Saturday, October 09, 2004

This is Democracy?

Democracy, tradition collide as Afghan women try to vote

By Sudarsan Raghavan

ISTALEF, Afghanistan - Samerra said she wanted to vote for Masoda Jalal, the only Afghan woman running in Saturday's historic presidential elections, because she "would fight for more rights for women."

But Samerra's father didn't agree with her choice. He ordered her to vote for Yunus Qanooni, an ethnic Tajik like him. Samerra's protests went unheard.

In Istalef, a hazy village nestled in the oatmeal-colored mountains of the Shomali Plain, north of the capital Kabul, male-dominated traditions, high illiteracy rates and tribal allegiances conspired to silence the voices of thousands of Afghans, especially women, who'd been eager to vote.

"I am hopeless," said Samerra, 18, who asked that her family name not be used. She walked with four other women toward the polling station. All of them wore blue burqas, the head-to-toe coverings commonly worn by Afghan women. All of them said their husbands and fathers had ordered them to vote for Qanooni.

Eighty percent of Afghanistan is as rural as Istalef, or more so. Centuries-old traditions are even more sacred than Islam, and the word of regional commanders and village elders - all of them male - is law.

Afghan women have an illiteracy rate of 79 percent, 8 percent higher than the national rate, according to World Bank statistics. Poverty, a conservative culture that regards women as second-class citizens and the legacy of the repressive former Taliban regime, which banned girls' education, are largely to blame.

"I voted for a man wearing glasses. I don't know his name," said Shua Jan, 33, as she stepped outside a polling station. "I saw his picture on the ballot, and I liked the way he looked."

Raizagal Kulalam, 40, had even fewer requirements for her candidate.

"I don't know for whom I voted," she said, her dark eyes staring through the postcard-size mesh of her burqa. "I closed my eyes, and just crossed a box."

Other women couldn't step out of the doors of their homes. In conservative families that believe little in a woman's freedom, to go to a public place to vote would be dishonorable, even unholy.

"We don't allow our women to vote," said Mohammad Aslan, 20, over hot tea and bread in his two-story mud-walled house. "The Quran (Islam's holy book) doesn't allow women to vote. I have five uncles, and they don't allow their women to vote."


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