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Preparations Continue for Afghan Loya Jirga - 2002-05-08

In Afghanistan, preparations continue in local districts for next month's grand national council, or Loya Jirga, that is to choose a transitional government. Officials say nearly 100, or about one-fourth of the districts, have elected councils that will choose their national representatives to the conference. Among the elections was a vote Tuesday in Ghurian district in western Afghanistan.

The election takes place in the city's main mosque under a blistering, mid-day sun. Some 800 men from this farming community of several hundred thousand people are seated inside the mosque. Their turbaned heads nod as they discuss the solemn process. In the courtyard outside, several hundred women are holding their meeting, which is much livelier.

A young woman, speaking to the women through a bullhorn, explains the procedures and their rights.

One of the participants, high school student Raileh Amir Mohammed, speaks her mind freely through the light-blue burqa that covers her from head to toe. She says under the Taleban women had no rights, but now they can share in public life.

Ms. Amir Mohammed said she's learned that Afghan women now have freedom and can participate in government any way they want. "Women will have a say over their lives," she said. "It's getting better."

High school teacher Hazirah Hazimi grasps the folds of the black chador that covers all but her face. She said she is here because women need to choose their own leaders to represent them and work on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Ms. Hazimi said she is very happy to see the interim government supporting women and she advises other women to take the time to become informed about the political process.

The women's excitement is understandable. For the first time in history, women are participating in the Loya Jirga - as voters and as candidates. One hundred sixty seats, about 10 percent of the total number, have been set aside for women. But the interim government wants more women to participate. So the commission has begun asking communities to designate some of the elected seats for women candidates. The commission hopes this will increase the proportion of women participating in the Loya Jirga to at least 20 percent.

The women have finished their election and celebrate by throwing white flour over each other. From their list of 10 candidates, they have chosen four delegates who will sit beside the 56 males chosen by the men. One of Ghurian's female delegates is the deputy principal of the local high school, Sima Samadi. She said she's proud to be a part of this historic event. Ms. Samadi said her first priority is to promote knowledge, especially for women. The second is to promote jobs because, she says, women can work and also be good wives and mothers.

Commission member Abdel Salam Rahimi said he is impressed by the large number of women who participated in the Ghurian election. "This was amazing for me because this has been a very difficult area for female rights, and the women were really isolated," he said.

Mr. Rahimi, who works for an organization that seeks to promote women's rights and other civil liberties, said it took a lot of effort to get this conservative community to accept such changes. "The people have been made aware of female rights and the importance of women have in social life of the area. And now we see that yield. The behavior has changed. And today a big number of women are participating," he said.

High School principal Mohammed Sharif Sadjuhi has been quietly observing the proceedings. He says that although some of the men oppose the changes, most of them are pleased with the emerging role of women in the society.

Professor Sadhuhi says the old way is past. And now, he said, "people know that we need women participating in our society. Election organizers note that some communities in Afghanistan accept women in public life less readily than in Ghurian. But they hope the enthusiasm here will encourage women in other areas to take advantage of their rights in the new Afghanistan," he said.