Afghans turned out in strong numbers for the presidential and provincial council elections on April 5, with an estimated seven million people casting their votes for the candidates of their choice. The presidential election is Afghanistan's first ever democratic transition of power, with current President Hamid Karzai, the dominant political figure of the past 12 years, unable to run again. However, much more is at stake than a power shift from Karzai to whoever succeeds him; the country's stability after the pending withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces at the end of 2014, civil liberties, and women's rights all hang in the balance.
As such, Afghan women took their civic duty seriously -- according to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, 35 percent of the 16 million eligible voters in 2014 were women. However, with votes still being counted and preliminary results that might lead to a run-off scheduled to be announced next week, there are now indications that the percentage of Afghan women voters might be much higher.
In 2009, due to security threats and rampant election fraud, only 4.6 million votes were cast from a voting population of 15 million, with women constituting 38 percent of registered voters. In 2004, when the country was filled with optimism and the Taliban threat was minimal, women represented 42 percent of the eligible voting population, then totaling 12 million registered voters.
This election season also featured pictures of female candidates alongside male contenders. That fact alone speaks volumes about the country's transition from the oppressive rule of the Taliban more than 13 years ago, when women were considered non-citizens and were forbidden to participate in public life.
In 2014, 323 female politicians openly campaigned for seats in the provincial councils, elevating the status of Afghan women in a traditionally patriarchal society. Both young and old, ambitious female contenders used promising mottos such as the one on Khatera Ishaqzai's provincial council campaign poster promising to "ensure justice, human rights and women's rights" for all Afghans. A civil society activist, Ms. Ishaqzai is running for a seat on Kabul's provincial council.
Although there was no female candidate for president, there were three women vying for the position of vice president. Dr. Habiba Sarabi is the most prominent, having once served as Afghanistan's first female governor in Bamiyan province. Her current bid to become Afghanistan's first female vice president has been part of an effort to get out the women's vote as candidates realized they needed them to win. "Of course, to be in politics as a woman is a risky task," Sarabi said recently. "But we have to take the risk; otherwise we cannot achieve our goal. We cannot expect that everything can be soft or everything can be clear on our way."
The top three presidential candidates were vocal proponents of Afghan women's rights during the campaign season, courting the women's vote. Top contender Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai broke tradition by including his wife, Rula, a Lebanese-American Christian, to speak at an International Women's Day rally, as did his running mate, Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, whose wife, Zubaida, also participated.
Because of security problems, most female candidates limited their campaign outings to Kabul. The Taliban had openly threatened to disrupt the election process, saying that they would kill candidates as well as their supporters. The Taliban claimed that the election would be another ploy by the United States to continue its stranglehold of Afghanistan
A statement posted on the Taliban's website last week ordered its fighters to target election workers, election sites, and security escorts given to candidates. Since early February, nearly two dozen election workers were killed by the Taliban, and the Afghan National Police reported that 24 people were killed and 43 civilians wounded during attacks on Election Day.
Yet despite claims of fraud and not enough paper ballots due to the high turnout, the presidential and provincial elections went better than expected and should be seen as a victory for the Afghan people More importantly, the elections will determine to what degree the gains of the past decade in women's rights will be safeguarded during the transition and by the new government. Afghan women worry that those gains could easily be reversed if extremists come back into power, or if Western support dwindles. Those concerns have added urgency to this campaign season for women who are fighting to make their leadership more acceptable in a still deeply conservative society.
Afghanistan cannot afford to ignore its women, to slip back into the past, and neglect half of its population. Most importantly, Afghanistan cannot afford to lose the gains of the past decade -- for to do so would mean it would lose its place in the global community and its regional sphere of influence. No matter who wins the elections, Afghanistan must guarantee that its women continue to participate in public life and contribute to a more peaceful, just, and stable society.
Khorshied Samad, a former ABC journalist, Fox News Channel television correspondent and Kabul Bureau Chief, is an advocate for women's rights and socio-economic empowerment.
FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images