Candidates Vie for Afghan Women’s Vote
The candidate strode down the aisle separating hundreds of male and female supporters at a campaign rally in Kabul. She shook hands with the women filling the chairs to her right. To the men on the other side, she simply nodded.
Habiba Sarabi is the most prominent woman running on a ticket in the April 5 election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Sarabi once served as Afghanistan’s first female governor, and her current bid to become Afghanistan’s first female vice president is part of an effort to get out the women’s vote as candidates scramble for every ballot.
Women "can affect the transition, the political transition," she said in an interview after addressing the rally to support Sarabi and her running mate, presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul. The event was held in a wedding hall in a Kabul district dominated by her ethnic minority Hazara community.
But Sarabi, a 57-year-old former governor of Bamiyan province, still must conform to cultural norms in this deeply conservative Islamic society. Her challenge highlights the difficulties facing Afghan women who worry about losing hard-won gains as international combat forces prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of this year.
Afghan women were granted the right to vote in the constitution adopted after the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001. Under the Taliban, women were also banned from school and forced to wear the all-encompassing burqa.
But security concerns have marred their participation in previous elections. In areas of the country still controlled by the Taliban, women have been threatened with violence if they vote.
In 2009, many Afghan women registered but then gave their voting cards to male relatives, who ended up casting multiple ballots as polling officials and police conveniently looked away - one of many forms of fraud that tarnished Karzai’s re-election.
Although voting cards are supposed to include a photo for identification, in some areas women refused to be photographed.
Naheed Farid, a lawmaker from the western province of Herat, predicted fraud will be rampant this year as well.
"I am so optimistic that we will have more women to vote in this election, but who they vote for and what happens to their vote will be a problem," she said in a telephone interview. "There’s lack of awareness that women can decide on their own, and families, especially the fathers, have an influence, and this is something we can’t change now, not this time."
Still, she and others said, there are signs of progress.
There are nine candidates in the crowded race, but only three are considered front-runners - Rassoul; Abdullah Abdullah, who was runner-up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 election; and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
Gul Makai Safi, the head of the women’s council for Abdullah’s campaign, said women are streaming into their offices to learn about the process. She expressed concern that women in areas where militants are active will be unable to vote.