Afghan women see hope in vote

But they also worry that their gains could be reversed

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Mariam Wardak is one of those young Afghans with her feet in two worlds: At 28, she has spent much of her adult life in Afghanistan, but she grew up in the United States after her family fled there. She vividly remembers the culture shock of visits back to her family's village in rural Wardak province a decade ago.

"A woman wouldn't even show her face to her brother-in-law living in the same house for 25 years," she said. "People would joke that if someone kidnapped our ladies, we would have to find them from their voices. Now, women in Wardak show their faces; they see everybody else's faces."

Ms. Wardak's mother, Zakia, is a prime example. She used to wear a burqa in public, but now has had her face printed on thousands of ballot pamphlets for the Wardak provincial council. She campaigns in person in a district, Saydabad, thick with Taliban.

She has plenty of company in this year's elections, set for Saturday. Another 300 women are running for provincial council seats around the country, more than ever before. And for the first time, a woman -- Habiba Sarobi, Bamian province's former governor -- is running for vice president on a leading national ticket.

There is finally the sense, after years of international aid and effort geared toward improving Afghan's women's lives, that women have become a significant part of Afghan political life, if not a powerful one. But their celebratory moment is also colored by the worry that those gains could so easily be reversed if extremists come back into power, or if Western aid dwindles.

Those concerns have added urgency to this campaign season for women who are fighting to make their leadership more acceptable in a still deeply repressive society. "It's an exciting and terrifying point, because the international presence has actually empowered the women here, and when they leave, some of those women will be concerned," said Mariam Wardak, who is working on Ms. Sarobi's campaign as well as her mother's.

Afghans have been particularly intrigued by Ms. Sarobi's emergence as a running mate for presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul. She is not just a token name on a presidential ticket, but a campaign draw in her own right, as her stirring speeches have added a much-needed shot of crowd appeal to Mr. Rassoul's staid and low-energy campaign.

Most candidates have appeared at women's groups to answer questions, and participated in debates on women's issues.

"This time, from the beginning, all of them have been talking about women's rights," said Hasina Safi, head of the Afghanistan Women's Network, a coalition of women's groups. "They have really figured out that women count."

Still, Afghan women are suspicious of what will happen after Western officials leave Afghanistan, and what agenda the nation's political power players are truly pursuing.

Particularly worrisome to rights advocate Zahra Mosawi and other women has been the refrain from many presidential candidates of the need to make peace with the Taliban, whose government famously confined women to their homes and banned them from most work.

"They're all talking about peace with the Taliban, which is a big danger for us," she said. "We're not hearing assurances about preserving all the achievements of women in these years."

Many women are quick to note that little has changed outside of the cities; in rural Afghanistan, where most women live, they are still little more than property of brothers, fathers and husbands.

A victory for Ms. Sarobi and other candidates would surely help, Ms. Wardak said: "If women do as well as they hope in this election, it will be a huge self-esteem boost."

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