Even without a Taliban peace deal, progress for Afghan women and democracy seems vulnerable

Even without a Taliban peace deal, progress for Afghan women and democracy seems vulnerable

By Pamela Constable

May 21 at 7:00 AM

The Washington Post

KABUL —  Afghans often express fears that a Taliban return to power would bring a reversal of the gains in democracy and women’s rights made during nearly 18 years of civilian rule.

But in the past two weeks, a woman’s murder on a Kabul street and a chaotic brawl in parliament have exposed the tenuous nature of these gains, the permanent specter of violence, and the stubborn grip of male pride and ethnic rivalry in this traditional, conflict-steeped society.

Mina Mangal seemed the perfect symbol of a successful, urbanized Afghan woman. The former TV news presenter and active social media commentator was working as an adviser in parliament. She spoke with poise and wrote with boldness. In recent posts, she had hinted that her life was in danger.

On May 11, as Mangal was leaving home for work, she was shot dead at close range. Police ascribed the killing to a family dispute, and it soon emerged that there was another side to this young woman’s life — a side over which she had no control.

According to her family, Mangal had been unhappily married to an abusive man in an arranged match. Her family sought legal protection, the couple separated, and she filed for divorce. At one point, her mother told Afghan media, Mangal was abducted and beaten by her husband and his relatives.

After she was killed, her mother said she was certain the enraged ex-husband had done it. Officials have not publicly identified him or any other suspects.

In a conservative Afghan village, where women have little freedom and codes of honor and revenge are ingrained, such a crime might have gone unnoticed. Today, the United Nations reports that more than half of Afghan women have experienced domestic violence. The rate is 35 percent worldwide and often higher in impoverished countries.

But this brazen attack took place in the capital, where Afghan women hold legislative office, cover the news, work and study without fear. Mangal’s murder, coming as women’s groups have been sounding the alarm about a Taliban comeback, made such gains suddenly seem ephemeral.

One human rights lawyer, Wazhma Frogh, noted that Mangal had revealed online that there were threats against her life. “Why was nothing done? . . . Why is it still so easy for a man to kill a woman he disagrees with?” she asked in a series of tweets. “We need answers.”

The macho mentality, entrenched in Afghan society during decades of conflict, also pervades a political culture that President Ashraf Ghani hoped to turn into a modern technocracy. On Sunday, it was on hotblooded display as the new parliament held its first session in a majestic, copper-domed building donated by India in 2016.

As votes were being tallied from an election for speaker of the house, a chaotic argument erupted on the crowded stage. A man brandishing a hammer rushed up, chased by security guards. No one was injured, but the fight continued Monday with rival legislators sealing and breaking down a door.

The contretemps illustrated the internal obstacles — especially ethnic and personal power struggles — that continue to undermine Afghanistan’s aspirations to democratic order despite years of international support and coaching. There were no Taliban insurgents in the chamber, just an uneasy cross-section of Afghan politics : young professionals and old warlords, women in high heels and headscarves, turbaned elders not terribly distant from Taliban thinking.

At stake in the poll were patronage and power. One main candidate was a wealthy contractor from the Tajik north, the other a professional from the Pashtun south. The man with the hammer was supporting the contractor, who refused to concede after losing by a single vote.

The high-profile embarrassment all but dashed the nation’s hopes for the new parliament, which took office after two years of delays and an election last fall plagued by violence and fraud. Social media exploded with derision and lament.

“What happened was a scandal that reduced the honor of parliament to zero,” Ramzan Bashardost, a reformist legislator, said Monday. “Lawmakers are breaking the law.”

The fracas also intensified concerns about the presidential electionscheduled for September. Ghani is seeking reelection for five years, but his term technically ends later this week. Opponents said that if he insists on staying until September, it could destabilize the country.

“What has prompted our Mr. President to change from earth to sky?” said Hanif Atmar, a major contender, noting that Ghani once pledged to step down May 22. If a crisis erupts, he warned, Ghani “will be responsible.”

One social media commentator, noting that a group of female legislators had tried to calm the parliamentary brawl, suggested a sensible — if unprecedented in Afghanistan — way to avoid recurrences: Elect a woman as speaker of the house.

Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this story.

Pamela Constable is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She previously served as a South Asia bureau chief and most recently covered immigration in the Washington area for several years. 

Even without a Taliban peace deal, progress for Afghan women and democracy seems vulnerable