Afghan female MP is successful but a victim of tradition

11th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

A politician at the vanguard of women's rights and praised in the fight for democracy, Shukria Barakzai is a good news story in the country's post-Taliban era.

Kabul -- Rarely seen without a smile on her face, Shukria Barakzai is one of the most successful women in male-dominated Afghanistan -- a member of parliament who hopes one day to be president.

A politician at the vanguard of women's rights and praised in the fight for democracy, Barakzai is a good news story in the country's post-Taliban era.

But in her personal life she describes herself as "a victim of tradition." Not unusually for Afghanistan, her husband took another wife. The fact that he could do so without even telling her left her feeling "disturbed and hurt."

For most of her countrywomen, polygamy is an unquestioned part of life. But for Barakzai, with her more Western outlook, it was a bitter blow.

"Many people might think I'm a successful woman," she says. "Outside the home, it's true, I'm successful, I'm happy. But in my personal life -- that's not the case."

"It is very painful for me that my husband has another wife," she adds. "I myself am a victim of male violence against women in this country. My husband married his second wife without even telling me."

Even more painful was the fact that she could do nothing about it in the devout Islamic nation, where men are allowed to have up to four wives.

Sharia law, on which Afghanistan's constitution is based, says that men with multiple wives must treat all wives equally and that their first must approve a second marriage.

"I learnt it later from friends -- it really hurt," Barakzai said of her husband's second marriage in 2004, 12 years after their own wedding.

The 37-year-old mother of three decided to launch a campaign with a group of like-minded women to fight against polygamy and protect other women.

As part of her efforts, Barakzai has been campaigning against forced marriages and child marriages -- practices that are still common in Afghanistan.

"I have gone through this pain, so I know the cure," she said. "Through campaigning among Afghan women, we are working to encourage them to not become the second wife of a man."

"If we can't stop men, we can tell the women not to destroy their lives and the life of another woman, the first wife of a man," she explained.

Barakzai has dedicated her life to fighting for women's rights -- under Taliban rule that banned women from public life and in post-Taliban Afghanistan where the world community is trying to build democracy.

During the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, Barakzai, who has a degree in geology and archaeology from Kabul University, ran underground schools for girls who were officially banned from receiving an education.

Thanks to her secret classes, eight of her students went on to university.

With the collapse of the Taliban after the 2001 US-led invasion, Barakzai published "Women's Mirror," a weekly magazine in a bid to launch a women's rights campaign.

In 2005, she won "International Editor of the Year" from the World Press -- a US-based media rights group.

The same year, Barakzai won a seat in parliament, beating hundreds of rivals including her husband, Abdul Ghafar Dawi, a prominent Kabul-based millionaire.

Her success has given her courage to hope to run for president in 2014 -- the next presidential ballot after scheduled polls this year.

"Not this time but in the next elections, surely I will run for president and I'm sure I'll win," she says, smiling. "I've already started campaigning for it."

In Afghanistan, long ruled by men, mostly from conservative ethnic Pashtun tribes who oppose female influence in political life, few women have made it to the top levels of government.

Barakzai says that era has gone.

"Look at the parliamentary elections. My husband, Ghafar, spent half a million dollars on his campaign but couldn't secure half the votes I won. I think the era when women didn't have a voice is gone.

"If people trust me and vote for me in the parliamentary elections then why not the presidential elections?" she said.

"I'm going to run and I'm going to win it."

Sardar Ahmad/AFP/Expatica

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