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When you vote next Monday, spare a thought for the women of Afghanistan

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Most of us are voluntarily or involuntarily part of some kind of group, but when we step behind the curtain of the polling booth we are alone, and we are atomised beings removed from any and all affiliations.

A lot of ink has been spent on what to expect, what to fear or what to hope for in this year’s local government elections (LGE21). Part of me thinks that the outcome will be an inflection point and that there will follow a gradual change in South Africa’s future for better or for worse. Part of me thinks that this inflection point could be the start of a rather rapid increase in instability – especially violence and vituperation brought about by people who were lured into believing that things will get better on 2 November, or even a month later. 

While there remains a lot to be said and much room for speculation about LGE21, I turned inward, today, after a very productive day in which I had my car licence and my driver’s licence renewed within two hours. It was one of those rare days when everything I did was for me and me alone. When I got home I became insular and cut myself off from the world, sat down and just stared into space. I thought about the fact that I cannot vote, and LGE21, and the significance of the general relationship we have with elections. It was, in some sense, my selfish day. If, dear reader, you are not interested in hard thinking about oneself in the world, especially in relation to elections, you can scroll down to the next story.  

Atomised at the ballot box

There are several points that can be made about human beings, as collectives or as individuals and their relationship with elections. One point is that it may well be the ultimate act of atomisation. Just maybe. Consider the fact that most of us are voluntarily or involuntarily part of some kind of group, but when we step behind the curtain of the polling booth we are alone, and we are atomised beings removed from any and all affiliations. Unless we tell someone whom we voted for, our closest friends and family and “significant others,” may never know which way we voted.  

The right to vote, universal suffrage, is perceptibly a collectivisation process extended to all people who meet certain criteria (age, citizenship etc). However, being a citizen within this collectivity gives only the impression of collective identity, based as it is on a set of rights and obligations or duties awarded. The right to vote is, in some senses, conditional on some or all of the above criteria. Out of this collectivisation emerges a type of uniformity or a uniform identity. We are, now, voters and belong to a community called an electorate.  

Somewhat paradoxically, this process of universalisation along with a type of serialisation (we are arranged into something that can be used) are the means by which we become atomised. The “electorate”, now identical and fabricated by law, become separated at the polling booth and the idea that “the people have the power” becomes a figment of the political imagination because elections force us to take sides in secret, and shore up the actual power which (actually) lies within political formations. After the elections “the people”, “the electorate” and “the individual voter” are all dispensed with, so to speak. The voter has effectively abdicated power to a political party and everything that goes with it. 

Then there is this 

These are the thoughts that go through my head as I ponder the election on this day of selfishness. But let me turn this prism a bit and see the difference in the way that wavelengths are refracted. I have been wading through a book slowly each evening between working on my own book and writing to put food on the table. The book I am reading is about the horrors of Taliban rule, sharia law and tribal law in Afghanistan, how it terrorises abuses, violates, immiserises and even causes rape and/or murder of women for no reason other than the fact that they are women. There are very many horrific accounts of Taliban and US army brutality in the book, but a section on elections is shocking.  

In the book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, Anand Gopal records the difficulties women have had to endure (on top of everything referred to above) during the first democratic Afghan election, such as it may have been, in 2004, when a single woman, Heela, was employed by the United Nations to staff a sole female polling station.  

“I didn’t see a single woman vote,” Heela recounted. “I was the first and last woman to cast a ballot that day.” At one point, she continued, men arrived with sackloads of registration cards. “They told me, ‘The women in our village don’t know anything about politics, so they asked us to vote for them.’ ” 

Heela lived in a small village, but grew up (and thanks to the Communist invaders of an earlier period received an education), in the “big city,” and now under various permutations of Islamic rule had to explain to village women everything possible about democracy and the freedom to vote. She did so under the cover of handing out cheap medications (women were always to be escorted in public by a man), and once she was left alone with a female, presumably to discuss the medication, she spoke about democracy and voting.  

Gopal writes: “She filled out cards for them and explained that, unlike for the men, a photograph wasn’t required. Some women, fearing their husbands, refused to accept a card. Others clutched them as if they were precious gifts.…  She explained that a woman’s vote was hers alone, not her husband’s; some housewives scoffed and said that it was wrong to divide a man and woman in this way, [my emphasis] but others nodded in agreement.…  

“At home she pored over the constitution and studied up on the candidates’ profiles, then lectured the women on what she’d learned. If only she could convince them that they, too, belonged to the public world, those small flashes of confidence she sometimes noticed in their eyes might grow into something of meaning and value. Just as they had for her. Still, she had moments of doubt. In one hillside village she gave a card to a woman married to an Afghan who was living in Pakistan. 

“ ‘Sometimes a village is so small,’ Heela recalled, ‘that when someone gets a card, everyone knows, and so even her husband in Pakistan heard about it. People started talking – so and so’s wife received a card, she must be going out of the house on her own, she is getting involved in men’s affairs, maybe she has taken a lover, and so on. It was a big shame for her husband.’ When two of the woman’s relatives escorted her back to Pakistan, they found her husband livid. A shouting match erupted between him and the relatives, whom he held responsible for his wife’s indiscretions. Physical threats followed, until the husband pulled out a pistol and shot them, killing one and leaving the other critically wounded. ‘This was all from a [voter’s] card I gave,’ Heela said.” 

It’s hard to write anything about the above, suffice to say that elections might be a “trap for fools” as one clever French person wrote in Les Temps Modernes No 318 in 1973, precisely because it universalises and certifies us as citizens, then atomises us when we place our crosses in secret, which somehow reveals our powerlessness – because voting is probably our sole political act every two, or four years. 

Finally, voting or not voting makes no difference. To abstain is effectively to confirm the next batch of people in power. We will have done nothing if we do not fight, simultaneously, the system of indirect democracy or the minimalist democracy which renders most of us powerless the very day after the election. DM

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  • Sorry Ismail, the people of Afghanistan had their opportunity and by a vast majority rejected it.
    We here are still trying to avoid being taken over by a mafia gang.
    Lets all hope we succeed with the voting.

    • Agree. One of the worse articles I’ve ever read on DM. What has Afghanistan to do with South African municipal elections? Trying to impress readers with your knowledge outside South Africa, when this country can’t ever protect their own, especially women, whether they can vote or not