Khost has an abysmal record on on upholding equal opportunity rules in local government.
When Kheyalo, 40, saw a job advertised specifically for female applicants at Khost’s department of labour and social affairs, she thought she would be the perfect candidate.
Armed with her high-school graduation certificates, she duly applied for the position in the department’s training centre. To her dismay, her application was immediately rejected, with no explanation given.
Although the post was for supposedly only open to female applicants, Kheyalo said she learned later that a high-ranking official in Khost had appointed his brother.
“I was treated so badly that I now feel discouraged,” she said.
The department’s head, Kamaluddin Zadran, refused repeated requests for an interview on the appointment.
Women in Khost province in Afghanistan’s southeast say attempts to introduce positive discrimination into local government hiring practices have had little success. Corruption and conservative traditions still exclude women from jobs, meaning that only a tiny proportion of civil servants are female.
According to official figures, just 240 women work in government offices in Khost province, compared with close to 8,000 men. Six more women work with the Afghan military there.
Even when roles are reserved for female applicants, Khost provincial council member Wazhma claimed that it was men who filled most of these jobs.
She vowed to work to “remove any men from posts allocated for women, and give women what is rightfully theirs”.
Zeba Barakzai, head of the Khost branch of the Afghan Women’s Network, explained that little value was attached to women in this conservative region. Officials simply ignored and overrode the rules for setting aside posts for female applicants.
“There should be at least three to six women in every office, but unfortunately, there are women in only a few departments,” Barakzai added.
Zarmina, who has a university degree and 15 years’ work experience, is another job applicant who feels she was passed over because of her gender. She recently applied to be director at a women’s college that runs two-year further education courses for high school graduates. The post was intended for a woman, and Zarmina said she was eminently qualified for it.
However, her application was summarily rejected and a man was appointed instead.
“Women’s rights are clearly being abused,” Zarmina said. “We, as women, are not treated well. Men are sensitive about having women in the workplace and try to block their progress.”
Matiullah Fazli, the deputy director of education in Khost, said that that in this specific case, the decision was taken out of his hands and the appointment made on the basis of a direct order from Afghanistan’s education minister.
“I accept that the director of the college should be a woman with the right qualifications, but unfortunately this appointment was beyond our authority,” he said, noting that the new head of the institute had only been appointed on an acting basis. When the post was re-advertised, he said, it would again be open to women only.
Other women report harassment that makes their position in the workplace untenable.
Wozhai Haidari was dismissed last year from her job at the Khost branch of the National Solidarity Programme, a project empowering local communities to run development projects. She was replaced by a male employee.
“Some requests were made of me which were beneath a woman’s dignity,” she said. “I did not accede to these demands. There was a conspiracy against me and I had to leave the job. Now a man has been appointed in my place.”
Office head Mohammad Usman Mehdi said he was aware that Haidari had been dismissed from her job but could not give further details.
“I am aware that this woman had extensive work experience, but that a man was been appointed in her place. It was a decision taken by the ministry [of rural rehabilitation and development],” he said.
ATTITUDES SLOW TO CHANGE
Conservatives still frown on the very idea that women can work outside the home. Although attitudes are changing, particularly in urban areas, prejudice is rife.
The head of the women’s affairs department in Khost, Malalai Wali, said that some government offices had no female employees at all, although her office was ready to provide whatever help it could to allow women to work in local government.
“Men in Khost don’t want women managing offices or working alongside them. Men don’t want to open the way for women to progress in an office career,” she said, adding that many women preferred to work in NGOs for higher salaries instead.
Wali acknowledged that women were underrepresented even in her own department.
Kamela Akbari, director of publications at the women’s affairs department, said that in one case, a man was appointed to a managerial role there earmarked for a woman and proceeded to mistreat his female colleagues so much that several of them resigned.
“Our economics director resigned due to this treatment. Other women like her have also left their jobs,” Akbari said.
However, Wali said she fully supported the male employee in question, denying he had mistreated anyone.
“If I gave this post to a woman, she wouldn’t be able to cope,” she added.
Bostan Walizai, a rights activist in Khost, said the leadership at the women’s affairs department had to bear responsibility for the lack of action on gender equality.
“One of the most ineffective departments in Khost is that of women’s affairs, because it has done nothing to advance women’s rights,” Walizai said.
Although Afghan law is clear on the subject of gender equality, the reality is very different.
Amir Bahir, a political scientist at Khost’s private Tolo-e Aftab University, noted that Article 22 of the Afghan constitution required equal opportunities for men and women in government employment.
“The constitution gives women permission to work,” he said.
Another activist, Faruq Jan Mangal said that nonetheless, women were still seen as second-class citizens. Men did not want to work alongside female colleagues, seeing this as a slight to their personal honour.
“People talk about men [who have female colleagues] behind their backs in the villages and in the town. There are harsh cultural restrictions. Men also come under pressure from their families for this reason. A male manager, along with his family, will be ridiculed by their community if women are also employed in his office,” he said. “Cultural sensitivities, the scarcity of jobs and corruption are among the barriers to increasing the level female employment in government offices.”
Some Afghans say that Islamic law frowns on women working outside the home, but scholars say this is a misconception.
Maulavi Shah Mohammad, the chairman of Khost’s council of religious scholars, said, “According to a fatwa [decree] issued by religious scholars, women are only excluded from becoming president or a judge. Women can work in government offices as long as it is within an Islamic framework.”
Hamid Karimzai, an expert on social policy, said women were often only employed in posts where there was a need for face-to-face interaction with female clients.
“No one appoints women in [government] departments apart from in health, legal and judicial agencies, which female citizens need to visit in person. When women don’t visit the offices in person, the need for female employees isn’t felt to be that important,” he said.
SCHEMES TO BOOST FEMALE REPRESENTATION
Some members of Khost’s provincial council recognise that more needs to be done.
Councillor Abdul Wali Wahedzai said, “A large number of government posts have been announced in Khost ever since the new government [under President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani] was announced. So we are asking all our local offices to appoint educated women – and also to hire poor women whose families have no breadwinners to work in areas like cleaning and other light activities in government offices.”
“I am fully prepared to help women,” said Harun Mujahed, the head of Khost’s administrative reform commission, who said that his department had not received any complaints about men working in jobs allocated for women.
“We have announced 90 posts [for both men and women] in Khost and we have also given women a 20 per cent advantage, which means men must have a bachelor’s degree but that women can apply even if they are only high-school graduates,” he said.
The recently appointed mayor of the town of Khost, Keramat Khan Khpalwak, said he had already taken steps to include women.
“I appointed two women to the city council and I am going to appoint some women at a local park as well,” he said.
Mubarez Mohammad Zadran, spokesman for the governor of Khost province, said local officials frequently met activists and support groups to discuss ways of boosting female employment.
Zadran added that the provincial government had already made a number of commitments.
“We will announce 300 posts [for women],” he said. “We have advertiseed some of them already. They include posts of directors, managers and director generals. Women will be able to apply to work in these posts through the appropriate channels.”
He insisted that any woman with the right abilities and qualifications would be considered, without prejudice.
“I urge educated women to come and fill out applications,” he said.
Hukum Khan Habibi, recently appointed as provincial governor, said he fully intended to address the lack of female representation in the municipality. Men and women had equal rights and there would be free and fair competition for every post.
“I promise that they will not be mistreated,” Habibi said, adding that cultural prejudice was the only factor inhibiting women’s employment in government offices.
Ahmad Shah is an IWPR-trained reporter in Khost.
This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.