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Women's suffrage tests Afghanistan

Election emblematic of nation's obstacles

GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- A dozen Afghans warmed themselves around a wood-burning stove in a chilly schoolroom, waiting for their new voter identification cards. Some were villagers in muddy shoes who had traveled hours to reach this registration site in Paktia Province, drawn by radio ads urging people to participate in their country's political future.

But a few blocks away, at an empty registration hut for women behind the public hospital, the female staff had nothing to do but sip tea. In Paktia and many rural areas, millions of women are being prevented from registering for Afghanistan's first democratic elections by winter weather, physical insecurity, and conservative Muslim and tribal culture.

"This is an illiterate country, and people are very traditional," said Saadat Khan, 55, a car dealer in a yellow turban who drove four hours from a town near the Pakistani border to register. "I am certain no one will bring their wives to the city for these elections, but if you send people to help them in the villages, bravo!"

Since registration sites opened in eight cities two months ago, a little more than 1 million people have signed up to vote, but only 209,000 of them are women. UN officials estimate there are 10.5 million eligible voters in the country -- and slightly more women than men after years of war and civil conflict. They say 7 million people must register for the elections, scheduled for late June, to be credible and fair.

Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the UN spokesman in Afghanistan, noted that in some cities, women are registering in equal numbers with men, but that in many rural areas they are only a small fraction of the total. Gardez, the capital of Paktia, has 13 percent female participation.

Enthusiasm for the elections is widespread, and even in conservative rural areas, most men do not appear to object to the idea of women voting. The problem is how to arrange for them to participate without violating rural customs, which hold it improper for women to travel far from home or to have their photographs taken.

Last week, to boost the numbers and prevent the elections from being seriously delayed, Afghan and UN officials announced that by early May they plan to open more than 4,000 new, single-sex registration sites in towns and villages, after hiring 30,000 men and women to process new voters.

At the same time, UN and election officials have been reaching out to tribal and religious elders in conservative areas. In Khost, a city near the Pakistani border, officials persuaded local leaders to formally endorse the right of women to participate in elections. In return, they agreed to waive the requirement for women's ID photos and to provide separate registration facilities with all-female staffs.

"In many conservative rural areas, especially [ethnic] Pashtun areas, men control the family. Our policy is to negotiate with locally influential men, and to try and enlighten their minds so they will let the women vote," said Ghotai Khawry, the only woman on the National Electoral Management Board. In remote southern provinces such as Khost, Uruzgan, and Paktika, there are only a few dozen women with the education necessary to process ID cards and manage voting. Officials said they would rely first on provincial teachers and female police officers to handle those duties, then bus in female election workers from the cities as a last resort.

Already, the voter registration drive has dramatically illustrated the gap in opportunities and attitudes between rural and urban Afghan women. The divide, which has deep historical roots and strong ethnic overtones, was exacerbated during the 1990s, when the Taliban Islamic militia arose out of the Pashtun-dominated south and imposed its village views on most of the country.

In the two years since the Taliban was ousted from power, Afghan women have made considerable strides, especially in urban areas. Thousands attend universities and hold professional jobs, and scores participated in two national political assemblies held in Kabul last June and December.

But in some rural areas, women's lives have changed little. They remain largely confined to their homes, pressured to marry and begin bearing children as adolescents, kept out of school after sixth grade and relegated to performing primitive domestic chores while men travel, shop, socialize, and make all family decisions.

But in such major cities as Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif, women have been quick to grasp the importance of elections for their future, and some groups have held rallies to promote female registration.

Registration centers in Kabul overflowed last week with women eager to sign up to vote for the first time. Families helped grandmothers climb schoolroom steps to put their thumbprints on voter ID cards. Teenage girls tried in vain to persuade registrars that they were 18 and eligible to vote.

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