Afghans' First Stab at Democracy ; the New Constitution Grants More Women's Rights Than Expected, Challenging Islamic Beliefs of Warlords

Article excerpt

A funny thing happened on the way to the new Afghan Constitution. The 502 delegates actually gave women more rights than President Hamid Karzai and his advisers had originally asked for.

Women emerged winners from the three-week constitutional loya jirga. So did President Hamid Karzai, who got the strong presidency and centralized government he had sought. Emerging as weaker were the mostly ethnic Tajik warlords of the Northern Alliance, who found themselves unable to outnumber or out-politic their opponents.

Key to the future, analysts say, will be how those warlords, who helped the US-led coalition oust the Taliban in December 2001, adjust to the democracy that Afghans forged under the big white tent at Kabul Polytechnic University. Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim and other Northern Alliance leaders still have stocks of heavy weapons and have dominated Mr. Karzai's government.

"We'll have to see how they implement the constitution and in what way the warlords adjust to the new reality,'' says Tahir Amin, an Afghan expert at Qaid-i-azam University in Islamabad.

Many competing provisions within the document - such as the equality of women versus the sanctity of Islamic beliefs - will need to be sorted out through an independent - and largely conservative - judiciary.

The new constitution, ratified by acclamation Jan. 4 after three weeks of often fiery debate, represents Afghanistan's first stab at democracy. It calls for an elected president, two vice-presidents, a two-house parliament, and provincial governors appointed in Kabul.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad praised the document as "one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world.''

The deliberations were often portrayed as a battle between the US- backed Karzai, his Western-educated advisers, and the majority ethnic Pashtuns on one side versus the mostly Tajik mujahideen warlords of the Northern Alliance. And, indeed, that conflict dominated - and nearly derailed - the proceedings.

But there emerged from the debate a third force, made up Afghanistan's less- powerful groups: women delegates, ethnic Hazaras, former Communists, and ethnic Uzbeks. It is they who insisted that the definition of citizenship be broadened to include "men or women," with both enjoying equal rights and duties before the law.

And it was their influence that increased the number of seats reserved for women in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, from one to two per province. Women will now hold at least 64 out of 250 seats in the lower house, or more than 25 percent, which is higher than in most Western democracies. …