Why more women are needed than invited

On Wednesday, June 2, the long-announced Peace Jirga starts in Kabul. 1600 delegates from all over Afghanistan will come together to discuss whether and how peace can be achieved. People are unsure what to expect from a gathering on which even a day before it is happening neither participants nor agenda have been made public. More easy than to know who will be attending the Jirga is to know who will not be there: The armed opposition has not been invited, the political opposition declares its boycott and women have only reluctantly been included.  

Facts can be hard to obtain in Afghanistan and to verify them becomes a challenging exercise, even if it is about the date or details of the government’s biggest conference in years. A day before the Peace Jirga in Kabul starts, neither a list of participants nor the agenda have been released. Some are confident that the Jirga will deliver results. They point out that the mere fact that a broad variety of people come together and exchange views on whether and how peace can be achieved in Afghanistan is positive.

However, the goal formulated for the gathering is more ambitious. The delegates will discuss whether and how peace for the war-ridden country can be achieved. In the end, President Karzai is supposed to obtain a mandate for his government’s negotiations with the Taliban. It is no secret that the government – as well as foreign actors – have already in the past found arrangements with insurgents. Now this shall obtain a more official framework, provided a consensus among the 1600 participants that were selected as representatives of the 20 – 30 million inhabitants of Afghanistan can be achieved.

Citizen’s interest for the Jirga seems to be limited. The absence of a list of participants has prepared the ground for distrust. A common perception is that the government does not want to disclose a biased invitation policy. Many assume those who are supportive of the president have been favoured. Furthermore civil society activists were largely excluded from the preparations of the conference. They now fear that in order to demonstrate the inclusion of civil society, a number of government employees will attend under the lable of being civil society representatives.

One of the most sensitive topics that at least indirectly will play a role at the jirga are women’s rights. While the Afghan constitution guarantees men and women equal rights, neither in the political nor in the legal sphere this has been implemented. More and more women seek careers in the education, medical and media sectors. Among the most renowned and outspoken members of parliament, there are more women than man, and in civil society, there are many women among the most remarkable activists. The justice sector as well as in the security establishment are still firmly in the hands of men and in governmental positions, women have rather obtained less positions every year. Also in public discussion there is a more and more susceptible trend towards limiting women’s rights. Only last week, the Ulema of Western Afghanistan, an Islamic council on religious affairs, has lobbied for imposing restrictions on women’s travel.    

The issue of negotiations with the mainly Taliban insurgents has raised concerns inside and outside of Afghanistan that women’s rights could be the first area for the government to make concessions. That would have made a strong presence of women even more necessary. But they may only have a share of 20% (320) of representatives in the conference and 0% in its preparations.

According to the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium the Jirga organizers gave an explanation for the weak representation of women: Because of the fact that women could not travel to Kabul on their own but needed a male relative (“mahram”) to come with them, it would have blown up the expenses if too many women had been included. This is a weak excuse when looking at the overall spending for the event. For only three days with 1600 participants, 160 million USD have been earmarked, the Afghan daily 8 am says. In comparison, the cost for women to bring an accompanying person would be negligible.   

The paper “Daily Outlook” quotes a member of the respected Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) who says female presence on the jirga was only symbolic: "There is a symbolic representation of Afghan women.  The organizing committee has no women in its structure, only one or two have been identified to be facilitators," said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chair of AIHRC. "The positions of women in high-ranking roles have been significantly overshadowed. One could be cynical and say that the reason there are so few women is to encourage the Taliban to come," he said.

Whether Taliban or related insurgents groups will join the Jirga or not, the speaker of the Afghan Parliament, Younis Qanuni, has expressed what many Afghans think. He last week said that President Karzai by keeping 11 out of the 25 posts of his government hitherto unoccupied tries to reserve these positions to offer them after the jirga to the Taliban and the likeminded Hezb-e Islami.