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One Afghan Woman's Determination Can't Be Veiled

Government: At this week's grand council, delegate Lawangina Rahman will stress that the time has come for the female voice to be heard.


QALAI NAJARAN, Afghanistan — Hidden beneath her long blue burka, which billows in the wind as she follows her father at a respectful distance, Lawangina Rahman is an unlikely leader of a revolution.

It is only when she lifts the veil and begins to talk about the risks she is willing to take for freedom that you are struck by the full strength of her courage.

Rahman, 28, is on a journey from the village of Surai Zaidek in remote southeastern Afghanistan, where remnants of the radical Islamic Taliban regime and its Al Qaeda allies, and centuries-old customs, are still firmly entrenched.

With her father, Ahmad Khan, 53, as escort, she is making her way to Kabul to join the emergency loya jirga, or grand council, which will convene Monday to choose Afghanistan's new leaders. In a huge air-conditioned tent last used as a beer hall in Munich, Germany, an ethnic Pushtun woman from a village of 350 people will stand to address about 1,500 other delegates, and the watching world.

And she will say it is time that Afghan women are heard.

Rahman's father persuaded her to become a delegate.

He also deflected the flak when villagers got upset that a woman would have the cheek to leave her husband's home and stick her nose in men's business at the loya jirga.

She admits that it is frightening, especially because she is defying dangerous people, Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who still move through the mountains above her two-room house.

At first, Rahman's husband, Saheb Khan, a farmer, supported her. His family did too. Then the neighbors came calling.

"They told my in-laws, 'To enroll a woman in the loya jirga is a scandal,' " Rahman said through an interpreter. "They had a lot of complaints, so my in-laws told me to forget this job.

"Then my father told them that they had already agreed to let me go, that he had given my name to the loya jirga people and it was not appropriate to change it."

The village relented, and at 3 a.m. one recent day, Rahman embarked on the most daring passage of her life without waking her three children--daughter Mina, 7, and sons Sahebullah, 5, and Wahebullah, 2--to say goodbye.

"I decided to serve my village women and also serve my country," said Rahman, a 10th-grade graduate who works in her village's simple Swedish-funded health clinic.

"Our country has been in critical condition during 23 years of war, and we have suffered a lot," she said. "And now we must join with men, so that we can rebuild our country sooner."

Rahman's father was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet-backed Afghan army that fought the moujahedeen rebels in the 1980s, and then served two years under the moujahedeen government that followed the Soviets' withdrawal.

He knows that in the badlands of Paktia province, to which his daughter must return when the grandeur of the loya jirga ends, principles won't keep you alive.

"I educated my daughter. I enrolled her in school so that she would serve her country, her people," Khan said, and he paused a moment under the weight of a burden they now shoulder together.

"Paktia is a mountainous area, and in such a [dangerous] place, no one can take the step we've taken," he continued. "But we took this step because we were determined to take part in the loya jirga, even if we are killed."

To make sure that women could join in the loya jirga, the council's organizing commission appointed 160 female delegates, rather than hoping that local leaders would elect them. (As expected, no women were directly elected.)

Rahman was selected after reading her nine-minute speech to 19 commissioners, all of them men. Her sister-in-law Momena, 40, was the only other woman in the room, a government customs office.

In an indirect election across the country, groups of electors picked by local leaders in 390 electoral districts chose 1,050 loya jirga delegates. They will be joined by appointed academics, religious scholars and professionals.

The run-up to the grand council's weeklong meeting has been marred by boycott threats, intimidation, killings and allegations of vote-buying, none of which is unusual in South Asian politics.

Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and main base of the Taliban's support, are especially unhappy because they think that they're not getting their fair share of the seats.

Minority Tajiks and Uzbeks in the former Northern Alliance won the largest stake of national power when, with the help of U.S. bombing, they seized the capital from the Taliban last year. Some Pushtun leaders are warning of a revolt if the loya jirga doesn't shift power back in their favor.

"All of the arguing is just about their share, nothing else," Haji Aslam Khan, a loya jirga commission official, said after a delegate-selection meeting outside the city of Gardez ended in a fistfight. It was quickly stopped by the sound of Afghan soldiers slipping the bolts on their AK-47s.

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