Thursday, August 20, 2009

MAYDEN-SHA, Afghanistan | Afghanistan remained tense on the eve of Thursday’s elections as Taliban militants threatened attacks in the capital, Kabul, and President Hamid Karzai, who is seeking re-election, urged voters to participate without fear.

Six campaign workers died in militant attacks Wednesday. The U.S. military announced the deaths of six more soldiers, making August one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops since the war began in 2001.

While the threat of violence has either crimped or crippled all campaigns, female candidates also have encountered resistance from a strict Islamic and tribal culture that opposes political ambitions of women.

Ask Basbiba Wardak. The 47-year-old soft-spoken mother of four gave up careers as a banker, an aid worker and a teacher to run for a local council seat four years ago in Wardak province, a bedroom community west of Kabul.

For this election, Mrs. Wardak is the incumbent, running for a second term on the province’s nine-member council, where three seats are reserved for women.

She campaigned with her husband, Zalmy, at her side. He served as her driver and security guard. His presence alone, however, legitimized Mrs. Wardak’s position as one of seven candidates competing for the three female seats.

“If I walked alone by myself everywhere, then people would make bad propaganda about me, and engage in backbiting,” she said through an interpreter.

“But if my husband is standing by me, and the people see that he and I make the same decision, then they wont interfere in our work or say anything bad about me behind my back.”

As an incumbent, Mrs. Wardak ran an active campaign. It was possible because of the full-time help from her husband, who quit his job to work with her.

“Theres a tradition that a female cant walk alone in the villages, so I am with her all the time,” he said.

Of 41 candidates running for president, two are women. So are eight of 82 vice-presidential candidates and more than 300 candidates for provincial seats, or about 10 percent of the total.

National candidates such as Mr. Karzai, the front-runner, have tailored their campaigns to address women’s concerns.

Life for Afghan women is harsh, with little access to health care, severe restrictions on travel outside the home and few rights in a male-dominated society.

Nevertheless, the election campaign has highlighted vast improvements from the days of Taliban rule, when women were forbidden from learning how to read and write.

Mrs. Wardak proudly showed a cell-phone video of burqa-clad women, sitting and eating with their children at one of her campaign appearances, to make a point - women need jobs they can do at home. To create such jobs is one of her goals for the next four years, should she be re-elected.

She also has vowed to drive corrupt officials out of office, and she even cited one male officeholder by name.

Asked whether she feared retribution, she laughed lightly.

“Those people will never stand against me because the people of the area dont want anyone to hurt me. People of the area saw a lot of damage from those people [who were corrupt].”

Mrs. Wardak was encouraged to run for re-election by the province’s governor, Halim Fidai, a close friend. As a longtime aid worker, Mr. Fidai also has taken a stance against corruption and highlighted womens issues.

“He believes in high education. Hes a good person,” she said.

Mrs. Wardak hopes the security situation will improve so more girls can go to school, an activity forbidden by Taliban insurgents, who have vowed to disrupt Thursday’s elections.

“Maybe the next governor of this province would be a female,” she said.

It is not out of the question - even in Afghanistan - where governors are appointed by the president instead of elected.

In Bamyan province, Mr. Karzai installed the nations first female governor four years ago.

Habiba Sarobi gained stature by starting schools to educate girls - secretly inside Afghanistan and in refugee camps in Pakistan.

In a recent interview, Mrs. Sarobi discussed the pitfalls of being a female politician in a male-dominated society.

“Tradition is very, very powerful here - much more powerful here than any other thing - even more important than the law,” she said.

“Thats why we have to fight with that. But we have to be very careful not to damage the feelings of the people.”

Of about 17 million registered voters, about 5 million are women, according to Agence France-Presse.

While urban women are likely to vote in numbers, the situation is different in the countryside, where Taliban insurgents often have a controlling presence and have warned people not to vote.

Mrs. Sarobi said it would be the men who select the candidates.

“Unfortunately, the majority of women are illiterate here. They cannot read or understand or recognize the [difference] between good candidate and bad candidate,” she said. “Many of them will be guided by the male member of the family.

“When we have the new generation, and a well-educated generation, of course there will be more powerful women.”

Farishta Azimi, 22, a student at Bamyan University, who wears eyeliner and a cream-colored chadar, would like to be one of them. She holds a registration card to vote in her first provincial election and has ambitions to run for office someday.

“I want to be very active in politics. This is my wish and my true dream,” she said.

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