Afghanistan's homebound voters?

Posted in Broader Middle East | 24-Jun-04 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: The New York Times

Registering women tests Afghan rules

CHASHMAI MAIWAND, Afghanistan The male registration team sat on the terrace, waiting for the last stragglers, their job almost done.

In three days they had registered the entire male voting population of this village of 300 households in preparation for elections in September. But the female team was going much slower. The women arrived late, stepping down from their gray Russian jeep in their identical pale blue burkas and sweeping quickly out of view into the women's quarters of the house.

In the very conservative Muslim districts of Afghanistan's southern provinces of Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabul and Helmand, women rarely leave their home compound. To register women for the elections here, not only do you need an all-female team, but the team must visit every household individually. "They would throw stones at us if we did not wear the burka," said Zahra, 18, who makes up the three-woman registration team with her mother Asifa, and another woman, Ruzia.

Before their arrival there was intensive discussion with the village elders to explain the importance of the elections and the need to register women and allow them to vote. Without the permission of the men, a female team could not even visit their homes. Parliamentary and presidential elections this fall will be the first time the women of Afghanistan have the vote, and the registration process will be first time women in each household are registered by name. Tribal culture is so strict that even to ask an Afghan the name of his wife is taboo in many places.

"Our people are village people, and this is the first time we are having elections and we need to persuade them," Sher Ahmad Haqyar, the district chief of Maiwand, said. "People are a little bit interested, and we are telling them this is a golden chance, you should use your right and not miss the chance."

Registering women in conservative villages was the greatest challenge, he said, explaining that the Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the ethnic Pashtuns, states that women should hide their faces and not leave their houses. "But we are solving this in a very calm and very relaxed way," he said.

Even if they did not let their women out of the house, none of the elders and villagers in his district had challenged him on the issue of women's registration, he said.

"We are doing better," said Sonja Bachmann, the deputy head of the UN mission in Kandahar, which is jointly managing the election registration process with Afghan counterparts.

Women registered in the south now represent 23 per cent of the total registered; at the beginning it was only 13 per cent. So far, about a quarter of the estimated 1.2 million electorate in the south has been registered. The Council of Clerics in the south, a body of the most important religious figures, issued a fatwa recently saying women have the right to vote and some mullahs in the districts are being enlisted to help, she said.

That is being challenged by the Taliban, who are running a propaganda campaign in the villages warning people not to register or vote in what they say is an American-imposed process. In Chashmai Maiwand, the female team was welcomed by the head of the village, Shah Mahmad, a former headmaster of the school, and perhaps more important, a widely respected and powerful presence in the village. He has been able to ensure security for the election teams, and has persuaded all the villagers to register and participate in the elections.

But even he has been unable to persuade the women to leave their homes and gather in one house to register.

"Some think that they will take the women's photos and show them on television," he said.

The electoral management body has long since dropped the need for photo identification for women, and a thumb print is enough, since most women in the villages are illiterate. In this village the registration team never even takes its Polaroid camera out of its bag. The tradition of women's seclusion raises questions about the actual voting, because there will not be enough time or personnel to visit every house in every village on the day of voting. The process of registration alone is taking months and several thousand personnel.

Even for those women who are registered, it remains unclear how they will actually vote at a designated polling place. That will depend largely on whether their husbands let them out of the home. "We are thinking maybe the men can bring the cards down and vote for their women," Mahmad suggests. No one knows if that idea will pass. There is another question about whether many of the village women understand what an election is. Asifa, 42, is the civic educator, and with the help of a roll of posters, she tries to explain to each group of women what an election is and what they will have to do. "We have had enough of war in Afghanistan. This is an election to choose our leaders," she said. She cracks a joke and makes the women laugh. "This is registration. You will vote for new leaders," Asifa repeated.

"I have to tell them two or three times, they don't know anything," she said in an aside.

By lunchtime they have visited three families, registering six or so women in each household. Half a million more to go.