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More Afghan Women Respond to Voter Registration Drives

Despite cultural taboos and killings ahead of the fall election, 36% now on the rolls are female.

June 27, 2004|Hamida Ghafour | Special to The Times

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Badrai was determined that the Taliban loyalists wouldn't stop her from voting. So she stiffened her resolve, walked into the mud-walled room behind the local hospital and asked the woman behind the desk if she could have a registration card.

"Yes, I am a little scared, because some people say the Taliban will threaten us," she said. "But God is kind. I think the elections will change our lives."

Badrai then lifted the burka she always wears when she leaves home, and the elections officer asked her for her last name -- she doesn't have one, like many Afghans. And then her age -- she doesn't know for certain, but thinks she may be 50.

Then the elections officer pressed Badrai's thumb on an inkpad. The imprint, a substitute for her signature because she cannot read or write, was transferred onto a card. A minute later, she became the 22nd woman that day to receive a voter registration card.

Elections are scheduled for September. The last time Afghan women voted was in 1965, when they were granted full suffrage. Since then, undemocratic regimes, from Communist to Islamic fundamentalist, have been forced upon the population.

But poor security, intimidation by still-powerful fundamentalists and social obstacles remain major barriers to women's participation.

On Saturday, at least three women helping to register voters were killed along with a child in the eastern city of Jalalabad after a bomb exploded on a bus. Twelve women were wounded in the attack, the worst yet against election staff. A spokesman for the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killings. It is believed the bus was targeted because it was carrying women.

Jean Arnault, the United Nations' special envoy for Afghanistan, expressed outrage at the deaths. "Their killers probably wanted to stop this momentum towards broad female participation," he said. "They will not reach their goal."

The United Nations is organizing the drive to register 8 million to 10 million voters, about half of them women. The U.N. says it needs $87 million by July 1 to carry out the elections. But so far, it says, it has received only $12.5 million from the international community. Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the process, and factional fighting is increasing as some warlords refuse to disarm their militias.

On June 18, 18 people were killed in the remote province of Ghor when a rebel commander overtook the provincial capital. President Hamid Karzai, who is widely expected to win the September vote, was forced to send a battalion of the fledgling Afghan army to calm the situation.

This month, a seven-vehicle U.N. convoy was ambushed on a road just outside this city in eastern Afghanistan. Insurgents began firing rocket-propelled grenades, the U.S. military was called in, and a two-hour battle ensued.

The incident left a lot of people scared, said Elodie Hermant, the civic education officer in Gardez. She added: "A few days ago, we had a land mine at the door of the men's [voter] registration site. It exploded, but there were no injuries. But it's hard to remember exactly what day it was, because this happens almost daily. It was 7.30 in the morning, so luckily no one was around and no one was hurt."

"Night letters," unsigned notes believed to be written by insurgents and posted on doors, are common. Most threaten residents, women in particular, with death if they vote.

As a result, many women have been reluctant to register. Of the nearly 4.5 million registered nationwide so far, about 36% are female.

Although that figure has increased from 15% only a few months ago, women also face social obstacles, despite the fall of the hard-line Taliban more than two years ago.

When asked which men refused to allow their wives to vote in Gardez, one U.N. worker remarked: "That's easy. Anyone you meet on the street."

Gardez is part of the Pathan tribal belt stretching from the south to the eastern borders of Pakistan. People live by a fiercely conservative tribal code called pushtunwali in which even asking the name of another man's wife is enough reason to kill.

In response, the U.N. has tailored its approach to increase the number of female voters. Registration offices for the sexes are separate. Women have the option of not having their photograph taken on grounds of respecting local culture, which holds that a photograph of a woman is a dishonor to her dignity.

But in many cases, men will not allow the women in their families to vote, said Said Shah Jan, 65. "It is not in our tradition to do this," he said.

"For men, they can have outdoor jobs. If he is educated, he can work in an office; if he is not educated, he can be a farmer. Women should be at home, cooking, cleaning and washing clothes."

Said Rahim Shah, 21, agreed, saying: "Even going to the relatives' homes is not allowed. Women stay at home because of fear that someone will threaten their dignity. Even some of our close relatives, they will attack our wives. We can't trust them."

But for women like Badrai, the elections represent the possibility of freedom.

"I heard about democracy in Pakistan. The women were speaking about it," she said. "In England, America and other countries, we hear the women are equal.

"Democracy means women can come to the hospital freely and go to the mosques. Before, we couldn't even leave our rooms."

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