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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Kabul

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Sep 9, 2004
From the Field
York Alan


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Kabul — You never quite realize how lucky you are to have the right to vote until you meet women who have been maimed because they are fighting for that same right.

On Oct. 9, for the first time in nearly 40 years, Afghan women will have a say in who governs them. The United Nations has registered more than 10 million eligible voters, about 42 per cent of whom are women.

That remarkable achievement is perhaps testimony to the slow political awakening of Afghan women. In urban centres such as Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and even Jalalabad, women are encouraging each other to vote, in hopes that they can change their lives, those of their children.

There is even a female presidential candidate, Dr. Massouda Jalal, a former pediatrician who said she hoped to harness the female vote.

"Women have not been responsible for the bloodshed of the country. I am sure if a woman was in charge, all the tragedies of our country would not have happened."

Dr. Jalal, 41, a mother of three has posters of herself wearing a headscarf glued on nearly every light post, and wall in the Afghan capital. It is extremely unlikely that she will win, as she has admitted, but the very image of a woman running for public office only 3 years after the Taliban told them they were not allowed to leave the house, sends a powerful signal.

But Jamila Mujahed, editor of the women's magazine, Malalai, said it was an uphill battle because of pervasive attitudes toward women. But she is hopeful those attitudes will change because life is better now than it was under the Taliban.

"Afghan women are more aware of their future and we women will never allow these ideas to overcome us. But you can't after 25 years of war expect change in two. It is happening, slowly, slowly."

In the conservative southern and eastern provinces change has come at a cost. In Jalalabad, to the east of Kabul, for example, the Public Hospital is a dirty, fly-infested section with little medicine, even fewer doctors. One of the rooms has been reserved for the victims of the June 26 bombing in which three women election workers were killed and at least a dozen others injured.

Fawzia Mohmadi, 30, an elections worker, was burned, received shrapnel wounds to her left leg. But even worse than the injuries was the attitude of some of the men who saw the mini-bus burning, she said.

"I heard men shouting let them burn," she recalled.

"They were only women begging for dollars. They were the kind of men who don't let women out of the house and don't let women work. I took the hand of one man and said, 'please help, you are a Muslim.'

Despite the misogynistic attitudes, she would not be intimidated.

"This is my country," she said. "Death is coming one day and it can't be prevented. I'm an educated woman I have to work for other women. I am also a citizen of this country. I have suffered because of this country."

That sense of duty to the country was also the sentiments expressed in Zabul, the heartland of the Taliban. In the capital, Qalat, Noor Bibi, another election worker, admitted that most women would not receive permission from their husbands or brothers, to vote on Oct 9.

For that, she and her four colleagues had a plan. "We will go to their houses, and tell the men that we need to take their wives to the medical clinic. Then we will sneak them here and they can cast their ballots," she said, triumphantly.

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