Hundreds of women are running for seats in Afghanistan's parliamentary and provincial council elections this Sunday, which are considered a key step in the country's transition to democracy. But violence and intimidation threaten to undermine women's participation, both as voters and candidates.
Rahima Jami is a high school principal from Herat province, running for parliament in Afghanistan's first legislative elections in decades.
Ms. Jami is an advocate for women's rights, but on this day, she is addressing an audience of men only. "I have tried first to get the men to listen and then the women. I noticed this brought me good results. Because in Afghan society, if a man can agree with what a woman says, this is excellent, then we all can agree."
Ms. Jami is one of several hundred women among some 3,000 candidates running for parliament in Sunday's elections.
When the Taleban regime seized power in 1996, it barred women from working and girls from studying. Women were often beaten if they went outside without wearing a head-to-toe burqa.
But since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taleban government in 2001, Afghanistan has set up a democratic system of government and the lives of many women have improved. Under the new Afghan law, women are guaranteed one quarter of the 249 national assembly seats.
Lina Abirafeh, who works on the United Nations and Afghan government group organizing Sunday's elections, says women are already playing a more prominent role in public life.
"It's important to look at how far Afghanistan has come in such a short time,” said Ms. Abirafeh. ”There is a very progressive quota in place and this quota, 25 percent of the seats (in parliament) reserved for women was decided in the Afghan constitution by Afghans themselves. So there is an initiative by Afghans to promote women, to level the playing field and women understand that they have a right and a responsibility to play an active role in political life and in public life and they're doing so."
Still, women candidates face obstacles above and beyond those of Afghan men in this conservative Muslim society.
Taleban insurgents have threatened to kill women taking part in the election. On Wednesday, a female candidate in eastern Nuristan province survived an assassination attempt after attackers fired at her while she was campaigning.
A recent report by the rights group, Human Rights Watch, in New York says that in some Taleban stronghold provinces, several seats will remain empty because there are so few women candidates. The group warns of an "underlying climate of fear among many voters and candidates, especially in rural areas."
And in a country where most people are illiterate, civic education officers like Emily Yelenek must teach voters their basic rights.
"I think people are interested but a lot of women don't understand what this election is about and what the parliament actually means,” said Ms. Yelenek. ”So it's our job really to explain to people what the elections are and what the parliament is, what the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) is, what the provincial councils do and, you know, what their rights are fundamentally."
Many people, like one woman from Herat province, also complain that they do not know anything about the candidates. "During the Taleban years, the country broke down, there were no schools, so people emigrated to Iran and Pakistan and other countries. Now they have just returned, some aren't even from Herat, and we don't know who these candidates are."
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, observers say that the elections will be a critical test of women's freedom to take part in Afghanistan's political life. Video courtesy of U.S. State Department