Five years ago, when Afghanistan was last preparing to hold parliamentary elections, Rahela Alamshahi would sometimes hop into her car and drive herself to campaign events in her home province.
This time around, the 41-year-old parliamentary candidate has made only a few clandestine trips to meet with supporters. Out on the campaign trail, such as it is, she wears an all-enveloping burka and sits in the back seat of the car.
“These are brutal times,” said Alamshahi, a mother of two with warm brown eyes and an easy, open demeanor. “The government has surrendered to the Taliban.”
For female candidates, this campaign presents a paradox. More than 430 women — a record number, up nearly one-quarter from the last election — are seeking seats in the 249-member lower house of parliament, in voting to be held Sept. 18.
But not since the five-year reign of the Taliban, which ended in 2001, have female candidates faced such intense political intimidation, the women say. Less than two weeks before the balloting, many are deeply frustrated by their inability to get out and connect with voters, particularly in rural areas.
Even in Kabul, the capital, where campaign posters showing women’s faces are tolerated, the electoral placards are sometimes defaced with marks and slashes. But in villages where the Taliban is active, campaign workers are often too frightened to put them up.
Female candidates and their supporters receive a stream of threatening phone calls. Large campaign rallies are almost unheard of, because voters and office-seekers alike fear suicide bombings. Terrified family members sometimes plead with would-be lawmakers to drop out of the race, and some have heeded the call.
Dangers are real for the male candidates as well. At least four have been killed, one of them abducted and later found beheaded. He was from Ghazni, Alamshahi’s province. Another lost his legs when a suicide bomber struck a mosque in eastern Afghanistan where the candidate was speaking.
But women feel particularly targeted, and at a time when they believe it is crucial for them to be politically engaged. Fears are growing that the hard-fought gains they won in recent years will be reversed if the government and the Islamist insurgents strike a deal.
About one-quarter of the seats in the lower house of parliament are reserved for women, so a degree of female representation is ensured. But almost universally, the candidates say they have no desire to be viewed as tokens.
“More than ever now, we must be part of the political process,” said Shahla Rahimy, a 27-year-old candidate from a village on the edge of Kabul. “When people say, ‘Parliament is not a place for women,’ I want to stand up and show them they are wrong.”
In the current climate of fear, many female candidates are settling for what they call proxy campaigning: sending surrogates to meet with their backers, making endless rounds of telephone calls to voters, working out of homes in relatively safe areas, such as Kabul.
It’s no substitute for what they would do if not for security worries. In this fasting month of Ramadan, the large, festive iftar gatherings held each evening to break the fast would otherwise be an ideal time to mingle with village constituents, talking long into the night over endless plates of food.
Like last summer’s presidential election, the parliamentary balloting is seen as a test of Afghanistan’s struggling democracy. The massive fraud that marred the 2009 vote adds to the pressure to stage fairer balloting this time around, Western diplomats say.
Parliament, the envoys quietly add, could provide a counterbalance to an increasingly erratic President Hamid Karzai. In recent months, lawmakers have been far more assertive in challenging Karzai’s policy decisions.
Only about one-third of the country’s provinces are considered adequately secure for voting, by election observers’ reckoning. Electoral officials have already announced that at least 938 of the planned 6,835 polling centers will not be used because they would be unsafe.
Lack of security opens the door to fraud, observers have warned, by making it easier for local powerbrokers to intimidate voters or buy them off.
“We all know that security challenges will be a significant obstacle,” Staffan de Mistura, head of the United Nations mission in Kabul, said in August. “We must ensure that poor security in parts of the country is not used to manipulate the votes of the people.”
At the village level, though, vote-buying is rampant. One female candidate, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety, said conservative tribal elders were offering to pay the equivalent of $2.50 per vote for her opponents, a tempting sum in her impoverished province.
Even in the best of times, staging a nationwide vote is a daunting logistical task in a country like this one, with bad roads, rough terrain and pockets that are almost entirely cut off from the outside world.
Preparations are nonetheless moving ahead, according to election officials. Ballots have been flown out to 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and the remainder were to be delivered by the end of August, election officials said.
But almost every day brings new setbacks. On Aug. 26, armed men kidnapped a group of 10 campaign workers, all friends and relatives of candidate Fawzia Galani, as they were traveling in Herat province, in the west of Afghanistan. Five were later found dead; the rest were released.
Galani, as she awaited word of their fate, was distraught, but determined to continue with her run for parliament.
“We aren’t going to retreat,” she said. “Even with all these terrible problems, we believe in our aims, and we must do our best to achieve them.”