Women see elections as a chance to promote their rights, but there are risks to putting their names forward.
By Abdul Baseer Saeed in Kabul (WP No. 5, 14-Jul-05)
The threat came by telephone: "You have nominated yourself as a candidate. Your life is in danger, and this time your life is in our hands," said a male voice.
Soraya Parlika was unruffled. As a leading women's rights campaigner who heads the Afghanistan Women's Union, she said, "This kind of thing happens to me all the time."
Parlika is now one of over 500 women standing for parliament in Afghanistan. The elections, scheduled for September 18, promise to be more than usually contentious - and for the women, more than usually hazardous.
Afghanistan's election law seems to smooth the path to parliament for women, guaranteeing them two seats from each of the country's 34 provinces.
But in the struggle between legislation and tradition, the latter seems to be gaining the upper hand. The most conservative elements of society believe that women have no business seeking power, and that it is against Islamic tradition.
Dr Shir Ali Zarifi of the Afghan Academy of Sciences says there are no religious bars preventing women from running for parliament. "Women can go to polls and run for the elections under the umbrella of Islam," he said
But there have been numerous reports of threats against women, and some cases of actual violence. One candidate had her house burned down.
Sultan Ahmad Baheen, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which is helping with the election process, said it had not received reports of threats made against female candidates.
But 50 women have voluntarily withdrawn from the ballot citing security concerns, according to the Joint Electoral Management Body.
In spite of the difficulties, there are still many women who are ready to battle the odds.
Safia Sediqi lives in Kabul, but has nominated herself as a parliamentary candidate for Nangarhar province where she says she has many followers. She has no illusions about the difficulties women face in Nangarhar, a rural and mountainous region in the southeast, bordering Pakistan.
"Female candidates in Nangarhar face security and economic problems. We can neither hold meetings nor go to certain areas and it will be very difficult for some women candidates to launch election campaigns," she said. "There are some women who are conducting their campaigns in burqas."
Since women in more traditional areas are unable to leave the house without their husbands' permission, Sediqi said her campaign will be a long slog of door-to-door visits, trying to reach her natural constituency.
But she said that she is determined to stand for a seat so as to be able to defend women's rights as well as serve her country.
Another aspiring politician, Malalai Shinwari, has done the opposite - she comes from Nangahar but is standing as a candidate in Kabul. She believes she would be defeated by traditional attitudes in her home province.
"If I nominated myself as a candidate in my birthplace Nangarhar, the traditions would create problems for me," she said.
Saleha Olkar, who is running in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of the country, said Afghan women have been held back by men, and most people believe they are incapable of achieving anything.
"I have nominated myself as a candidate to demonstrate to people that women, too, can defend their rights and serve their community," she said.
Political analyst Habibullah Rafi says women have a right to be in parliament, and cites examples of them taking part in elected bodies in the past, for example the Loya Jirga or Grand Assembly convened by the reformer King Amanullah in 1928. During the long reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah, from 1933 to 1973, women ran for both parliament and provincial councils.
But Rafi is opposed to the kind of control that foreigners seem to be exerting over the electoral process, and reserves particular ire for the United States.
"America has had democracy for 200 years, and during that time no woman has been nominated to the presidency, nor are there large numbers of women in the cabinet... so why are they imposing on others what they don't have or don't want?" he asked.
Male voters seem to be divided about having women on the ballot.
"People have experienced what men are capable of in past decades," said Abdul Nasir, a Kabul resident. "It was nothing but destruction and looting. I'm going to vote for women because women were not involved in all this."
Another man, Rahimullah, categorically rejects the idea of voting for a woman. "I don't want to vote for women and I'll tell my friends and relatives to vote for men, because men do what they say," he said.
Fazil Hadi, also from Kabul, declared a plague on all politicians of either sex, saying, "Those who claim to represent the people are frauds whether they're men or women. They have nominated themselves as candidates so as to make money, and that's that."
Abdul Baseer Saeed is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.