Casting a ballot in hopes of being counted equally

Historic presidential election in Afghanistan could change life for women in a male-dominated society.

October 09, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The gray-haired grandmother trudged through south Kabul yesterday carrying plastic sacks full of onions and carrots, her hunched shoulders and downcast eyes suggesting she long ago accepted her subservient role in this male-dominated society.

But ask Bubogul, 60, about today's historic presidential election, and she stands up straight.

"All the women of our land?" said Bubogul, who like many Afghans goes by one name. "We will go, and we will vote."

Many Afghans hope that whoever wins today's election, it will mark the beginning of the end of the decades-long cycle of violence here. And no bloc of voters, it seems, is more eager for that change than Afghanistan's women.

"We have been bombed and destroyed for too long," said Bubogul, who like many Afghan women is fed up with men's monopoly on power after decades of wars. "We are looking for a person who can bring peace to Afghanistan."

Despite the determination of millions like Bubogul and the strenuous efforts by the international community organizing today's ballot, most women will not vote here today.

Some were ordered by their male relatives to stay home. Others face pressure from religious or tribal leaders not to exercise their political rights.

All know that women at the polls will be the target of extremists, who see the emancipation of women as part of a Western conspiracy to undermine traditional Islamic culture.

While six out of 10 Afghan men are registered to vote today, only four out of 10 women hold voter cards. In conservative regions in Afghanistan's south, only one out of 10 women have registered.

A publicity blitz

Today's election was preceded by an extensive publicity campaign, which included a torrent of ads on radio and television, hundreds of articles in newspapers and the distribution of 12 million pieces of campaign literature. The government has conducted voter education classes. Mullahs in many areas have exhorted worshippers at their mosques to vote.

But most women in Afghanistan are illiterate. Women do not attend mosques with men. In the south, many women don't even share the same quarters with their husbands and don't watch television or listen to radios.

By traditions that predate and survive the Taliban, women living in rural Afghanistan are typically treated as the property of their fathers, brothers and husbands. Those who run away from arranged marriages or abusive husbands are arrested and jailed or are beaten or killed by relatives angered by the loss of honor.

An extremely low turnout of women today could affect the outcome of the elections, particularly the fate of the reputed front-runner, Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai. "That will hurt Karzai the most," said Quadir Amiryar, a professor of law at Kabul University.

Karzai appears to appeal more strongly to female voters. And as an ethnic Pashtun, Karzai -- a native of Kandahar -- is also relying for victory on strong support in the predominantly Pashtun south.

Unlikely turnout

But the southern provinces are the most conservative in the country and include areas considered sanctuaries for Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers. These are the areas where women have the lowest registration levels and are least likely to vote.

Karzai can still win the presidency without a big turnout among women, Amiryar said. However, that will make it harder to capture more than 50 percent of the vote -- which he will need to avoid a second-round runoff.

The vast majority of educated Afghan women are expected to vote. But by the latest available figures, only about one-fifth of women in Afghanistan can read. In some conservative provinces, where many families forbid their daughters to attend school, the literacy rate for women drops to 5 percent.

The biggest concern among those trying to encourage women voters is intimidation. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has documented several cases where men warned women against trying to vote.

In Kandahar, registration workers discovered that some women who initially signed up for voter registration cards later tore them up. They explained that they feared the males of their families would punish them if they found the incriminating documents.

Three women in the city of Ghazni, south of Kabul, were told they would be kidnapped or their houses would be bombed if they went to the polls.

Najla Ayubi, a member of Afghanistan's Joint Electoral Management Body, answered a call on a radio talk show last week from a man who complained that if his wife went to the polls and were killed, he couldn't afford the $8,600 cost of a new bride.

"I started to cry after I heard that," Ayubi said. "Life is very cheap in Afghanistan."

`Keep women out'

Tribal elders and warlords fear for their power if they let women vote, she said. Even husbands who let their wives go to the doctor and the bazaar unescorted, she said, often balked at allowing them to register. "Men are just trying to keep women out of politics," she said

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