Afghan Women Approach a Voting Station

views updated

Afghan Women Approach a Voting Station


By: Teru Kuwayama

Date: 2004

Source: "Afghan Women Approach a Voting Station." © Teru Kuwayama/Corbis. 2004.

About the Photographer: Teru Kuwayama is a Brooklyn-based photographer best known for his work in Asia and the Middle East. He is a contributor to such publications as Time, National Geographic, Life, Newsweek, Outside, and Fortune.


In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew its government, which had since 1996 been run by an ultra-conservative Islamist political party called the Taliban. The Taliban had refused to extradite members of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The U.S. installed a "transitional government" which held Afghanistan's first multi-party elections in twenty years in October 2004, as required by the Afghan Bonn Agreement (December 5, 2001).

Women's rights had been severely curtailed under the Taliban; news coverage worldwide emphasized that women would participate, both as voters and as one out of the fifteen presidential candidates. This picture shows women wearing burkas, the head-to-toe body covering that conservative Muslims consider mandatory for women and which was legally required under the Taliban, approaching voting stations in the large Idgah mosque complex in Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul. Idgah mosque, with ten polling stations, was one of Kabul's largest voting centers. Afghan soldiers stood by, reflecting the U.S. State Department's view that "Special steps must be taken to assist women seeking to vote, as cultural custom and security concerns may inhibit many women from leaving their homes to go to the polling places." Separate voting stations were set aside for women.

The 2004 election faced many obstacles. First, the hold of the official government of Afghanistan was (and, as of 2006, remained) tenuous or nonexistent over most of the country's area: various private warlords and the Taliban (fighting as a guerilla force) were competing for control of the countryside. Further, Afghanistan is a poor country where no national census has ever been taken. Women had never been entitled to vote in Afghanistan, and none were registered to vote. In preparation for the 2004 vote, the United Nations fielded 305 voter registration teams of six men and six women each (all Afghans). About 10.5 million Afghans registered to vote before the 2004 elections, forty-one percent of them women. In the southern provinces of the country, where the Taliban remained strong, figures for registration of women were much lower: in Uruzgan only nine percent, in Zabul ten percent, in Helmand sixteen percent. Turnout for registered voters was seventy-five percent—significantly higher than the 55.3 percent turnout seen in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

The voter registration process was probably riddled with fraud. Voter registration significantly exceeded pre-election U.N. estimates of the entire population of eligible Afghan voters. As the BBC noted at the time, "the 10m-plus figure for registered voters can be accurate if every single male in the country has registered—at least once"—which, in a country as poor and disorganized as Afghanistan, was essentially impossible. Because of voter registration inflation, the percentage of women voting was probably even less than the official figure of forty-one percent.



See primary source image.


Hamid Karzai (1957–) appeared to have won the election. However, his victory was immediately challenged by almost all of his rivals, who claimed that massive fraud had invalidated the election. In particular, a supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' hands to prevent multiple voting proved to be washable. A U.N-Afghan Joint Electoral Commission investigated the charges and announced on Nov. 1, 2004 that despite some voting irregularities, Karzai was the winner with 55.4 percent of the vote.

A round of national-parliamentary and provincial-government elections was held in 2005. However, severe problems continued to plague the process. Forty-five candidates were barred by the U.N.-Afghan Joint Electoral Management body on the grounds that they maintained links to armed militias or held local government jobs (against election rules). However, numerous powerful warlords with well-established records of human rights abuses were not disqualified. To add to the confusion, all barred candidates still appeared on the ballots, which had already been printed, causing many voters to waste their votes. The Taliban threatened attacks and killed sixteen Afghans for having voter registration cards in Uruzgan province. Voter participation declined by over twenty percent from the 2004 elections. One polling station supervisor said that voters may have "lost all faith in politicians and leaders" due to the slow pace of reconstruction.

Also, electoral fraud remained a problem. The chief of the UN-Afghan Joint Election Management Board said that ballot boxes from four percent of the 26,000 polling stations had been set aside for investigation of fraud.

The status of women has been a particular issue in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, the situation of women was harsh. Religious police beat women in the streets for failing to dress properly and for other violations. Women were virtually excluded from all education and employment. According to the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, although conditions for women in Afghanistan are better today than under the Taliban, "Afghan women continue to suffer some of the worst levels of poor health, illiteracy, and poverty in the world." One in six Afghan women dies in childbirth; eighty-six percent of women over age fifteen are illiterate. Again, according to Human Rights Watch, "Violence against women, forced marriage, and early marriage remain endemic problems in Afghanistan." Curiously, because the Afghan constitution guarantees a minimum of twenty-five percent of the seats National Assembly, women have more representation at the national level in Afghanistan than in the United States, where in 2006, only fourteen percent of U.S. Senators and fifteen percent of U.S. Representatives were women. However, female candidates in Afghanistan face routine threats of violence and harassment from warlords, the Taliban, government officials, and relatives.



Gall, Carlotta. "Monitors Find Significant Fraud in Afghan Elections." The New York Times. (October 3, 2005).

Web sites

Huckerby, Martin. BBC News. "Afghan Voting Number Puzzle." 〈〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).

Human Rights Watch. "Campaigning Against Fear: Women's Participation in Afghanistan's 2005." 〈〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).

Soutik, Biswas. BBC News. "Puzzle of the Stay-Away Voters." 〈〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).

United States State Department. "Afghanistan Elections 2004: Women's Participation." 〈〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).