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Afghanistan: With No Money or Military, Lone Female Presidential Candidate Depends On Supporters For Strength

By Laura Winter Afghanistan's presidential race is starting to heat up, with most of the attention being given to the rivalry between the country's two top candidates -- the sitting president Hamid Karzai and his former Education Minister Yunis Qanooni. But Afghanistan's only female candidate is also drawing attention. RFE/RL's Kabul correspondent Laura Winter talked to Massouda Jalal and her supporters as they prepare to launch their campaign in this male-dominated post-conflict country.

Kabul, 3 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- She's back again. And for some here in Kabul, Masuda Jalal just doesn't seem to know when to give up.

She failed to gain the presidency two years ago at the Emergency Loya Jirga. And now she is challenging Karzai again in the country's first direct presidential elections, in early October.

For many, this 41-year-old mother of three is the only presidential candidate that represents the hope of real change in this male-dominated country.

Not surprisingly, her candidacy has earned her admiration and support from other women. But what makes Jalal more than just another feminist leader is the fact that she appeals to many men as well.

Hesrau Nazari traveled 11 hours from Tahar Province over the Hindu Kush mountains to volunteer for her campaign.

But isn't it strange for an Afghan man to help a woman's political campaign?

"Well, no. Because men were always at the head of government," Nazari said. "And instead of serving society, they created divisions among the ethnic and religious groups. To have a woman as the head of the government is to have a mother to look after society. And a mother never creates prejudice. And it will be an honor to have a woman candidate and to vote for her."

Jalal's foray into politics started two years ago when she represented her Kabul neighborhood district as a delegate to the Emergency Loya Jirga. In that historic meeting, she ran in the race for president of the interim administration. People snickered.
"Men were always at the head of government. And instead of serving society, they created divisions among the ethnic and religious groups." -- campaign volunteer Hesrau Nazari

Karzai won with 1,295 delegates supporting him in the poll. But Jalal earned significant respect when she placed second with 171 votes.

People aren't laughing at her any more. And Jalal says her supporters have not given up: "So after the Emergency Loya Jirga, hundreds of people from different strata, different classes, different provinces, different directions, different tribes, different ethnicities started coming to my house and saying 'Go on. Take part in the forthcoming election ... We will be voting for you.' I told them I have no political party, I have no money, I have no military power."

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has warned the international community that armed warlords pose a risk to the validity of the October election.

Many warlords are reported to be controlling votes from their regions to gain favor with the two top candidates: Karzai and Mohammad Yunos Qanuni.

Qanuni has said he has the support of Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim, who in addition to being chief of the Afghan National Army, also leads the nation's largest private militia.

But Jalal's candidacy has proved surprising -- and even worrisome -- to the competition. Jalal said the Afghan Supreme Court's Religious Order Department has twice been asked to declare her candidacy as un-Islamic and illegal. She said she has received death threats as well.

But in spite of threats and a lack of resources, Jalal said she could not ignore her supporters' calls to join the campaign. So she set out the rules: only a grassroots campaign will work: "They were requesting me to take part again. I promised them [I would,] provided they provided me with support. With votes. And they take part in the campaign. People. Because I don't have the tools. I don't have the campaigning tools: radio, TV, press. I don't have money."

Jalal's campaign posters have started showing up on walls around the capital. And local television has followed her campaign, broadcasting news about her submitting her application to run and declaring herself a presidential candidate.

Perhaps her best campaigning tool is her husband, 45-year-old Faizullah Jalal. The Jalals have been married for 10 years and now have three young children, all under the age of 10.

Faizullah said at first, he was not supportive of his wife's efforts: "I was telling her, 'You do not have any political party. You don't have any money. You don't have any military forces. And in the end your candidacy will have no result.' At the beginning I did not agree. She had a lot of reasons and she was arguing and explaining. Even I told her at that time, 'It is a crazy thing that you are doing.' And she told me, 'I am going to take my candidacy seriously.'"

Now the presidential candidate depends on her husband to help serve tea to guests and organize her supporters. He has also taken on more responsibility in running their household: "I think my cooperation has increased with her. If she cooks, I take care of the children. If she takes care of the children, I cook. It's very natural and it is not tiring."

Without much money, or military power, Jalal will likely need all the help around the house -- and around the country -- she can get.