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Afghanistan: Female Candidate Discusses Development Needs

An Afghan woman wearing the burqa One of the female candidates in Afghanistan's upcoming parliamentary elections was among seven Afghan women who discussed issues that they consider crucial to the development of Afghanistan during a visit to RFE/RL's offices in Washington on 23 August.

Women comprise roughly 10 percent of the candidates for the lower house, or Wolesi Jirga, and provincial councils -- there are 582 female candidates, according to the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB). The Afghan Constitution, adopted in January 2004, has afforded women at least a minimum number of seats in both bodies. [For background on the voting and quotas for female representation, click here.]

Beyond ensuring security -- which was more of an issue for women living in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the resurgent neo-Taliban and their allies have stepped up their destructive activities -- all seven said they favored long-term reconstruction projects that would empower women over short-term programs. The leading issues of concern for all of the women who spoke at RFE/RL were health care and education.

Masuda Karokhi, who is executive committee member of the Directorate of Women's Affairs in the western Afghan city of Herat and an independent candidate for the National Assembly's lower house, welcomed the chance afforded to Afghan women to run for public office in a country with a "patriarchal and traditional system."

Female candidates are determined to "help rebuild our country and have a role in parliament," where they can have a major impact, Karokhi said. Karokhi identified the most crucial issues for Afghanistan -- and for Afghan women -- as poverty, literacy and education, and public health.

Karokhi said that campaigning is more difficult for female candidates, forcing her to rely on the "traditional tribal system" to get her message out to voters -- adding that such power structures are controlled by men. "We must go to the centers of influence," Karokhi said. But she also noted the support that some men have lent to her campaign. In many cases, Karokhi said, men have been more vocal advocates of her campaign than women.

While Karokhi focused on the positive contributions and support of men in her campaign effort, she did not dwell on why women have been less enthusiastic to support her. One reason could be that while Afghan women enjoy legal avenues to express their opinions, they often confront social forces that see their place outside the public realm, and certainly not in politics.

Karokhi argued that Afghans in general do not embrace political parties, adding that a candidate would lose support if she or he belonged to a political party. (More than 70 parties have so far registered with the Afghan-UN electoral watchdog, the JEMB.) She attributed that popular distrust to decades of conflict in Afghanistan in which political parties and organizations played leading roles. Karokhi did not rule out a role for political parties in the future, however.

She said security has not presented a problem for Karokhi during campaigning in Herat, and she has never asked for any protection. The main obstacle, she said, has been reaching out to voters outside of the city, where media access, particularly television, is extremely limited or nonexistent.

While discussing the importance of the media, Karokhi suggested the regime in neighboring Iran exerts extensive influence on many aspects of life in Herat Province. Karokhi claimed that some local residents refer wryly to state-run radio and television broadcasting in Herat as "Iranian" due to the clergy's perceived influence over their content. Women's rights in her own province, she hinted, might come into sharp conflict with the principles advocated by the hard-line theocracy next door.

[For more on Afghanistan's upcoming elections, see our dedicated Afghanistan Votes page.]