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Afghanistan: Men Threaten Wives Over Presidential Voting

Women registering to vote earlier this year [For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" --> webpage.]

International officials have described the 9 October presidential election in Afghanistan as the first chance for women in the country to have a say in the selection of their national leader. But many Afghan women interviewed by RFE/RL in the past week said they will vote for the candidate backed by their husbands or fathers. The trend points to inadequate education for women -- particularly in rural areas -- about their political rights in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Ron Synovitz and Frechta Jalalzai report.

Kabul, 7 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Shala Stanakzai is a 28-year-old woman from Logar Province whose Pashtun husband has told her to vote for former Education Minister Mohammad Yunos Qanuni in the presidential voting.

But Stanakzai said she won't do what her husband says: "My husband has his opinion, and I have my own. I will cast my vote for [Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid] Karzai. My husband tells my to vote for Qanuni and not for Karzai. I will tell him that I agree to do what he says because I don't want to have family problems. But when I go to the voting station, nobody will tell me how to vote. It will be just me, my God, and the ballot box. I will vote for Karzai and nobody can see me do that."

More than 10 Afghan women from Kabul interviewed by RFE/RL this week said they also will vote according to their consciences, despite pressure from their men folk to back their candidates. But few women were willing to make that remark in a recording. All said they fear family problems if they do what they want rather than what their husbands or other male relatives say.
"I accept whatever my husband says. First comes God and second, for a woman, comes her husband. So I will vote for the person that my husband tells me to vote for." -- Bibigul, an Afghan woman

John Sifton, a researcher on Afghanistan for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, said he wishes all Afghan women had Stanakzai's understanding about how a secret ballot election works.

"Women are facing a lot of problems in this country. Some of them are cultural and societal and will take years to overcome," Sifton said. "A lot of women have not received adequate education about what their rights are. Many of them don't understand simple things like the fact that their vote is secret. That's, of course, compounded by the fact that in some places it is not clear that their vote is secret. But let's just assume for the sake of argument that it is secret. A lot of women don't understand that concept and think that they must do as they're told when they're told how to vote -- whether it's by their husband or by the local [militia] leaders who tell everybody, man and woman, how to vote."

RFE/RL spoke to Lalaful, a member of the ethnic Pashtun Kochi tribe from Logar Province, the day after his wedding. He is the oldest son in his family and said that he is telling his bride, his sisters, and his sisters-in-law that they must vote for Karzai.

"[My new bride] is a woman. How can she refuse to do what I say?" Lalaful says. "We are Pashtun. Woman was created for this -- to accept everything that a man says. She must obey me. If she doesn't do what I say, I won't let her live."

Standing nearby in a red veil, Lalagul's wife offered no comment about the death threat from her new husband. But her father, Rahim, said that he agrees with Lalagul.

"My wife also must also accept what I say," Rahim said. "We are all voting for Karzai, and I told my wife to do the same. She is a woman. How can she refuse to do what I say? So she is voting for Karzai."

Rahim's wife, Bibigul, said she also agrees that she must do as she is told.

"I accept whatever my husband says," Bibigul said. "First comes God and second, for a woman, comes her husband. So I will vote for the person that my husband tells me to vote for."

Several Afghan men from rural provincial areas outside of Kabul told RFE/RL that they would not even let their women leave their homes on election day.

One such man is Wazir, from a village in the conservative southeastern province of Paktia. He wears a large yellow turban with long lack hair and a traditional henna-dyed beard.

"We will bring their voting registration cards to the polling stations and we will put their votes in the ballot boxes for them," Wazir said. "They can't go to the voting stations. But if they mark my finger with ink so that I can't cast the vote for my wife, then I will just go home and she won't vote at all."

Amirkhan, an elderly Pashtun man from Ghazni Province, said it would violate traditional tribal values to let women leave their home to vote on election day.

"We will cast the ballots for our women folk," Amirkhan said. "We won't allow them to go to the voting stations. It is not part of our culture to let women go outside, so this election is not fair for us. Our women are not educated and they don't go to offices or anywhere else."

Sifton, of Human Rights Watch, said it is frustrating to see how women are being kept from understanding their political rights in Afghanistan. He said the issue goes far beyond the simple question of having the right to vote.

"Our research around the country uncovered a common theme. Afghan women who are attempting to organize politically face significant obstacles. They're facing death threats, harassment, or just a simple government apathy that makes it impossible for them to do what they want to do," Sifton said. "They want to represent their constituencies -- both men and women. They want to form women's activist groups. They want to form civil society groups. And in many places, local militia factions -- the warlords who swept into power after the Taliban were defeated -- are preventing them from doing so."

Human Rights Watch has just released a report about the broader issue of women in public life in Afghanistan. That report documents many cases of intimidation and attacks against women who are trying to become politically active.

[Click here to see a "Factbox" on the presidential election.]