Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Elections 2014 (25): Election mobilisation of women in the Pashtun southeast

Pakteen Ibrahimi Thomas Ruttig 8 min

For the second round of the presidential election on 14 June 2014, some of the major tribes in Paktia have decided their women should also participate more actively, allowing them to cast their votes themselves. Women turnout in Pashtun-inhabited areas is usually below average, which is increasingly being perceived as a disadvantage by candidates relying on these areas for votes. Thomas Ruttig and Pakteen Ibrahimi describe the tribal jirga that initiated this particular mobilisation drive and the resulting pact (tarun). They also look at how this is part of a larger campaign by the Ghani camp to close the first round gap with his rival, Dr Abdullah.

Some of the major tribes of Loya Paktia and neighbouring Logar province, in cooperation with the Ashraf Ghani campaign, have started an initiative to get more women voters out in the second round of presidential elections on 14 June 2014. On 1 June, they called a jirga in Gardez, the administrative centre of the region, that brought together some 300 tribal leaders under the chairmanship of Haji Hazrat, the head of the Ahmadzai tribal council. Apart from representatives of the Ahmadzai from Paktia and Logar, there were also elders from the Dzadzi (Jaji), Mangal and Dzadran and Zurmat’s Mamozai tribes. At the end of the jirga, most of these elders signed a tarun – a traditional tribal pact in accordance with local pashtunwalai – that, for the second round of the voting, ‘their’ women should be allowed to come out on election day and cast their votes in person. (1) According to tradition, taruns – which are binding on those who agree to them (the word comes from the Pashto verb tarel, to bind) ­– can include a fine for non-compliance: in this case, it was decided that if someone failed to comply with the decision, this person would be fined 500,000 Afghani (about 8800 US dollars).

The highest sanction for breaking a tarun is burning down the house of the delinquent, seen as his symbolic and physical expulsion from the tribe. Before the 2004 presidential election, a report about such a tarun in Khost province received attention in the international media after an elder of the Terezai tribe announced over the province’s radio station, “All Terezai tribespeople should vote for Hamid Karzai. . . . if any Terezai people vote for other candidates, the tribe will burn down their houses.”

The 500,000 Afghani fine was surely the reason that a few participants of the 1 June jirga in Gardez said they agreed with the tribes’ decision in principle, but did not sign the tarun as they said they were unable to guarantee that their women would participate in the election.

The Ahmadzai tribe also promised to provide more than 100 female candidate agents for Ashraf Ghani’s Paktia office for election day. As the local population expects an increase of Taleban activity compared to round one, in some areas local people also promised to secure voting sites through arbaki, local tribal militias.

Tribal mobilisation

In the second round, it seems the Paktiawals – the Pashtun tribes of Loya Paktia – are organising for Ashraf Ghani (who, in the first round was more than ten per cent of the vote behind his rival, Abdullah) to win. Ghani belongs to the Ahmadzai tribe that is strongly represented in the region; his family comes from neighbouring Logar where it also holds land. Some of his allies, including former interim president Sebghatullah Mojaddedi and Pir Sayyed Ahmad Gailani (see earlier AAN analysis here), run active party structures in the region. The same goes for Ghani’s central campaign manager, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, a former finance and commerce minister, whose Afghan Millat (Afghan Nation) party has a strong base in Loya Paktia, particularly among Ahmadzai intellectuals and tribal elders.

After the Gardez jirga, these support structures, as well as Ghani’s campaign team, organised a number of follow-up events in Ghani’s favour; some were local initiatives, too. (2) The rallies did not only aim for support among women but among all strata of local society. On 10 June, a big gathering was held in Zurmat district, urban women came together in a Gardez restaurant (more on the discussions among female voters countrywide here) and one of the small Tajik tribes in the city gathered, too. On 11 June, a large gathering of the Mangal, Dzadzi, Moqbel, Kharoti and Darweshi tribes took place in Dand-e Pattan district at the border with Pakistan and a separate one of the Ahmadzai of Ahmad Aba district. Jirgas of ulama and former mujahedin (who have their own councils) took place, too. Even Gardez’ barbers, a 600-strong community, joined the campaign. The Dzadran, inhabiting three districts each in the three provinces of Loya Paktia (Paktia, Paktika and Khost), also spoke in favour of Ghani on 10 May in Khost.

The tribal gatherings partly had an ethno-political flavour. On a number of occasions, Ghani’s candidacy was presented as that of the mellat (nation) – which can be read as all-Afghan or Pashtun – while Abdullah’s was called the candidate of Jamiat. Indeed, Abdullah was the only one among the final eight candidates in round one who gave a party membership on the ballot paper.

Hazara women as role model?

Ghani’s campaign links to the increasing understanding among Pashtuns that their conservative practice of secluding women in purdah has been hampering their political designs in election time. In fact, many Pashtuns have said they have been impressed by the performance of the Hazara minority which usually has a high – and visible – female turn-out, including in rural areas and that they want Pashtun females to cast their votes “just like them.” (Bamyan, for example, had a female participation of 43.93 per cent in the first round.) Such expressions have been picked up on by AAN colleagues in a number of provinces, including after earlier elections, for example along the Uruzgan-Daikundi border where Pashtun und Hazara communities live in close proximity to each other. One argument utilised during this latest mobilisation drive is that if women are going to visit medical doctors for treatment, then why should they not go out to vote? (This was also how female candidates in Paktia, among them doctors and nurses, carried out their campaign – by talking to their patients.)

In Paktia, as in most other parts of the Pashtun-inhabited southern, south-eastern and eastern Afghanistan, outside the largest urban centres, real female turn-out has been almost zero in all elections in the post- 2001 era, which makes the Gardez jirga all the more interesting. During previous elections, the lack of women voters was obvious almost everywhere where observers were able to travel in these regions. This is what one of the authors observed in Gardez during the 2010 parliamentary elections:

In the centrally located girls’ school it seems to have increased from 2009. Indeed, I saw a relatively steady influx of female voters, mainly arriving by taxi or private cars driven by a male relative. (In the end of the day, some 600 votes had been cast there, compared to 463 in 2009, during the presidential election.) But already in Tera school (at the edge of Gardez town), the encouraging picture ended: There, a single women dared to come and vote. I just saw her disappearing though the schoolyard. The reason: There was no female electoral staff and no female searchers. The elders of the surrounding villages, from the Ahmadzai tribe, had initially completely rejected the participation of the women but then a compromise seemed to have been reached: elders from the same villages would ‘man’ the female polling stations. But it did not work out.

Two elders, uncomfortably sitting there answered my question by saying ‘Pashtuns would understand’, muttered something about rewaj (tradition) and sharia, that sharia and the constitution were two different things after all and that ‘the whole [electoral] system’ was ‘wrong’.

And here is part of a report from the 2009 presidential election, also from Tera school:

The three – later reduced to two – female polling stations were put at the end of the long corridor, to protect the izzat (honour) of the women, as the site manager put it. The only problem: There were no women coming to cast their vote. (The same was reported from many districts in the region. The only ballots in the boxes at Tera school were those of the waiting male staff. No female staff could be recruited.

… we looked at the female-only polling centre in the same street [in the centre of Gardez]. Only five women trickled in during our presence in the late morning, three kuchi women and two in burqas, offloaded from a landcruiser by their husband or father. In the evening, local candidates’ agents of Karzai said that he received 570 votes there that represented 90 per cent, i.e. a turnout of some 630. EU observers, however, reported 463 altogether. Even that appears pretty high to me. It would mean that more than 50 women must have crossed the small gate of the compound every hour, almost one per minute. That was definitely not the case while I was there, although the EU observers said they saw larger families coming in… Back to Tera School … just before closing time at 4 pm… the women’s figure had jumped from 13 to 38.

A local female candidate confirmed to AAN during the 2010 parliamentary election:

You know yourself that it is very difficult for woman in Paktia to cast their vote. They cannot cast their votes themselves. Many of them are not allowed to leave the house – because of fear, because of the security situation.

Nevertheless, official turnout figures for women were always much higher. During this year’s first round on 5 April, it again did not differ much from the national average of 36.04 per cent. (For the 2009 election, 38.75 per cent female turnout was given.) (2) For Khost, 30.13 per cent were given, for Paktia 37.05 per cent and for Paktika even 37.12 per cent. In comparison, Kabul province, including the politically much more open national capital, had only 31.56  pre cent.

These high figures in Loya Paktia are the result of ‘proxy’ and ‘bulk voting’ that was allowed in the southeast and elsewhere (see also here). These practices are obviously illegal – the ‘one man/women, one vote’ principle is enshrined in the Afghan Electoral Law. However, IEC staff have allowed them during all previous elections, as well as the current one, apparently in a tacit agreement, as ‘locally accepted’. Indeed, neither in the past nor in 2014 were official complaints about this practice filed, as different candidates hoped to profit by these practices

In earlier elections, at least in some areas of Loya Paktia, massive ‘bulk-voting’ occurred when family or even village elders showed up with bags full of the voter cards of their women and cast these votes. (One of the authors observed this during the 2005 parliamentary election in Paktia’s Ahmad Aba and Mirzaka districts.) This changed slightly this time, according to local observers. In Paktia’s district centres and the provincial centre, Gardez, men were allowed to cast not more than one or two women’s votes, and even in rural areas ‘only’ up to four were allowed. This might have been one contributing factor to the Gardez jirga’s decision to get a ‘real’ female vote out.

A system with gaps

The tribal traditions utilised in the voter mobilisation in southeastern Afghanistan are particularly strong among the closely-knit Paktiawal tribes – in contrast, for example, to the much wider-spread Kandahari tribes in the southern lowlands. (4) At the same time, much of Loya Paktia’s tribal institutions have also been undermined by the decades of war during which much of the old tribal leadership, the keepers and guardians of the tribal traditions, was annihilated. As a result, different shuras and jirgas now compete for the representation of most, if not all of the Paktiawal tribes. Institutions like the Central Shura of the Mangal tribe, still in full authority during the 2003 constitutional campaign (5), have not survived. (6) Even powerful tribal clans in the region are split between the two presidential contenders’ camps, like the example of the Dzadran shows where former MP and local strongman Pacha Khan Dzadran supports Ghani, while his brother, Amanullah Dzadran, is on Abdullah’s side. (This move can also be tactical, with the aim of having at least one brother in the winner’s camp.)

Under these circumstances, it cannot be expected that the Gardez tarun on women participation will be implemented by all the tribes involved. But it will definitely mobilise more tribesmen and hopefully some tribeswomen to cast their votes.


(1) (Although women even in burqas are a rare sighting in Gardez, there were always a small number of independent women candidates running during previous elections, both for parliament and the provincial council who held meetings in private houses (see an AAN report here).

(2) Ghani had already won the endorsement of some other tribal councils earlier in the year, including in non-Pashtun areas (here and here).

(3) The same NDI report states for the 2009 election on Paktika, indicating the extent of fraud committed in the region: “Paktika had higher voter turnout than the estimated population. … [In] Paktika, female voter turnout was less than four percentage points below male turnout.”

(4) For example, the Paktiawals pride themselves on having invented the arbaki concept, that only later was spread beyond the region by the government and the US military in the form of the Afghan Local Police, thereby completely changing its character – most importantly turning it from a voluntary tribal contingent gathered on special occasions into paid standing units (find a discussion of the arbakai here).

(5) Up to that point, this shura had successfully kept most of the Mangal areas free of poppy production, hoping for rewards from the international community – that never came. (Most of the money went, under UK leadership, into the eastern region and the Mangal shura was unable to keep their tribesmen on course for more than two years.)

(6) For more background on the changing nature of Pashtun tribal institutions and on the pashtunwalai read here and on tribal elements in the Taleban here.



Ashraf Ghani female vote Pashtun presidential election 2014 Taleban Taliban tribal pact tribes turnout voters women


Pakteen Ibrahimi

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