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Afghanistan: Shooting Highlights Threat To Country's Female Candidates

Nuristani as she appears on the ballot, where her accompanying symbol is a butterfly Many of the 328 women competing for seats in the lower house of Afghanistan’s national parliament, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), have faced death threats from gunmen who want to deny women any role in the country’s political system. Candidate Hawa Alam Nuristani was shot four times on 14 September while campaigning in her eastern province of Nuristan. She had recently spoken to RFE/RL about death threats against her. Female candidates from other provinces also told RFE/RL they have received daily death threats in the run-up to national and provincial voting on 18 September. But they are determined to stay in the race. From Kabul, RFE/RL correspondents Freshta Jalalzai and Ron Synovitz report.

Kabul, 16 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Hawa Alam Nuristani was in critical condition today at a U.S. military hospital at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul. The gunmen who attacked her two days ago shot her three times in the leg and once in the ear while she was campaigning in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan for the national parliament.

Nuristani had spoken with RFE/RL just days before the attack about death threats against her.

“Afghan women still have a lot of problems in every aspect of life -- especially when we are beginning this new historical period and women are participating in the new democratic political process," Nuristani said. "So we have a lot of difficulties -- especially myself. I am a candidate from a province with a lot of problems. I have been threatened many times by unknown gunmen who say they will kill me if I try to campaign in Nuristan.”

Before she was attacked, Nuristani said the support she has seen from the people of Nuristan province made her confident she would be elected to one of the 68 seats reserved for women in Afghanistan’s 249-seat People's Council, which should compose the lower chamber of the National Assembly.
"I am a candidate from a province with a lot of problems. I have been threatened many times by unknown gunmen who say they will kill me if I try to campaign in Nuristan.” -- Hawa Alam Nuristani, just days before she was gunned down while campaigning

The 45-year-old Nuristani had been one of the first Pashto-language news presenters for Afghanistan’s state television after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Before deciding to run for parliament, she was a lower-level official in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government -- working as a clerk in the Women’s Affairs Ministry. (Afghan law required that government officials surrender their official posts in order to run in the elections.)

Nuristani told that her main problem as a candidate was security while trying to campaign. She suggested that the daily death threats she had received in the past month were being made by Islamic militants based across the border in nearby Pakistan.

“Eastern Nuristan is next to Chatrall Province of Pakistan, and there are serious security problems in this area," Nuristani said. "I think my security problems are not caused by the people of Nuristan. They are caused by the enemies of the Afghan government, those who oppose the development of Afghanistan and the new democratic process.”

Sam Zia Zarifi, the head of a research team in Afghanistan from Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation of female candidates is a problem across most of Afghanistan. But he said the problem is not restricted to militants based in Pakistan. In many cases, he said, death threats are being made by local Afghan militia commanders who have their own stake in the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary vote.

“Women candidates have been able to participate in record numbers," he said. "But they face some real challenges in terms of social mores, in terms of lack of resources, but also in terms of intimidation by local militia commanders.”

That has been the case for Gheida Tavaen Afif, a 26-year-old woman who is running as a candidate in the western Afghan city of Herat. Afif received threatening phone calls from unfamiliar numbers virtually every day over the past month. Coming from payphones and mobile phones, the callers tell her to step down from the election or be killed. But she refuses to quit.

Nurzia Charkhi, a woman candidate for the People's Council from Logar Province south of Kabul, told RFE/RL that gunmen in her district have been bold enough to make threats against her in person. She said the threats were made by a commander and militia fighters linked to former Taliban commander Mulawi Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi and the mujahedin movement Harakat-i Islami.

“Local gunmen in Logar Province threatened me," Charkhi said. "They were a local commander for Harakati-i Islami named Mullah Palang and his gunmen. For more than 20 days, he has been sending me messages and threatening my family members. He tells me I am working for the Americans and that I am just an American servant. He says it is shameful that I am trying to be elected to the Wolesi Jirga and that I am campaigning in Logar Province. He says they will kill me or plant a mine in the path of my car.”

Zarifi said problems for Afghan women taking part in the elections are not restricted to candidates. Women voters, who make up some 40 percent of registered voters, also are being threatened by men in their own families if they do not vote the way they are told . But Zarifi said many women have told Human Rights Watch they will vote the way they please once they get behind the curtain in a polling station.

“Women throughout Afghanistan have really shown themselves interested in the elections," Zarifi said. "They’ve registered to vote and they’ve been participating in electoral processes in an unprecedented manner. And that’s a real point of pride for Afghanistan. Our researchers have talked to a number of women, even in the most isolated villages, who say that they intend to vote in the way that they please. At the same time, it’s a society that is still recovering from the Taliban’s rule. And it’s clear. We’ve talked to a number of women voters who say that they are going to take guidance on how to vote from their husbands or their fathers.”

Shah Naz is a war widow from Laghman Province who now lives in Kabul with her two sons and five daughters. Wearing an all-encompassing burqa while waiting for a bus outside of her office at the Public Health Ministry, Shah Naz told RFE/RL she is afraid about the potential for attacks against voters on election day.

“I hope everything will be fine. But these days, I’m afraid for my children," Shah Naz said. "I’m always afraid of a rocket attack, a mine blast or a battle breaking out. I’m really concerned about this.”

But not all Afghan feel the same. Zarghona is a 35-year-old school teacher in Kabul and the mother of three children.

“We don’t want warlords or a militiamen to get into the People's Council -- no commanders who were involved in the fighting in Kabul and who have blood on their hands," Zarghona said. "I will vote for a good person who I trust. Nobody can threaten us. And I don’t think anybody can force me to vote for any particular candidate. We don’t want Jihadis anymore.”

In addition to the 328 women running for the People's Council, another 237 women are running for seats on the Provincial Councils that will help determine the membership of Afghanistan’s upper chamber of parliament, the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga).

At least seven candidates have been killed in political violence since the election campaign began in July. During the past week, militants also have begun to attacks groups of Afghans in southern Afghanistan who were found to be carrying voter-registration cards. Journalists, election workers, and UN staff also have been killed or kidnapped by militants in the south and east of the country.

For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL Afghanistan Votes page.