On a recent humid summer morning, two dozen women stream into a
conference room overlooking a lush garden at Afghan presidential
candidate Ashraf Ghani's headquarters. They have come to hear the
former finance minister's policies on women - and to tell him what
they want from the next administration: more female representation
in senior political positions.
"It is worth mentioning that 42 percent of the voters in the last
election were women, and it is expected that women voters may top 5
million in the upcoming vote," begins one woman as she stands to
read the group's opening statement, which kicks off a lively 90-
minute discussion about security, the economy, and the importance of
women in government.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and President Hamid
Karzai have also held such meetings with these women leaders - Mr.
Karzai hosting a group for a three-hour lunch at the presidential
palace. Organized by the umbrella Afghan Women's Network (AWN), the
gatherings mark the most serious effort Afghan women have yet made
to hold the candidates accountable for campaign promises made in
"We were not able to unify and to have one voice last time," says
AWN's executive director Afifa Aziz, referring to the 2004
presidential race, Afghanistan's first-ever direct election for the
country's top office. "We needed some time to organize, to grow, to
This election season, say Ms. Aziz and other community leaders,
things are different. They have learned a lot about politics and
advocacy in the past seven years. And though some are hesitant to
call the nascent efforts a full-blown women's movement, few doubt
that women have come a great distance when it comes to knowing and
advocating for their own rights.
On Aug. 4, women from across the country met in Kabul to launch
the "5 Million Women" campaign aimed at bolstering "women's
political participation in order to ensure the rule of law and
"Today women are really learning the ups and downs of politics,"
says Palwasha Hassan, who heads a nongovernmental organization (NGO)
promoting women's political and legal-rights awareness. "Women are
learning to use the same tools as men; they are learning what real
power is. And real power means you have a constituency, so people
have to listen to you."
Organize and mobilize
Community leaders say that when it comes to campaigns, women
understand that it is all about organization and mobilization.
"We don't have military power," says Orzala Ashraf, a women's
rights advocate and AWN board member. "What we have are grassroots
connections through our social networks among the communities. We
may not have guns, but we have the ability to mobilize."
That grassroots strength could be valuable should the election
turn from what was expected to be an easy Karzai victory into a
tighter contest that leads to a fall runoff.
Women: 40 percent of new voters
Women represent nearly 40 percent of the 4.5 million citizens
newly added to the country's previous roster of 12.5 million voters.
Though many females here are expected to follow their family's lead
in deciding whether and for whom they will turn out, local women's
groups are getting the word out that women have a right to their
ballot - and should make their voices heard come Aug. …