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Last Updated: Friday, 17 September, 2004, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Candidate sets out Afghan cure

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Kabul

Masooda Jalal, Afghan presidential candidate
Ms Jalal says her family fears for her safety
When Dr Masooda Jalal told her family that she was contesting Afghanistan's first presidential elections, they balked at the idea.

Their reaction was not surprising since Ms Jalal is an outsider to the rough and tumble of her country's fractious politics.

The 41-year-old paediatrician, the only woman among Afghanistan's 18 presidential candidates, was born to a textile worker father and a mother who is a writer.

Her husband teaches law at Kabul University.

Tackling poverty

Ms Jalal's siblings are all professionals - two are medical students, one is a computer science engineer and the fourth is a journalist.

Only a healthy country can ensure a healthy people
Dr Masooda Jalal

Her family, she says, is worried about her safety.

The run-up to the polls has been bloody - attacks on candidates cannot be ruled out with groups such as the Taleban trying to disrupt the process.

"My husband said he did not want to lose the mother of his children," says Ms Jalal.

"My parents said the family's reputation would be harmed if I lost."

But the gritty doctor had made up her mind.

Ms Jalal says the biggest problem in her country is poverty.

"I treated sick people and they say they are sick because they are poor. I could not solve the problem of poverty as a doctor," she says.

"I needed a different power to take on poverty. A lot of my patients told me I should take up the challenge and stand for election to get that power."

Running mate

Ms Jalal tours in a Toyota pick-up, speaking at modest public meetings.

Women at Masooda Jalal's rally
Applause for the only woman candidate

Her husband and children are often seen in her election office in a Soviet-era apartment block in Kabul.

Ms Jalal was one of the first candidates to bring out small election flyers, with her things-to-do list for Afghanistan.

Tribal leaders from all over the country turn up to meet her and her 75-year-old running mate, Mir Habib Sohaili, a science teacher.

"She may not be a politician, but she is a brave woman. She stands for progressive change, which is what Afghanistan needs," says Mr Sohaili.

Ms Jalal studied psychiatry at a Kabul medical school.

She switched to paediatrics after the school's mental health faculty was shut during the civil war in the 1990s.

Ms Jalal was treating children when the Taleban came to power in 1996 and forbade women from work.

Since then she has been working as a health consultant with the United Nations and practising as a paediatrician.

Technocrats

Ms Jalal has been testing the political waters in meetings with small groups of people around the country.

Recently about 300 religious leaders turned up to hear her speak in a village in Ghazni province.

"They told me that they admired the fact that a woman had come forward to serve the people. They were inquisitive about my plans for the nation," says Ms Jalal.

During her travels, Ms Jalal says she found people "sick and tired" of fighting and yearning for a stable and secure country.

"People want to get rid of warlords. They want a civil government, not a government full of former military people. They want democracy, they want their rights," she says.

The energetic doctor loves using medical metaphors to drive home her campaign.

"I am a doctor and a mother. I want to nurse Afghanistan back to health," she says.

"Only a healthy country can ensure a healthy people."

When she promises a representative government in a country with a history of tribal discord, she tells people: "We are of the same anatomy, of the same physiology. Why cannot we live together?"

Ms Jalal promises a government of technocrats and professionals, to provide more jobs for women and to crack down on drug trafficking.

Mr Sohaili says Ms Jalal could be Afghanistan's best bet for the future.

"She is a good Muslim and she is progressive. She has also worked among the poor and the dispossessed. What more can you ask for?" he asks.

A number of professional women in Kabul say they would love to see Ms Jalal as the next president.

"I would prefer a woman president. I would like the highest positions in the country being occupied by women too," says Haida Hamdard, 27, a disc jockey at a local radio station.

Analysts may doubt Ms Jalal's chances in the election but nobody doubts her integrity and earnestness.


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