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Representative democracy

Afghanistan’s female MPs lack unity

by Cathrine Schweikardt

In brief

If the women in Afghanistan’s parliament were less divided they would have a stronger impact on policymaking. A recent study published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation argues that networking would make an important difference.

The group of 91 Afghan women who joined parliament four years ago is as fragmented as Afghan society. Since the women lack unity, experience and security, they are unable to promote a coherent women’s-rights agenda. This is what Andrea Fleschenberg concludes in her German-language paper “Abgeordnete inAfghanistan – Konflikte, Kompromisse, Kollaborationen” (MPs in Afghanistan – conflicts, compromises, collaborations). She interviewed 76 female and 21 male members of Afghanistan’s parliament in 2007 and 2008. Apart from Heinrich Böll Foundation, she got support from UNIFEM.

Fleschenberg notes that some women MPs explicitly speak in favour of “ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity”. Moreover, the researcher states that women from both houses of Afghanistan’s parliament are prepared to exchange their views in working groups. Nonetheless, they are said to be unable to take common stands on issues like divorce, child custody or maternity leave. Other issues of disagreement include violence, sexual assault or the women’s quotas.

Important obstacles to greater parliamentary influence are the lack of support from the government and ministries, but first and foremost, from the male MPs. Female politicians, moreover, depend on support from their clans and patronage even more than men, Fleschenberg writes. She bemoans that the female MPs lack experience not only in reaching a consensus, but also in cooperating with one another. They are also said to lack knowledge of Islamic law. Moreover, they are at risk of violence, as Fleschenberg reports. Female politicians have been exposed to threats, assaults, kidnappings and attempted murder. As a consequence, some women have not only withdrawn from politics, but even left the country. In this difficult setting, gender issues hardly make it onto the parliament’s agenda.

According to Fleschenberg, however, women MPs could improve their standing by initiating dialogue on non-controversial issues such as education, security, reconstruction and health, without initially focusing on the interests and needs of women. Fleschenberg argues that such topics are of wide interest, so promoting them would strengthen the women’s position to a point where they could move on to debating the gender angles of the topics concerned. If female MPs start out by focusing on women’s rights, Fleschenberg warns, they run the risk of being perceived only as women’s representatives.

Women from both houses of Parliament, Fleschenberg suggests, should do more to network and cooperate across party lines, thus entering into more informal exchange of ideas. Fleschenberg also recommends networking beyond parliament, establishing links with various administrative bodies, civil society and women’s networks in other predominantly Muslim countries. In the scholar’s view, however, it is indispensable that the women MPs find male allies and forge alliances that involve both genders.
(Cathrine Schweikardt)