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After a Long Wait, Afghan Women Step Up to Vote

Special to The Times

It began as a slow, cautious trickle, but by midmorning Saturday the line of voters at Zarghona High School had become a great surge of pale blue burkas as hundreds of Afghan women exercised their right to vote for president for the first time.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. and by 9, a line of about 300 women was snaking into the large schoolyard, not far from a separate polling station for men, which was also busy. After an hour of waiting, though, many of the women lost patience and pushed their way to the doors of the booth, demanding to know what was causing the holdup.

After years as second-class citizens -- first during a brutal civil war and then under the repressive Taliban regime -- it seemed they could not wait any longer to reclaim their political voice.

The women came from all walks of life. Some were teachers or civil servants; others were illiterate homemakers. Some wore burkas, the head-to-toe coverings; others wore Western-style fashions. Some of the younger voters came with their friends, and others with small children.

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Few of the women were old enough to remember when Afghan women first gained the right to vote and run for public office in the 1960s, but everyone had expectations of how the election would change their lives.

“We want the prices of goods to come down, food, rent and oil,” said Human, a grandmother who came with four female relatives.

“The economy is bad, salaries are low,” Nasima Rizaee, standing behind her, chimed in. “I came here to bring peace. After 25 years, we have the chance.”

Kouki, a mother of 12 who uses only one name, waved her registration card and appeared slightly confused about the nature of a presidential election.

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“We would like a king who will build schools for us,” she said. “We are deaf from the rockets, our children are deaf and we want a new king to help us.”

As the crowd of voters grew more aggressive, the all-female staff in the polling room finally lost their patience.

“Wait your turn!” one yelled at the crowd. “Only two voters in the room at a time. You want the entire hallway in here?”

Wahidullah Safarzada, a dazed-looking security guard, gave up trying to control the crowd.

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“What should I do?” he asked. “They are not listening. They are dangerous. I’m scared of them.”

Zahra, an election observer who also uses only one name, said the turnout was better than expected.

“They are very interested in coming. It is free process here. Everyone can vote according to their own choice.”

About 40% of the more than 10 million Afghans officially registered to vote were women, but female turnout was expected to be strongest in the capital. Fewer women were expected to participate in the south and east, more conservative areas where Taliban militants have threatened female would-be voters.

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Afghanistan’s new constitution grants the sexes equal status, yet most Afghan women still need permission from their husbands, fathers or brothers to leave their homes, let alone attend school or vote. The literacy rate is low, particularly among women -- U.N. civic educators teaching the population about the mechanisms of democracy had to start some classes by demonstrating how to hold a pen.

Massouda Jalal, the only female presidential candidate in a field of 18, said that a woman should be the head of government because women were not responsible for the fighting that largely destroyed Afghanistan.

But Jalal has been careful not to demand too many rights for women. When rival candidate Abdul Latif Pedram argued that women should be granted the right to initiate divorce, he received death threats and withdrew his statements.

Some women remained unconvinced of Jalal’s merits and said incumbent Hamid Karzai was their favorite.

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“He is the best person because he brought us national unity,” said Waheeda, a teacher.

Jamila Omar, editor of Rah-e-Now, a monthly women’s magazine, said there was a vast difference between the lives of women in the cities and those in rural areas.

“Maybe in Kabul women have good opportunities for participating in politics, but in provinces their lives are in danger and there is nobody to support them, not even the government.”

She related an incident in which a woman in the western province of Herat was prevented from running for public office by a local military commander who threatened to kill her.

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But Nafisa Azimi, 50, a widow who brought all four of her daughters to vote alongside her, said it was a new era.

“When you see women here lined up to vote, this is something profound,” she said. “I never dreamed of this. I could not imagine this day would come.”


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