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Afghanistan: Many Women Embrace The Chance To Vote


By Farah Hiwad http://gdb.rferl.org/1F35EE8D-7CE2-4CEE-96D0-54982C4B799C_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/1F35EE8D-7CE2-4CEE-96D0-54982C4B799C_mw800_mh600.jpg Afghan women registering to vote (file photo) In the days before Afghanistan's 18 September parliamentary vote, President Hamid Karzai urged voters to defy threats of violence and head to the polls. It was a particularly relevant message for the country's women, who continue to fight for their political voice after years of repression. RFE/RL spoke to women on election day and found their moods alternating between joy, sadness, and determination to bring their "three-decade-long night" to an end.

Prague, 23 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Women made up 44 percent of all Afghan voters registered during the past year.

It is still unclear how many of them turned up for the 18 September vote for the lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga) and 34 provincial councils. But their growing impact on Afghan government is undeniable.

In the eastern city of Jalalabad -- where female candidate Safia Sadiqi survived an apparent assassination attempt by militants aiming to disrupt the election -- more women than men reportedly turned out to vote.

Nangahar and Kandahar provinces also reported high turnouts among women.

One woman in Kandahar -- the former stronghold of the Taliban militia -- expressed enthusiasm about participating in the first democratic parliamentary vote in more than 30 years.

"This is a great occasion; we are very happy," the woman said. "I must say that women from our province are very mature and intelligent. They know whom to vote for."

The role of women extends beyond voting. Last October, a female candidate -- Masooda Jalal -- ran in the country's presidential elections.

Quotas

A quarter of the Wolesi Jirga's 249 seats are earmarked for women lawmakers. The provincial councils also have quotas for female members. In total, some 320 women were candidates in the 18 September vote -- many overcoming financial difficulty and threats of violence to do so.

It is a major achievement in a country where women have seen their rights systematically stripped away. For years, women were unable to attend university, be treated by a male doctor, or even walk outside without a male chaperone.

In many areas, women were still discouraged from voting by tradition-bound male family members. The Taliban had also vowed to disrupt the vote to prevent women from turning out.

Nekmarga, another woman voter in Kandahar, could barely control her emotions as she said the vote was a crucial opportunity for her to show that women -- like men -- are an important part of the country.

"We are one wing of the bird," Nekmarga said. "If both wings don't move together, the bird can't fly."

"We have been ignored," she continued. "The mujahedeen and the Taliban have stolen our will, our motivation. We were not allowed to go to university, even to attend school or to work. We have not been respected as human beings; we were considered subhuman. So today we've been given the chance to exercise our rights, and we shouldn't miss the opportunity. I want to vote for a person who will work for us, for women."

The Kuchis

Another neglected group -- the Afghanistan Kuchis, or nomads -- also had a chance to run for parliamentary and council seats. Kuchis were guaranteed 10 seats in the Wolesi Jirga.

Some Kuchi women in western Herat province told RFE/RL they would vote for any candidate -- male or female -- who would work to solve the dire poverty of the Afghan nomads. But one woman said she was voting for a man, because she believed only they had the power to solve problems.

"Look at me," the Kuchi woman said. "I'm so poor, I'm blind, I'm sick. I'm old. I'm going to vote for a Muslim man. We are so far away from the city. We don't have water; we don't have animals; we don't have milk. Believe me, I don't even have enough money for even a little tobacco."

It will be several more weeks before the official outcome of the elections is known. But despite some views that only men have the power to make change, many female voters express optimism that this is only the beginning of a political role for women in Afghanistan.

They point out that other Muslim nations have many female politicians. Some -- like Pakistan and Indonesia -- have even had women presidents.

Related Stories:

"Female Candidate Discusses Development Needs"

"Threats, Intimidation Reported Against Female Candidates"

"Interview With UN Special Rapporteur On Violence Against Women"

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the legislative elections in Afghanistan, see "Afghanistan Votes"
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