Afghan women struggle to assert right to vote

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- The candidate strode down the aisle separating hundreds of male and female supporters at a Kabul campaign rally. She shook hands with the women filling the chairs to her right. To the men on the other side, she simply nodded.

Habiba Sarabi is the most prominent woman running on a ticket in the April 5 election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Ms. Sarabi once served as Afghanistan's first female governor, and her current bid to become Afghanistan's first female vice president is part of an effort to get out the women's vote, as candidates scramble for every ballot.

Women "can affect the transition, the political transition," Ms. Sarabi said in an interview after addressing the rally to support her and her running mate, presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul. The event was held in a wedding hall in a Kabul district dominated by her ethnic minority Hazara community.

But Ms. Sarabi, 57, a former governor of Bamiyan province, still must conform to cultural norms in this deeply conservative Islamic society. Her challenge highlights the difficulties facing Afghan women who worry about losing hard-won gains as international combat forces prepare to withdraw from the country by year's end.

Afghan women were granted the right to vote in the constitution adopted after the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001. Under the Taliban, women were also banned from school and forced to wear the all-encompassing burqa.

In 2009, many Afghan women registered but then gave their voting cards to male relatives, who ended up casting multiple ballots as polling officials and police conveniently looked away -- one of many forms of fraud that tarnished Mr. Karzai's re-election. Although voting cards are supposed to include a photo for identification, in some areas women refused to be photographed.

Naheed Farid, a lawmaker from the western province of Herat, predicted that fraud will be rampant this year as well. "I am so optimistic that we will have more women to vote in this election, but who they vote for and what happens to their vote will be a problem," she said in a phone interview. "There's lack of awareness that women can decide on their own, and families, especially the fathers, have an influence." Still, she and others said, there are signs of progress.

There are nine candidates in the crowded race, but only three are considered front-runners -- Mr. Rassoul; Abdullah Abdullah, who was runner-up to Mr. Karzai in the disputed 2009 election; and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Gul Makai Safi, head of the women's council for Mr. Abdullah's campaign, said women are streaming into their offices to learn about the process. She expressed concern that women in areas where militants are active will be unable to vote. "We are very hopeful and optimistic that this time the women's vote will decide the fate of the candidates in the election," she said. "Women will bring a change in the result of the election this time."

Mr. Ahmadzai's wife, Rula, has even stumped for votes at campaign events, something very rare in a country where the current first lady has almost never appeared in public.

There are officially 12 million eligible voters in Afghanistan, according to the Independent Election Commission, but the number of people who go to the polls may be higher because many voter cards were issued in past elections and are unaccounted for. Since registration began last year for next month's election, the commission has documented 3.6 million new voters, including 1.2 million women.

But many obstacles remain. To help prevent suicide bombings and other attacks, police will search voters before they are allowed to enter the polling stations. The Interior Ministry said it is training 13,000 women to search female voters, but there is concern that there will be too few of them -- and that some women will be turned away from the polls as a result.

Activists also warned that the situation has not changed in areas where the Taliban remain active and conservative mores are entrenched, including many parts of the east and in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

Covered from head to toe in a black veil in downtown Kandahar city, Shaqiba Ahmadi acknowledged the difficulties facing women and chastised the government for not doing more on their behalf. "I think we have to try harder," the 20-year-old tailor said. "Afghan women are not very active. They should vote. I will vote."

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