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Afghan women in quandary

Many are afraid to vote or work at polls due to Taliban threat

Girls watch as U.N. workers unload ballot kits from a helicopter in Ghumaipayan Mahnow village northeast of Kabul on Monday.
Girls watch as U.N. workers unload ballot kits from a helicopter in Ghumaipayan Mahnow village northeast of Kabul on Monday.
Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When Afghanistan votes Saturday in its first presidential election, three women, Hajira, Roshana and Farida, will face a choice, but not the one many people expect.

Choosing their candidate was the easy part. All three women, residents of this southern city, favor the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. But in the face of threats from Taliban insurgents to attack the election process, they cannot decide whether to vote at all, let alone whether to work at the polls as they have been asked to do.

The women say they do not fear death. They fear the shame that a public death would bring their families.

"My biggest fear is that if something happens election day, the whole town will talk afterward," said Farida, who is 23 and unmarried, and who, like the others, uses only one name. "There is already a general rumor that women who work outside the home are prostitutes to Americans or foreigners, that women who work outside the home lose their honor."

Roshana, about 30 and the mother of a 14-year-old son, said she envisioned lying in the street missing a head or a limb, being viewed by strange men. It would be an indelible stain on her family's reputation.

The women were among a group recruited by the United Nations to work at the polls on Saturday in this southern city. For their work, they are to be paid $40.

Only 15 of the 30 showed up for the training, said Rangina Hamidi, the director of women's projects for Afghans for Civil Society, an aid organization. More than half of those who showed up dropped out.

"A lot of women are fearful," said Hamidi, a 27-year-old Afghan-American. "They are completely confused about whether to vote."

The picture is even bleaker in rural areas across the south, where Pashtun culture severely limits women's ability to leave their homes and a stubborn insurgency has radically altered the character of the election.

Of 1.4 million registered voters in the five southern provinces — Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan, Helmand and Nimruz — only 200,000 are women. In Uruzgan and Zabul, only 10 percent of registered voters are women.

In the southern provinces, few women have been recruited to work at polling places in rural areas, and consequently election officials will rely on local elders and mullahs to help those women who do show up at the polls with voting procedures.