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Afghan Refugee Woman First to Cast Vote in Afghan Election - 2004-10-09

A 19-year-old Afghan woman, living as a refugee in neighboring Pakistan, was the first citizen to vote in her home country's landmark presidential election.

Because of the time difference between the two countries, the polls for nearly 740,000 registered refugee voters in Pakistan opened half an hour before those inside Afghanistan itself.

Moqadasa Sidiqi, whose family is originally from the Afghan capital, Kabul, was the first to cast her ballot, at a polling station established in a refugee-dominated residential district of Islamabad.

Saturday's presidential election is not only a first for Afghanistan. It is also an illustration of how Afghan women, whose rights were severely restricted under the Islamist Taleban government that ruled the country until 2001, are now beginning to play a significant role in Afghan society.

Dressed in a pink and white traditional "shalwar kameez", Ms. Sidiqi told reporters after voting that she is excited that women in Afghanistan now have the right to vote.

"I feel very better and very good, because I was the first voter,' she said. "It does mean that there is a right for the women [in Afghanistan], and the lives of women [in my country] will be too good."

Ms. Sidiqi is a science student in the Pakistani capital. She fled Kabul with her family in 1992, to escape the factional fighting that had gripped Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew three years earlier.

She hopes the election will bring stability and peace to Afghanistan, enabling her and millions of other Afghan refugees to return to their homeland.

The United Nations-sponsored International Organization for Migration, or IOM, is supervising the vote for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

IOM officials say they arranged for Ms. Sidiqi to be the first to vote, in an effort to encourage Afghan women to take part in the election process.