them with male vice-presidential candidates.

MARTIN: Is either of them running as, in essence, the female candidate, you know, saying vote for me because I will do right by women or I will give women more opportunities? Is that a part of the platform for either candidate or is that just implied or assumed?

Ms. NAWABI: No, both of them have actually been focusing on the plight and challenges of Afghan women. I think they seek to really resonate amongst Afghan women who are probably about 52 to 55 percent of the population. But, of course, they would need support from the men in order to gain the number of votes they need to actually be a player in the election.

So, while they may not be able to garner enough votes to be leading candidates, some say the strategy is that they may try to then get positions in the next government, no matter who actually ends up winning. So, the campaign process, not only for the women, but a lot of the men has been actually a lot of political jocking, especially amongst those who may not have the voter blocks they need to carry enough votes to be in those top five.

MARTIN: Which would be hard to do with 30 candidates in any event?

Ms. NAWABI: Yes.

MARTIN: But you mentioned that -you said part of the strategy may be to position, either or both of these women to position themselves for a post in the government. There's a precedence for this in 2004, a woman ran for the presidency. Dr. Massouda Jalal and who did become a minister in Hamid Karzai's Cabinet. And as I understand it, in some provinces, there are quotas in local government where up to 25 percent of the seats are reserved for women.

On the other hand, though, we still hear reports that the Taliban target women officeholders of any type: women police officers, women teachers, women political leaders. So, I guess the question would be - there is this precedence for women being involved in Afghan politics. But what are their chances realistically? Are people really willing to support these women candidates?

Ms. NAWABI: Just taking a step back and giving some contacts, there were Afghan women in the parliament in the 50s and 60s in Afghanistan and in various government roles. Afghanistan actually signed on to a treaty in 1955 that gave women the right to run for office and vote. This is all unfortunately started changing when the periods of war in Afghanistan started. And then during the time of the Taliban, obviously, women were just not allowed to be part of society. But since, you know, the fall of the Taliban and the reengagement of the Afghan diaspora and their national community in Afghanistan, there has been a great level of progress.

MARTIN: There are women, as you mentioned, who do attain a high political position and - even and certainly appointed positions as a Ministry of Women Affairs. A woman runs the Human Rights Commission. There are a few women ambassadors from Afghanistan. On the other hand, then we hear that legislations recently been signed in Afghanistan by President Karzai giving men the right to demand sex from their wives and to withhold food from their wives if they don't oblige. Do women have, even with the positions that they hold, are they having an influence on the politics of the country?

Ms. NAWABI: Afghan women are very strong and they definitely do have an impact in what is going on in the government in Afghanistan. What's encouraging to see is that there are about 20 percent more women participating in the various campaigns. However, in the south, where there is more insurgency, there are more U.S. troops placed there, there have been less women who are running because they do fear for their safety. And it gets to that point where they really can't take the risk anymore.

And that's where we do see a lot of sliding back. Women as well as men who want to see more of a moderate Islamic democracy in Afghanistan have supported a lot of change and reform in the country. But what we're seeing increasingly in this election is the influence of warlords and as well as very conservative groups who view the laws in a certain way. And what happened with the law that you're referring to is that it only applies to the Shia sect in Afghanistan, which make up about 10 percent of the population.

But the interpretation of the laws in such a way has angered a lot of Afghan women, both Sunni and Shia. However, the talk was that President Karzai may be, you know, supporting that in order to get support from those conservative Shiite voting blocks. So, this is unfortunate to see that women's rights could be used as a bargaining tip in the election.

MARTIN: So, finally, do you think that we'll hear from these two women candidates in the future? I mean, I take it from your - from what we've been discussing here, it's unlikely that either of these women candidates is going to garner enough votes to be in the top five. But do you think that we'll hear from them in the future?

Ms. NAWABI: Definitely. I think the women who have been active in the Afghan political scene have been there and they continue to participate in various roles. For example, Dr. Sima Samar who was the prior women's minister. She is now head of the Human Rights Commission. And Dr. Massouda Jalal continues to run her foundation and work in different provinces in Afghanistan. And I think both Dr. Fana and Shahla Atta who are running for president today, I think we will see them whether they get requested to be part of the new government remains to be seen.

But I think that they will definitely take an active role because obviously they are doing this in order to make a statement that women will participate in the political, economic, and civil society of Afghanistan. And that a lot of what they're doing is to serve as role models for the next generation of Afghan girls, so that they can see that they have a chance in this new process. And, you know, just relating this to the elections in the U.S. that were so historic where we had the first African-American voted as president. Afghan women are also making the statement that they have a voice and that they are part of the political society in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Mariam Atash Nawabi is an advocate for women's right in Afghanistan. She is the co-founder of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group. And she was kind enough to join us from members station KUIC in Irvine, California. Thank you so much.

Ms. NAWABI: Thank you, Michel.

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