“It is not Charity, it is a Chair of Power” - Moving Beyond Symbolic Representation in Afghanistan’s Transition Politics?


In this action research project, experiences with quota designs, challenges and achievements of quota parliamentarians, in terms of substantive representation, are reviewed in Afghanistan. The focus lies on the concept of political patriarchy, that is, an androcentric to sometimes even misogynist political configuration in relation to (i) power relations, (ii) socio-political culture and gender roles prescriptions, (iii) institutional setups, practices and discourses. This assemblage draws heavily on the subsequent structural constraints through gatekeepers and peers, recruitment and decision-making processes, institutional structures of voice and agency, that shape gender quota parliamentarians’ forms and impact, to affect substantive political representation, as well as political effectiveness.

Taking on a case study perspective, I essentially focus on the level of the national parliament, to critically review quota designs, practices and experiences of women parliamentarians on quota seats. In doing so, the intent is to explore the confluencing roles of: individual and collective civil society representatives which liaise and lobby with the parliament and legislators, for example, women’s organisations, human rights activists or electoral watchdogs; peers within the assemblies comprising heads of parliamentary groups, chairs of parliamentary committees/commissions; and gatekeepers & (potential) veto actors/spoilers, such as, political party leaders, ministerial bureaucrats, influential parliamentarians or government members inter alia. Guiding exploratory questions used to obtain information include: What quality, transversality, along with volatility characterises gender quota mandates in Afghanistan? What kind of ‘imagined constituency’ do gender quota parliamentarians conceptualise and aim to establish, including ensuring their own political mainstreaming and effectiveness beyond a quota regime? Do gender quota politicians advance a pro-women agenda? To what extent is this structured by a specific power configuration within formal and informal institutions, and by (in-formal) stakeholders within society and politics? What changes are required with regard to institutional configurations, engagement with key stakeholders, and the quota system and election system designs, as such?

Logically contouring through the complex phenomenon, and for clarity, reviewed first, is the perceived performance and impact of gender quota parliamentarians, within the ambit of: legislation; government oversight; and representation of constituents, in particular women (albeit neither a homogenous social group nor a coherent constituency). This is followed by investigating the constraints and barriers to gender quota parliamentarians’ political mainstreaming and effectiveness by gatekeepers shaping the candidacy pool along with transversality of legislative mandates, recruitment/decision-making and agenda-setting processes within parliamentary groups and political networks/coalitions. Not to mention that these foci are overbearingly influenced and determined by external actors and their transnational/global policies and interventions, influencing Afghanistan at the level of a state-sponsored political patriarchy.

However, given the limited resources of the project, the focus of the analysis is confined to the internal dimensions of institutional constraints and the direct experiences of parliamentarians of both genders, with the gender quota system in place since the 2004 Constitution. Secondly, the case of Afghanistan is marked by a high level of political violence and can be termed as conflict (or even intervention) society, creating particular vulnerabilities for politically active women, who engage in public affairs marked by women’s widespread invisibility in the public sphere. However, again, the focus lies not on the nexus of insecurity, politics and gender, but is rather understood as a potentially intervening variable.

In this case study, the aim is to highlight that gender quota parliamentarians are under constant scrutiny and pressure of justification by various sections of the society - be it women’s activists or proclaimed feminists, accusing them for capitulating to the patriarchal state and male dominated political parties, and not representing women and their issues to the level and extent expected. Or be it by conservative, predominantly male veto actors, both at the societal and political levels, for example, male parliamentarians. Their renderings challenge the very notion of positive discrimination. These include resenting women’s public participation and quota parliamentarianism and enjoying a similar political status, perks and privileges. The mindset remains ingrained despite the fact that women parliamentarians undergo and are subjected to the same electoral competitive process of building constituencies, as well as ensuring votes that qualify them for parliamentary mandate. Not to mention that the general media perception & portrayal and public scrutinising is harsher, often labelling them of not being ‘true’ representatives of people, or the female populace for that matter. These women representatives are also labelled as those belonging to asymmetric socioeconomic backgrounds, and are the target of judgemental statements like: (i) higher levels of dependency and weaker support systems; (ii) being elite women belonging to influential political families, (iii) serving as proxies and tokens for male power brokers and thus furthering specific vested interests, in addition to (iv) not being ‘proper’, ‘decent', socioculturally ‘authentic’ women who comply according to dominant (patriarchal) gender roles prescriptions, values and subsequent behaviour in public.

With regard to the above mentioned, this paper endeavours to analyse and understand the potentially ambivalent reality of women’s substantive political representation through the prism of multiple theoretical frameworks and empirical insights. It intends to shift the focus from individual agency and performance of women parliamentarians to contextualising it within existing sociopolitical structures and institutions. This shift is important as the latter can be considered to imperil women’s substantive political representation, in terms of establishing and/or perpetuating gender-specific opportunity structures and spaces, or handicaps/detriments for that matter. Therefore, we problematise the focus on quota women’s political performance and agency alone, as a basis of assessing such gender interventions. Other decisive variables for women’s political effectiveness are part of the same equation along the lines of the seminal work: No Shortcuts to Patriarchy by Goetz and Hassim (2003). They argue that women’s political effectiveness depends on a “chain of responsibility and exchange”, which relies on: (i) the type of women elected; (ii) their ability for voice on certain policy issues, as well as agency to follow them through; (iii) a supportive, resourceful gender equity lobby in civil society; (iv) credibility of women politicians and policies in political competition/electoral politics; (v) coalition- and alliance-building across arenas, tiers and levels of the polity; along with (vi) the capacity of the state and the political system to respond to new policy issues, to accommodate a new set of actors and to implement (novel, transformative) women policies.

Gender quota parliamentarians encounter myriad, often intersecting and interdependent challenges that need to be taken into account when discussing women’s substantive political representation. Without clearly mapping, reflecting and discussing these sociopolitical structural and institutional barriers and constraints, it will be difficult to understand the impact of gender quotas for women’s political mainstreaming, in particular, and on the existing political patriarchy, in general. Consequently, we argue here that quotas might not be a sufficient mode of intervention to allow for a quantitative and qualitative decrease in the gender democracy deficit, and for subsequently dismantling the encompassing political patriarchy, alive and kicking, in most sociopolitical institutions of Afghanistan. 

Furthermore, a detailed comparative analysis of female and male parliamentarians’ political performance is beyond the scope of this study, and hence poses a considerable analytical-cum-argumentative limitation. Given that the focus is on whether quota parliamentarians deliver - ultimately addressing the patriarchal pressure for justification of them being there in the first place - obscures the necessity to ask whether male parliamentarians are scrutinised on an equal footing regarding political performance and representation. Notwithstanding that their presupposed and normatively preordained role and authority tends to go without questioning, given the centuries long legacy of androcentric politics.


About the Author:  Andrea Fleschenberg, PhD, is the DAAD Long Term Guest Professor at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and Visiting Faculty at the University of Peshawar, Pakistan. Previously she worked as a research fellow and lecturer at the Philipps University, Marburg, University of Hildesheim, University of Duisburg-Essen and University of Cologne, Germany. She served as the Acting Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Hildesheim (2010) and held visiting professorships at the Punjab University (HEC, 2007), Lahore, Pakistan, and Universitat Jaume I (UNESCO Chair for Peace Philosophy), Castellon, Spain (2006).

Product details
Date of Publication
March, 2016
Heinrich Böll Stiftung - Afghanistan
Number of Pages
Language of publication
Table of contents

Introductory Remarks: Afghanistan & the Global Shift on Gender Quotas 7

It’s all in the Rules of the Game -
Theorising Women’s Substantive Political Representation 11

“I am a voice, their voice, of those who are not loud” -
The Issue of Constituency 13

“I just changed the public perception” -
Assessing Women’s Political Performance 15

“We are between the future and the past” -
Challenges and Obstacles of Quota Legislators 18

“I do not want to speak of the women of Parliament” -
Male MPs and the Gender Quota 22

Debating Electoral Reforms and the Quota -
“We have a very big problem with the system” and
“We need to play politics like men” 25

Beyond Vulnerabilities and Volatilities Towards
Women’s Substantive Political Representation -
Some Tentative Conclusions with regard to Afghanistan 30

Bibliography 33