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Afghan women on the campaign trail

Their roles as canvassers, voters, even candidates in the Aug. 20 election highlight some of the gains – and remaining challenges – facing women as the country moves toward democracy.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 2009

Lailuma Naimzai stands next to a photo of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in a Kabul precinct office of his campaign on Sunday. Dr. Naimzai heads up a local campaign office, overseeing a staff of 50.

Ben Arnoldy/ The Christian Science Monitor

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Kabul, Afghanistan

When Farzana Barekzai and her small band of female campaigners knock at the home of Ahmadin Pahlawan, he greets them and points to a poster of President Hamid Karzai above the door to assure them: His vote isn't changing.

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Mr. Pahlawan didn't need convincing from the Karzai canvassers on a previous visit either, recalls Ms. Barekzai. Instead, the man with orange-dyed hair called the women of the house together and said, "You are going to vote for Karzai and these women will tell you why."

It's not uncommon for the male head of household to dictate a woman's vote – but neither is it universal.

"Not all families were like this. There were some families where women influenced husbands," says Barekzai. Besides, once in the voting booth, "it's only herself and her God."

Women's roles in the upcoming national elections highlight some of the gains – and many of the remaining challenges – facing Afghan women as the country has moved toward democracy.

"We have seen advancements in women's rights ... but what was agreed to and committed to has not been done," says Massouda Jalal, a former Minister of Women's Affairs. "A fundamental change has not happened in the national lives of women."

Progress for women

Considering that eight years ago Afghan women were not allowed to venture out alone, just participating at all in the elections process marks progress.

Now, two women candidates are among the 41 running for president in Thursday's vote. Neither has gained any traction, but the issue of women's participation came up as one of the questions during a TV debate Sunday night.

"Women should not be considered the second sex," said candidate Ramzan Bashardost. One local Kabul man, Bismallah Ahmadi, said after watching the debate at a restaurant that it was his favorite line of the evening.

On the campaign trail

On the campaign trail, both Karzai and candidate Ashraf Ghani have reached out to women voters with special women's rallies. Thousands attended Karzai's rally in Kabul Thursday in which he claimed credit for opening girls' schools. Karzai also appointed the country's first female governor as well as female ministers.

Several women after the rally said they appreciated the focus on education, but complained that the salaries for teachers – many of whom are women – aren't enough to put food on the table.

"If Karzai were not here, we would not have the freedom to say all these things, but if Karzai is reelected, we want to have him work on these things," says Shakila Mohammad.

Controversial marriage bill

Representative politics here hasn't always represented female freedoms.

In March, Karzai signed a marriage law bill for Afghanistan's Shiite minority that critics said essentially legalized marital rape. The pushback, both from the international community and Afghan women, forced Karzai to suspend enforcement.