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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 August 2005, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Election hopes of Afghan women
By Tom Coghlan in Qalat, Zabul province

Women voters in Qalat during the presidential election in October 2004
Tribal traditions in the south restrict women's public role

Rajabia Ranjbar has reason to be confident ahead of September's parliamentary elections, Afghanistan's first for 30 years.

The 48-year-old school teacher and would-be politician from Zabul is not expecting many votes.

But she knows she only needs one to get elected.

Under Afghanistan's draft constitution, women candidates are reserved 25% of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the new lower house of parliament, and a similar number on councils to be formed in all 34 provinces.

In Zabul, the area of the most intense Taleban resistance in the country, so few women are prepared to stand that there are not enough candidates to fill the three reserved women's seats for the provincial council.

Rabia's election is therefore guaranteed.

Taleban threats

There are similar problems in two other provinces.

But while votes may not be a problem for some women candidates, there are plenty of other concerns for those who have been brave enough to stand for election in the deeply conservative south.

The rights the West talks about are not the rights we accept. A woman's rights as given in the Koran are enough
Former Taleban commander

The Taleban have issued threats against candidates and election workers, while fighting has intensified since March, killing more than 800 people.

Tribal tradition amongst Pashtuns in the south dictates a housebound role for women.

Most do not leave home without the company of a male relative. The women are often covered with a burkha.

Literacy is even lower here than the national average for women of 14%.

A total of five women are standing for parliament and council in Zabul.

Seated with their burkhas on the backs of their chairs, Rajabia Ranjbar, 48, together with Zarmeena Pathan, 38, and Toor Pekai, 40, (both vying for Zabul's single women's parliamentary seat) know that they face considerable danger.

"We can't campaign because there is no stability," says Ms Ranjbar.

Effective government control extends only a kilometre or two around Qalat.

'Rights of men'

Zarmeena Pathan says she was lucky to survive a recent attack by Taleban fighters on the edge of town while she was distributing medicine from a local hospital.

"That was before I was a candidate, what about now?" she asks.

For the last 30 years women have had their voice taken from them in this country. We thank God that the new draft constitution gives us some rights, though not enough
Zarmeena Pathan

Among some fundamentalist parties the specific allocation of seats to women candidates is a source of deep anger.

"This is eating the rights of men," says Engineer Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai, leader of the Hezb-e Iqtedar-e Islam (Party of Islamic Rule).

"We will never accept the Western interpretation of democracy in our Islamic republic which they are trying to implement in Afghanistan."

One former Taleban commander standing for election, who declined to be identified, said: "The rights the West talks about are not the rights we accept. A woman's rights as given in the Koran are enough."

All three women will stand as independents.

"If we were linked to any party then we would not be able to fight for our gender," says Ms Pathan.

"For the last 30 years women have had their voice taken from them in this country. We thank God that the new draft constitution gives us some rights, though not enough."

Women's choices

It is a sentiment others echo.

"Pakistan and Indonesia are Muslim countries," says Toor Pekai. "They have had women as president."

Afghan children watch US soldiers in Zabul province
The Taleban have intensified resistance in Zabul ahead of polls

Ms Pekai is, like many Afghan women, widowed. Her husband was killed 22 years ago, three months into their marriage.

She was already pregnant with a daughter.

A woman of obvious determination, she refused to remarry out of principle, despite the permission of her father in law to do so.

If elected, all three women would seek to change this tradition of seeking permission.

"It should be a choice for a widow to be remarried to whom she wants," says Ms Pekai.

Aid agencies estimate that around 50,000 widows live in Kabul alone, many of them destitute.

But while the women advocate change, Ms Pekai in particular is adamant there should be strict limits.

"We live in an Islamic society," she says. "We want our rights, but only according to the rules and regulations of Sharia law."

"I agree for instance that a woman should be escorted by a male relative when she goes out."

She explains how a Western aid agency recently offered her election training in Germany.

"I asked them who will come as my legal guardian and they said 'you don't need a legal guardian in Germany'.

"I said in that case I didn't want to go. They were very surprised."

Like many women in the southern provinces, all three decline to be photographed.

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