KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)--Women in Afghanistan are about to achieve political representation here as ballots are cast Sunday in the nation's first parliamentary elections. Sharifa Zurmati Wardak is one of hundreds of women whose names will appear on the ballot.
She's vying to represent the volatile and religiously conservative Pashtun-dominated border province of Paktia in the country's lower house of Parliament.
Under new voting laws that set aside seats for women in Parliament, Wardak is one of nine women competing for two seats in her province. The elections are for the lower house of Parliament and provincial legislatures, with provisional results expected Oct. 10 and final results Oct. 22.
Wardak, a 38-year-old journalist, says Paktia is a difficult place for a woman to vote, much less run for public office.
"For 30 years. women in this area have not come out of their homes," Wardak told Women's eNews in an interview last month in her small apartment in Kabul University, where her husband manages the school's Internet technology. "Every time they step out, they have to take the permission of their husbands."
In urban centers such as Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, women enjoy relative freedom. In Kabul, for example, many women do not wear the head-to-toe-covering burka. They travel around the cities without male escorts and hold jobs outside their homes. Girls are attending school.
In more rural areas women face aggressive forms of discrimination that can include forced marriages and harsh domestic violence. A woman was stoned to death on the orders of a local cleric in April this year in the northern province of Badakshan. She was suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, who had deserted her several years earlier but had recently returned.
Boosted by May Law
Wardak is one of 582 women running for office. They have put up posters, canvassed and campaigned in remote regions, motivated by the May law reserving more than 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and the provincial councils--Afghanistan's version of state legislatures--for women.
With the country's security apparatus stretched thin many candidates have not had enough government security.
Wardak, a journalist who works for the state-run Radio Television Afghanistan and the independent national radio station Salaam Watandar, faced danger in her campaign.
"I was staying at a village in the border area of Paktia from where you could see the houses on the other side, in Pakistan," Wardak said. "One night the leaders of the local community came to me and said I had to leave immediately. My face had become too well-known because of the posters plastered on taxis ferrying passengers across the border. The militants knew who I was and there were reports that they were going to come looking for me."
Wardak said her own father and brothers also opposed her candidacy.
"They told me, 'It is difficult enough that you are working as a journalist. There will be more pressure on us if you campaign.'"
Wardak's husband, however, supported her and accompanied her on much of her campaign. With the help of his escort, she traveled to most of the remote villages in her province in the last two months, often staying at small hamlets or even camping with the nomadic community.
"This province has become infamous as a breeding ground for terrorists," she said. "The representation of someone like me, a woman, can change that identity. I want to show my country what Paktia is capable of."
New Balance of Power
The election will fill the new lower house of Parliament, which will assume much of the control now exercised by President Hamid Karzai, installed in office by an international process in December 2001.
The upper house has yet to be formed. Elections for representatives have been delayed by difficulties in setting political boundaries for the districts they will represent. Once those district representatives are elected they will nominate one-third of the candidates for the upper house, according to the new constitution.
While 328 women are competing for the 68 seats reserved for them in lower Parliament, only 247 are trying for the one-quarter of seats reserved for them in the provincial councils, with powers and responsibilities that still lack some official definition.
Women say that while they feel more vulnerable to social pressures and violence in the provinces, they feel more secure about running for the 249-member Parliament, which will convene in Kabul.
At least three provinces--Zabul, Nangarhar and Uruzgan--have fewer candidates than the number of seats set aside for women in their councils.
Uruzgan--where seven people carrying voter registration cards were killed in an attack on Sept. 14 and which has seen heavy fighting between insurgents and security forces--has no women running for provincial council.
In four other provinces--Kunar, Nuristan, Badghis, and Nimrooz--female provincial candidates are running unopposed, with the number of them on the ballot equivalent to the number of seats reserved for them.
A female candidate was injured in an assassination attempt on Wednesday, reported Agence France Presse, and at least six male candidates have been killed across the country since July. In an attempt to quell the violence that has marred the campaign period, the Afghan interior minister has ordered the deployment of 100,000 soldiers and police to secure the elections.
Despite the dangers and hurdles, no female candidate has withdrawn since the beginning of the campaign period, according to an official with the Joint Electoral Management Board Secretariat, the 14-member independent body in charge of conducting the elections.
Concerned that some women may wind up as mouthpieces for their male political backers, the Afghan Women's Network, an umbrella group of women's nongovernmental organizations in Kabul, held meetings for female candidates.
Candidates from different provinces met in the capital city to exchange views and share problems, said network coordinator Afifa Azim.
Women's rights advocates hope that the process forged new bonds among the female candidates and will help those who are elected form a voting bloc in Parliament.
Facing Male Opposition
Despite the law enshrining women's place in the national and local government, many men have opposed women's candidacies.
In Wardak's voting area, for instance, she says some religious leaders conducted a campaign against her, urging men not to vote for her.
Wardak has tried to counter the disapproval of religious conservatives by quoting from the Koran and drawing on narratives from the prophet Muhammad's life to assert that women had a participatory role in Islamic society.
"Was the prophet's wife not a merchant?" she says she has asked men, in arguing for her right to a seat in Parliament.
Other men have extended active support to female candidates, deciding that if women are to be in public office they'd rather have a candidate of their own choice.
Parliamentary candidate Shukria Barakzai is running for one of the nine Parliamentary seats in Kabul province and is in a pack of 50 female contenders. She says that many men who initially opposed women's candidacies have wound up campaigning for female candidates.
Wardak notes that after facing initial resistance from men in her province, she was invited by male community leaders in Paktia to campaign with the assurance that they would ensure her security and provide their active support.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who has been living in Kabul for two years. Until recently, she was working with Internews, a media development nongovernmental organization, producing reports on the working conditions of Afghan journalists.
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