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Frontline World

AFGHANISTAN - Without Warlords, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

The Woman Candidate
INTRODUCTION
INSHA ALLAH AIRLINES
MY GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE
THE BALLOT, NOT THE GUN
A SECULAR POLITICIAN
RURAL REGISTRATION
THE WOMAN CANDIDATE
CONFRONTING THE ELDERS
MY VOTER CARD
THE FUTURE
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When I went to interview Massuda Jalal on a Friday morning, about a dozen people waited in her campaign office, located in a run-down Soviet-era apartment block in northern Kabul. I had a 9 a.m. meeting scheduled with her. A television crew from Europe sat on the floor in one room while a group of Afghan men sat on couches in another room, drinking tea, waiting patiently.

Adla Bahram

Adla Bahram, director of women's affairs for the liberal Republican Party of Afghanistan, pictured in her party's headquarters in Kabul. Bahram says that those who speak about women's rights are threatened and harassed.
As the only woman to run in Afghanistan's first presidential elections, Jalal received a lot of international media attention. But it wasn't Jalal's first campaign against President Hamid Karzai. During an emergency loya jirga session two years ago, she ran against Karzai for interim leader of the transitional Afghan state. Jalal received 11 percent of the votes, nearly twice as much as the second challenger, who was a man.

Jalal, who is a medical doctor by profession, arrived 15 minutes late. After quickly saying hello to all her visitors, she sat down with me to talk about why she was running for president. Jalal, 41, has no prior experience as an elected official and during our interview, she stressed her independence. She said Afghans should vote for her because she would serve them, unlike some of her opponents who are warlords or are otherwise compromised by past alliances.

Massuda Jalal

Massuda Jalal, 41, pictured here in the Macrorayan apartment blocks in north Kabul, was the only female candidate running against President Karzai.
"I'm a person from the civil society," she said, speaking in a soft but assured voice. "I was not involved in the destruction of the cities or the bloodshed of the people of Afghanistan."

Jalal talked about improving women's access to education and health care and bringing more women into politics. Unlike Latif Pedram, the candidate who returned from exile in France, she did not speak about women's personal rights. Instead, she said she wanted to focus on women's basic needs.

React!Of the 10.5 million registered voters in the presidential election, about 41 percent were women. According to a special Human Rights Watch report released before the voting, women faced widespread intimidation for taking part in the political process.

Adla Bahram, women's affairs director for the newly formed Republican Party, said it isn't only conservative cultural and religious attitudes that block women from taking on active, public roles in Afghan society. Those who speak about women's rights particularly are threatened and harassed by men with guns, Bahram told me. Without security, the fight for political representation is twice as hard.

A woman fills out paperwork

Soraya, 32, a teacher and part-time registration officer, hunches over registration forms to make voter registration cards for local women at Dashti Barchee.
"Women want to step outside of their homes and take part in society, in political and social change," Bahram said. "The [security] environment improves every year, but it's been slow progress."

Bahram, 36, has six children and a bachelor's degree in sociology. During the Taliban period, she joined Afghan women who organized and taught secret schools for boys and girls. Now she helps the party develop seminars to raise women's awareness about their rights. The Republican Party is also focusing on fielding women candidates for the parliamentary elections in 2005.

Although Jalal had told me that she was convinced Afghanistan was ready for a woman president, her conviction proved premature. Nevertheless, she was a pioneer, winning support even though she had few resources and connections. "My financial power is zero," she said. "My military power is zero." When I asked her if she would run for office in future elections, Jalal said she would make that decision after the October 2004 vote, after evaluating whether it was the best use of her time and energy to stay in politics.

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