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Afghanistan: Threats, Intimidation Reported Against Female Candidates

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Several of the women who have submitted their candidacy for September's parliamentary elections in Afghanistan say they have been threatened with personal harm. Some of the threats reportedly come from Islamic militant groups as well as from ordinary people who oppose a public role for women in Afghan society. Some female candidates have also complained of a lack of funding and resources for their campaigns. Earlier this week, the Afghan women's affairs minister called for the state to provide protection for female candidates.

Prague, 12 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nourzai Charkhi is campaigning for a seat in Afghanistan’s future parliament, representing her home province of Logar in eastern Afghanistan.

Charkhi recently told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that she has received threatening phone calls warning her to quit the race -- or be killed.

“One man called Asef Palang -- who was known under the Taliban as Mullah Palang -- told me, 'You are a servant of the Americans, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? If you come to the village of Charkhi, your life will be in danger. We will place a mine under your car,'" Charkhi said.

There are other reports of threats and violence as well against other female candidates across Afghanistan. One candidate was reportedly beaten up in Kunduz, and in Logar another woman in the September race had her house set on fire.

Fifty women have reportedly already withdrawn their candidacies. That leaves about 300 women registered for the 18 September elections -- out of a total 3,000 candidates.

Afghan electoral law requires that at least 68 of the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or general assembly, be reserved for women.

Approximately 250 women have also registered for the provincial council elections that are scheduled to take place the same day.

Intimidation and insecurity are not the only problems female candidates are facing in Afghanistan. Conservative traditions and restrictions placed on women are major obstacles as well. In villages and remote areas, women are often not allowed to leave their homes, let alone publicly campaign and run for office. Many women candidates are forced to hold campaign meetings in their homes.

Another female candidate, Ghadrieh Yazdanparast, said that limited access to public platforms hampers women's ability to effectively campaign.

“[Women] are not allowed to appear in all public places," Yazdanparast said. "For example, women cannot use pulpits, but men have this privilege.”

Malalai Shinwari, who is in charge of the society of female candidates for the parliamentary elections, said she believes women who are running as independent candidates face threats and lack of resources.

She also said there are attempts in deeply conservative Afghan society to persuade citizens not to vote for women, by calling it un-Islamic.

“It is a threat when they say: 'Don’t vote for women because your prayers won’t be recognized,'" Shinwari said. "This is a [serious] threat against women in the society.”

During a meeting of female candidates in Kabul on 8 August, Afghan Women’s Affairs Minister Massoudeh Jalal called on the country’s officials to protect women running for office.

“We have called on the president, governors, and security officials to provide protection for women candidates," Jalal said. "Our expectation from the candidates is that they focus on the improvement of women’s situations and fight against limitations.”

Afghan election officials have called on any candidate -- man or woman -- who is experiencing intimidation or harassment to lodge a formal objection with the commission that deals with electoral complaints.

But the spokesperson of the Afghan-UN joint electoral management body, Sultan Ahmed Baheen, told RFE/RL on 10 August that, so far, there have been no official complaints from female candidates.

“Of course, we are worried especially regarding security for women, and for that reason we have told them that if they face a problem, they should inform the commission about it," Baheen said. "We pay special attention to this issue, because women, compared to men, have less access to the society, and this could cause problems for them.”

Shinwari of the female candidates society said that women who have been threatened are reluctant to contact election officials because it is difficult for them to prove their claims.

"A woman is threatened by a car that does not have a license plate," Shinwari said. "A woman receives a call from a unknown number telling her to quit. Isn’t that a threat? But that woman doesn't have anything to show as proof. For that reason, when she goes to the [complaint] commission, she gets discouraged. Until women have physical proof they're being threatened, nobody cares."

Despite the difficulties, many female candidates have expressed determination to pursue their efforts and have a say in the future of their country.

Many women’s rights activists say improving Afghanistan’s security situation and disarming militant groups are key factors in ensuring women’s participation in the political process.

(RFE/RL's Afghan Service correspondent Omid Marzban contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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