Afghan candidates face more vocal constituency: women.
Presidential contenders are meeting with women's leaders ahead of the Aug. 20 vote. US forces targeted a Taliban stronghold Wednesday in bid to shore up security for the election.
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Ms. Akrami and other women active in politics say they learned valuable lessons from the recent fight over the country's Shia Personal Status law. After reading the legislation, which stated, among other things, that a woman must submit to sexual relations with her husband when he desired, women's rights advocates banded together to win the attention of reporters and supporters outside Afghanistan, even drawing comment from US President Barack Obama, who called the law "abhorrent."
"Now we stand and raise our voices through the media," says Akrami. "Everyone is talking about the women's movement; this is the first time we've seen this."
The international uproar over the bill, say women's advocates, forced political leaders to start paying attention to women as an interest group.
"The candidates have no choice but to take women seriously, because this country is no longer living in isolation," says Ms. Ashraf. "Candidates can't overlook or underestimate the role women will play."
Finding time for women's rallies
The campaign calendar shows that candidates are getting the message. The three leading contenders have all held rallies targeting women voters and have promised to focus on issues such as security, education, and justice, along with women's representation in government.
"Before, women did not have the right to ask for anything for themselves," said Afghan parliamentarian Hawa Allam Nuristani just before she introduced President Karzai, whom she is supporting, at a female-focused campaign event. "Now all the candidates have a women's policy.
"You can see this is a big change," she said, gesturing at the green tent full of women, many of whom were braving the heat in their burqas.
Enough security to vote?
Still, women's advocates worry that all the candidates are quick to promise but slow to deliver once in office. Voter apathy across the country remains high.
And the insurgency is gripping ever-larger swathes of the south and east. On Wednesday, some 400 marines and 100 Afghan soldiers went into Now Zad district in Helmand Province, known as a Taliban stronghold, in a bid to bolster citizens' ability to vote. Insecurity looms as the biggest threat to participation, a concern of particular relevance to women: If families think the danger too great, far fewer women are likely to end up at the polls come election day.
Despite the slew of daunting challenges, however, women leaders say that they are making progress.
"Step by step, women have gained this chance and we must make sure we don't lose it," says Mari Nabard Aeen, a journalist and founder of the women's weekly newspaper Seerat. "We have to make the most of this opportunity and hold the candidates accountable."
That, says Ashraf, will be the true test of success. "Preelection advocacy is only 50 percent of our mission," she says. "The other 50 percent comes afterward. Right now, we are at the beginning of our movement."
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