Risky climate for women candidates in Afghan elections

Robina Jalali Political hopeful Robina Jalali represented her country at the Beijing Olympics

In a crowded Kabul bazaar, Robina Jalali is campaigning for parliament.

In her silk headscarf and make-up, she stands out from the women around her - some dressed head to toe in full burka.

Robina Jalali is an unconventional Afghan woman, by any standards. The last time she ran for her country was at the Beijing Olympics - as a sprinter. She is confident of success in Saturday's election.

"If this election is transparent and fair, I am sure those people who wanted me to stand will vote for me, I think I can get plenty [of] votes," she said.

She might not have won any medals in Beijing - she came last - but it did get her noticed back home.

"I'm going to vote for this candidate, because she is young, and she might help the youth of this country," said one onlooker.

Start Quote

Every night when I put up my posters, next morning I don't find them.”

End Quote Robina Jalali Parliamentary candidate
Threatened

Back at her campaign headquarters, dozens of workers, mostly young men, scurry around, preparing more campaign posters. As with other female candidates, Robina Jalali's have been defaced and removed.

Some women have received death threats from the Taliban. A number of candidates, and campaign workers, have been murdered.

But Robina Jalali said she is undeterred.

"Yes, I am being threatened. Every night when I put [up] my posters, next morning I don't find them," she said.

"Every day people come and tell me that people say: 'You have been killed or injured.' I am focusing on campaigning in the city centre as I can't travel to the districts. I'd like to go to rural areas, but it isn't safe," she said.

But female MPs are no guarantee of women's rights. The last parliament voted in favour of a law which means that Shia women can't reject their husbands sexual demands. And it's up to their men to decide if their wives and daughters can attend school.

Afghanistan's existing female MPs largely supported the law.

Hawa Nooristani MP Hawa Nooristani was shot when campaigning in the last election but is undeterred

At her home in Kabul, MP Hawa Nooristani shows the burka she has to wear when campaigning in her home district, Nooristan.

She was shot when campaigning last election, but is standing again.

She explained why: "The rights which have been given to women by Islam are unique, but society hasn't recognised those rights. There have been many women in the world who have been much better and active than men like Indira Gandhi and many more."

"For example, my daughters are more intelligent than my son. But the problem in Afghanistan is that the men won't accept women's rights, they say women are illiterate and ignorant."

Her views could get her killed in this country. She says she can only express them to foreign journalists, not to those at home.

"We are cautious because we want to help Afghan women and reach our goals. If I am frank I can be killed very quickly and if I am killed, I won't be able to help the Afghan women therefore.

"I am using different ways to stay alive," she added.

Hopes
Shaima Shafaq Sadat in the workshop of her jewellery business Businesswoman Shaima Shafaq Sadat is unconcerned about candidates' gender

But what do the Afghan women think about the elections and so many female candidates?

The Madina Craft Community is a jewellery business run by local women that trains local women to be jewellers and sells some of its products overseas.

Shaima Shafaq Sadat is the director of this project. Surrounded by young women threading necklaces, she explained her hopes for the election.

"We want a person, either a man or a woman, who is well-educated, who understands the problems of the people. They need to have ideas that will improve the country. Gender isn't very important, but if more women have power in parliament and then government, then that is to be welcomed," she said.

The rights to work and to be educated, were denied to women under the Taliban. But Shaima Shafaq Sadat doesn't fear their return.

"Those Taliban who are extremists obviously won't join the government and won't come back, but the moderates are educated and they'll behave differently," she said.

Afghanistan's young democracy has brought greater freedom for these women. The challenge for the next parliament will be ensuring those hard won rights are not lost.

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