War in Afghanistan

Women take poll position in bastion of male dominance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am

When Afghanistan's electoral supervisory authority allocated poll symbols to candidates contesting the National Assembly elections, Gulalay Habib was given two footballs, a game played by few Afghan women.

But as the election campaign kicked off, the 50-year-old school teacher was quick to convert the inapt symbol into a political message.

'The two footballs signify my resolve to kick the Taleban and al-Qaeda out of the ground,' she declared.

In a country where women's literacy is variously estimated to be between 2 and 20 per cent, 578 women are contesting this Sunday's elections to the National Assembly and to 34 provincial councils - about 10 per cent of the total number of candidates.

And despite threats, intimidation and violence from some Islamic conservatives, only 51 women have voluntarily dropped out of the race from a total withdrawal list of 286.

If there's any certainty about Afghanistan's extraordinary tryst with democracy, it is that the war-ravaged nation's long-suppressed women are finally finding their voice.

The large number of female candidates is the result of a special provision in the electoral law reserving a quarter of the seats in the nation's legislatures for women.

But although many Afghan men are still hostile to the idea of women participating in public life, the prospect of so many women legislators is actually making some people proud.

'Afghanistan will have a higher percentage of women in the National Assembly than the United States has in its Congress,' said Zia Mohseni, a hospital technician. 'It provides a good chance to develop democracy.'

But just as Afghan democracy is a work in progress, so is the emancipation of women. Before the presidential election last October, for instance, not a single woman was allowed to enrol as a voter in Ajristan district, Ghazni province, a short drive south of Kabul. This year, 13,000 women registered.

Almost 42 per cent of about 12 million registered voters in Afghanistan are women.

'This time, women are less afraid,' said Fawzia Jamil, a political science student at Kabul University.

True, the key to the front door is still in the hands of the family patriarch, but more men are willing to unlock ancient straitjackets as women come forward at every stage of the political journey.

'I'm very, very happy to participate in the process of democracy,' said polling agent Fatima Akhunzada. 'I'm on such a high, I don't even feel insecure.'

In keeping with custom, all the women candidates campaign with their heads covered by the Islamic hijab.

Nevertheless, the election posters of a few women candidates - even in remote, ultra-conservative provinces such as north-eastern Badakshan - are reportedly selling on the black market for up to 150 Afghanis ($27).

'I heard my posters have even crossed into Pakistan, with people putting them up in Peshawar,' said Sabrina Saqeb, whose poster appears to have also bewitched Kabul.

But her new-found fame was not enough to guarantee protection to Ms Saqeb, one of seven sportspeople standing for the National Assembly.

On Tuesday, she had to cancel a campaign visit to Paghman, the stronghold near the national capital of notorious warlord Abdul Rasul Sayaf, after being warned she would be attacked.

When another candidate, Safia Siddiqui, ventured into warlord territory outside the eastern Jalalabad city, her vehicle was fired upon, which injured her companions.

Warlords and militia commanders are also believed to have put up their own women candidates in an attempt to keep other women out of the National Assembly.

But none of the mainstream women candidates are willing to give up the fight.

'While the warlords have private armies and very strong financial support, democratic candidates have empty pockets but clean hands,' said Sourya Parlika, a former communist now campaigning on a social democratic platform.

Several women candidates plan to set up an alliance of like-minded members within the National Assembly to focus not just on women's rights, but also on issues such as corruption, unemployment and justice for war crimes.

'We can't have just a feminist group, or a party only of men. Both have to come together,' said Ms Habib, a mother of six.