Afghanistan gets regular attention for targeted bomb attacks and assassinations. They are political. But another political action that has gone relatively under-reported is a hunger strike. In a country where democracy can at best be called fledgling, people have begun to experiment with protests that befit a democratic rather than a lawless, conflict-ridden state.
Semin Barekzai, a woman member of Parliament from the Heart province, began a hunger strike on October 12 in a tent pitched in a car park outside the parliament. She was protesting her removal from the parliamentary seat along with 8 others on charges of fraud. On the 10th day, she called a press conference and read out a testament that President Karzai, first vice-president Qasim Fahim, house speaker Abdul Raouf Ibrahimi and Independent Election Commissioner (equivalent to India’s Chief Election Commission) Fazl Ahmad Manavi would be responsible if she died.
It rattled the administration enough for the president to announce a reassessment of her disqualification and the interior ministry to order the tents removed. However, when the police arrived there was heavy media presence and the action was called off.
Last Thursday, scores of armed police stormed the area, uprooted the tents and threw Barakzai into an ambulance. Her disturbing screams rang out as she was tossed into the ambulance. She was taken to a military hospital to be force-fed. The whole incident was captured by someone in a grainy video which was broadcast on television and Youtube. She is being kept in the hospital incommunicado.
It created an uproar in Parliament the next day and even MPs known to support Karzai were aghast and disgusted. When I met one of them he said the way Barakzai was treated was inhuman.
Most people I spoke to believe that it would be a disaster for the administration if something happens to Barakzai. She is a Pashtun from the Wolesi Jirga and a woman to boot. Afghans treat their women with respect. If she dies, she will perhaps be the first martyr of democracy in a country that lives in reverential memories of dead heroes; only they were commanders or generals.
The protest and government reaction does not seem to have generated much interest in the general public, though about a dozen people, including three students, had joined her hunger strike. The threat of slow death seems empty in Afghanistan where young men make statements almost every day by setting off bombs strapped to themselves. Besides, it is only you that are dying. Life is anyway cheap here.
Yet, the Barakzai incident should be seen as the first signs of democracy taking roots. It certainly has not created the storm that a similar protest by Anna Hazare created in India a few weeks ago. But she did not disappear one night without a trace, as could happen in some countries. The government is also showing at least an inclination to some sort of negotiation. I would call that progress, considering that just ten years ago, forget about protesting, a woman in Afghanistan would not have been able to think about elections.