Abused and accused, Afghan women make a standSydney Morning HeraldSeptember 5 2005
By Paul McGeough Chief Herald Correspondent in Bamiyan, Afghanistan
The first whisper came in the bazaar at Nyack. Two men sidled up to Safura El Khani's uncle, warning of a plot to kidnap the 29-year-old candidate for election to Afghanistan's new parliament.
This was a classic Afghan power play. Her brother, the security chief in the remote Yakolang Valley, in the central highlands, had just detained a band of smugglers and confiscated their 314 kilograms of opium, so two other candidates, one a known warlord, proposed she be snatched and held hostage till her brother returned the drugs.
It would be win-win for the authors of the plot - in a society where tribal and religious pressures are a wretched weight on women.
A bright, university-educated female would be sidelined from the campaign and the drug dealers deeply indebted to her political opponents.
She lay low for a while. But now Safura El Khani moves around Bamiyan province with two armed guards as she vies with five others for the single seat reserved for the province's women in the September 18 poll.
She is calmly defiant. At the home of her uncle in Dehsurkh village, she declares: "I'm not frightened - it's just two people and they can't touch me now."
It takes guts for any female to seek public office - but 582 have signed up to contest 68 designated women's seats in the National Assembly.
Entrenched conservatism makes it almost impossible for many to move without a male relative or dressed in a burqa, just to put up posters with their photograph, or to hold public meetings.
A chronicle of complaints that has filtered through to Kabul from the provinces includes the fire-bombing of a woman candidate's home in Logar; three rockets fired into the home of another in Wardak who said she knew her assailant but was too scared to name him; gun threats in the street; a home invasion and a phoned warning in which a Kandahar candidate was threatened with death if she persisted.
US-led forces might have the Taliban on the run, but the emergence of Afghanistan's women from the dark ages is fiercely resisted by local warlords, mullahs and tribal elders determined to block them, or to marginalise and manipulate them.
In a chilling no-names account recorded by a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, a woman in the north-east details how she was beaten and stoned and how the local authorities sided with her tormentor - a senior commander.
"On July 15 his men came to destroy our yard wall. Two days later, I was alone when they entered my house. They started throwing stones at me. Later, they beat me with sticks. I started shouting and defending myself [but] nobody came to help me.
"Everybody is afraid of Commander X and his people. I was seriously injured. The security office is very near, but they didn't come."
"My husband [later] went to the security commander [who] came with his people and arrested them. [But] in the evening they were released."
Women candidates invariably cite the plight of Afghan women - whose health and literacy rates are among the world's worst - as a reason for their attempt to use parliamentary power to ease their oppression.
Malalai Shinwari, a candidate and Kabul journalist, writes not just of the difficulty for women generally, but of family resistance: "At first, I had a very hard time dealing with my family. They .. say it is not yet safe for women to be involved in politics. They are afraid that I'm risking my life, and also that I am putting their lives in danger, too."
Policies are stated in simple terms. The kidnap target Safura El Khani wants a better slice of the country's financial pie for her remote Bamiyan province and women's rights written into Afghanistan's new constitution.
Khadija Bahir, who at 26 years claims to be the richest woman in Bamiyan, is spending $A9000 on her campaign. She is stridently critical of any suggestion that US forces will be based in Afghanistan for the long term, and demands President Hamid Karzai end his deference to Washington.
But in a society in which virtually all power and resources are in male hands, the thread that binds the women candidates is contempt for Afghanistan's traditional powerbrokers who, they say, have wrecked their country and their lives - the warlords, the mujahideen leaders and their pawns in the new Kabul establishment.
In Yakolang, Safura El Khani was withering: "These people are desperate to hold on to power. They are buying votes. One of the commanders in Daikundi [a neighbouring province] is making his wife stand as a candidate in the hope that he will have her in the parliament while he remains a commander."
But hoping to put Afghan reality to good use, she confidently explained why she will win. "Of course you win if you are from the biggest tribe. My tribe is the biggest and I'm educated."
In Kabul, a 50-year-old teacher, Gul Ali Habib, has a network of 20 women friends whose husbands provide protection when she campaigns. "The mullahs have control of the Supreme Court and people involved in narcotics are already in the ministry. It will be another nightmare for Afghan women if they kill this democracy," she said.
It's an uphill battle. Several women candidates complain they have difficulty funding a campaign and they accuse the few who have expensive campaigns of being patsies for male interests.
Many speak enthusiastically of the 40-plus per cent female vote. But this is a society in which even some women voters have difficulty taking female candidacies seriously.
When the journalist Malalai Shinwari attempted some gentle lobbying with women in Kabul recently, one turned on her: "What good will it do to have women in parliament? The Government has made us lots of promises, but it's never done anything. We don't trust anyone any more."
And as men told their womenfolk how to vote in last year's presidential election, the well known and highly talented Masooda Jalal, who was the lone woman in a field of 13 candidates, garnered only 1.1 per cent of the vote.
The fear is that women MPs will be marginalised or manipulated. One prominent male fundamentalist candidate said that the women would be ignored in parliament and several supposedly reformed male Taliban candidates have condemned what they call the imposition of Western freedoms on Afghan women.
There is speculation the male establishment is marshalling women candidates because seats reserved for women can be won more easily than in the chaotic contest among male candidates.
In the Human Rights Watch report on the electoral challenges for women, a candidate explains how she was selected.
"[They came to me and said] 'We chose you'. The elders said, 'You don't talk, say yes'. I couldn't [reject] what the elders say, they are mujahideen. I said yes."
The head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Dr Sima Samar, said: "Sadly some of our women are getting the support of jihadis and they act for them - not for women's interests or groups."
Several of the women defend their candidacies on the grounds that other Islamic nations - like Indonesia and Pakistan - have had women as presidents.
But Safura El Khani, who speaks English, has a degree and has worked for the United Nations, acknowledges the risks before Afghan women can dream of such a milestone.
"It will be difficult. Even our local male leaders have encouraged looting and kidnapping to block us entering the parliament, so we'll have to speak very carefully."
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