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"He Slapped Me And Shouted That I Was Not a Muslim": The Risks Afghan Women Take to Vote

For many women in Afghanistan, participating in the coming presidential election is something they must to do in secret, or not at all.
 
 
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Sima, a second-year student at the Herat Technical Institute, is an educated young woman with strong opinions. She and her three sisters are determined to vote in the August 20 elections for president and provincial councils, but they will have to do so in secret.

"Our elder brother will not let us go," she said.

The four sisters managed to register for the last elections in 2005, but when their brother found out he forbade them to vote. "This time he will not stop us," Sima's sister Fatima said. "We'll go secretly. But if he finds out he will beat us."

Their story is common in Herat province and across the country. While the Afghan constitution accords women unprecedented freedoms, many of those rights and privileges remain on paper for a significant number. Their lives, now as in the past, are largely under the control of men. Fathers, husbands, brothers, even sons, can dictate what a woman can or cannot do, and voting is no exception.

Women have made gains since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. There are female parliamentarians, a woman minister, even a pair of female presidential candidates.

In Herat province more than a third of the 2.5 million registered voters are women. However, tradition combined with a deteriorating security situation could mean that the number of women voters on election day could fall well short of expectations. Government officials and human rights organizations say that the turnout among women could be much lower than during previous ballots in 2004 and 2005 because fewer men will allow the female members of their families to go out to vote.

In rural areas, where the insurgency is gaining ground, the situation is extremely precarious. Even in the relative calm of Herat city, it is not difficult to find women who will be forced to stay at home on election day.

Sanobar, 45, was so proud of her voter registration card that she showed it to her 18-year-old son, Ahmad. What happened next left her angry and ashamed.

"He slapped me, and shouted that I was not a Muslim. Then he tore up the card and left," she said.

Sanobar lives in Darb Kandahar (Kandahar gate), one of the poorest areas of Herat, where she ekes out a living as a seamstress.

"I hope so much that a day comes that men and women work together to reconstruct Afghanistan," she said.

But that day will not come soon, if her son Ahmad has his way.

"She is my mother and I control her," he insisted.

Afghanistan is a land of deep beliefs and traditions, many of them inimical to women's rights. It is considered shameful in some of the more conservative areas to let one's women even be seen by outsiders.

"How can I let my wife vote when there are so many men around in the polling station?" said Mullah Hussain, who preaches in a mosque in the Sarkoro district of Herat province. He is not persuaded by the argument that there are separate polling stations for women.

"As long as I am alive, my wife will not vote," he said.

In the same village, a 38-year old woman is harvesting wheat under the burning sun. She told IWPR that she has never left her village in her life, and is not at all concerned about politics.

"Sometimes I hear things -- war, peace, elections," she said. "I don't care about those things. Voting will not give us food or work."

In the rural areas of Herat province the situation is much the same.

"My husband won't let me and my daughters out of the house, so how would he let us vote?" said Ahoo, who is around 50 years old and the mother of eight. "Only the men vote here. But if my husband would allow me, I would be very happy to go."

Ahoo lives in Mandal, a large village in Shindand district. Most of the people are subsistence farmers and get extra money from family members working in Iran.

Ahoo's husband is not eager to talk about the rules of his household. "I know about the rights of women, but I can't let my wife and daughters use them," he said, "If they go out and vote, it will damage my reputation."

Sufi Jawaher, 65, lives in the Darb-e-Iraq area of Herat city, in an extended family of 43. She is called "Sufi," a man's title, because she has had to make her way like a man, sitting on local councils and earning her living as a midwife. But her comparatively liberal lifestyle has not benefited her five daughters-in-law, who will be staying home on August 20.

"My sons do not want their wives to participate in the election," she said. "That is why my daughters-in-law will not be voting."

Sufi Jawaher was not unhappy with the situation.

"Women just want to see their husbands and children healthy," she said. "They don't want anything else. All of my daughters-in-law are literate, because they studied in mosques when they were children."

Mosques in Afghanistan offer classes for pre-school children, where they learn to read and write, girls and boys together. Many girls, however, are not allowed to continue.

"Now that they are married, they only think about their families," said Sufi Juwaher. "They just like to go to weddings and things like that."

Suddenly she stopped, and opened her bag. Sitting among the natural medicines she had been buying was a voter registration card.

"My sons do not know about this," she smiled. "Whoever wants to pay me, I will vote for his or her candidate."

Sakha, 40, cleans houses to support her children. She is too busy to think much about politics, even if she was aware of the campaign

"I do not have any cards, and I do not really know anything about elections," she said.

She smiles, but her face is sad.

"I am a widow, and there is no one to stop me from voting," said Sakha. "But hunger, disaster, illiteracy have made me blind. I will never be able to see anything good in this country."