Sun, Sep 18, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Female politicians fight for change

DETERMINED Eighteen women have cast off their burqas to campaign for legislative seats, defying prejudice, intimidation and attacks from underground fundamentalists

AFP , KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan man contemplates a wall covered with electoral posters of candidates in Kabul yesterday. Afghans go to the polls today to vote for a parliament for the first time in more than 30 years, another step in the rebuilding process for a nation ravaged by decades of war.

PHOTO: AFP

Defying tradition, Islam and the threat of bloody retribution, women's uncovered faces smile out from election posters in the city where the Taliban regime was born.

Almost lost among the innumerable images of their turbaned, bearded male rivals in today's parliamentary elections, one woman with a black veil over her head looks passers-by straight in the eye.

It was in Kandahar in 1996 that the Taliban first rose to power on the back of their repressive brand of fundamentalism, forcing women to wear burqas and virtually banning them from appearing in public.

The hardliners have gone underground since the US-led invasion in 2001, but their influence still casts a shadow over 18 women here, who are standing for seven reserved seats in the new national assembly.

"It's our country and we finally have a chance that we must not squander," says candidate Shaida Hussein, a 50-year-old nurse.

Unlike their male counterparts who hold big political rallies, most of the women's campaigning is done in private, meeting in small groups in houses, clinics or schools.

And plenty of people have tried to dissuade them.

"At first several people urged me not to stand," Shaida says. "Then a month ago, while I was sticking up posters in the bazaar, an armed man on a motorbike attacked me. Some women who were campaigning for me were badly beaten."

But Shaida is nothing if not determined. She ran covert teams of nurses under the Taliban and after their downfall organized women's councils. If she has had to limit her campaigning and her movements, it hasn't put her off.

Jamila Yosafi, 53, used to teach young girls in secret under the regime and took part in the 2002 Loya Jirga, or grand council meeting that mapped out the country's post-Taliban future. She too has faced intimidation.

"I received anonymous calls threatening to attack me. The Taliban are in the mountains but they have representatives in the city who want to stop us," she said.

Yosafi is scared, and so is her husband, who supports her. But she says that "if security is important, then so is life and you have to try to move on."

In Kandahar, the majority of women still can't go outside unaccompanied and are forbidden from looking at or talking to unfamiliar men because of the strict ethnic Pashtun code of honor that prevails in the region.

The road for these female candidates remains a long one, says Terence White of the Afghan-UN Joint Electoral Management Body, which itself has had problems recruiting women.

"Culturally everything is against them, they are terribly courageous," he says.

On top of everything else, Kandahar is at the center of a violent insurgency by the remnants of the Taliban, who warned voters on Friday that they could face attacks if they go to the polls.

But some female candidates have campaigned in places where even their male counterparts haven't dared to go, says Nasrullah of the National Democratic Institute, a US-funded non-governmental organization which provides civic education for candidates.

For example, there's Runa Tareena Buna, 34, a fervent humanitarian who hesitated for a long time before standing in the election.

"I went to four districts in Spin Boldak and went to a public meeting, met the local elders and talked to a local chief without wearing a burqa," she says, referring to one of Afghanistan's most dangerous districts, on the border with Pakistan.

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