Few Afghan women brave vote in Kabul suburb

CHAWNI, Afghanistan, Sept 18, 2010 (AFP) - In a rural Kabul suburb, hundreds of men jostle for the chance to ink their finger and vote, while next door, shielded by a curtain, only a few women wait for their own line to form.

Although 10 of Kabul's 33 parliamentary seats have been reserved for women, few were visible in the capital's outlying hamlet of Chawni after voting began in Afghanistan's second parliamentary election since 2001.

Two police officers marshalled a crowd of ethnic Pashtun and Tajik villagers as a pair of polling booths opened in the early morning.

They arrived in vehicles papered with pictures of candidates, piling out in front of a mud compound surrounded by grape and wheat fields -- a craggy mountain range in the distance topped with the first snow of winter.

"Everyone's coming out to vote and everyone's vote is safe," says Asrat Ali, leader of nearby Ashrafhill village, who shepherds dozens of men towards the small wooden door of the voting centre. Women are nowhere to be seen.

In Afghanistan's rural conservative belt, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) outside the capital, traditional Muslim values dictate that women must be kept out of sight of men to whom they are not related.

A dozen women from Kabul, working for the Independent Election Commission or as election observers, sit in the compound's back garden sharing biscuits and making small talk, clad in black -- the urban fashion.

Behind them a handful of local women, showing no inclination to cast their vote, prepare food and dote on their children dressed in sequinned pink and bright cottons of red and green.

"Very few women will come. There are two polling centres for them here, there's no need for it. The men won't allow the women to vote," says 50-year-old widow Deljan, known by just one name.

She was the sole woman from the area to vote at this polling station on Saturday morning, with a cross on a ballot paper and a finger dipped in ink to seal her decision.

She says women's rights in the area are negligible, with no school for girls and women unable to drive.

Election staff say they expect only 30 women to vote, compared to 2,000 men in Chawni, and few women have the voting card required to cast their ballot.

Parlwasha, 26, a Kabul city resident and an election official, says that whoever wins is unlikely to change the lives of Afghan women, among the most abused and oppressed people in the world.

"It's better for women since the Taliban, but the government doesn't do anything for us," says Parlwasha, draped in a long blue-striped shawl and wearing jeans.

But for the men, the vote is a hope for change in the district, which relies on basic farming and is lacking in jobs.

"We need everything -- electricity, roads, water, agriculture, animals, cows," says Showzad, a 50-year-old teacher and IEC official.

"The candidate won't be able to get these things for us, but at least they can be our voice in parliament," he said.

Candidate Janan Mousazi watches as men take their turn to enter the voting rooms, where each accepts a ballot paper listing candidates' pictures and symbols, and make their choice behind a cardboard screen.

He admits he has not been able to canvass for women's votes.

"My sister has done the campaigning for me, house to house," he says.

The sister, 20-year-old Meena Mousazi, says her brother will bring women's-only education to the area.

"He wants more for Afghan women," she says. "They want to be educated. But I think because there's no school and the brothers and fathers don't allow them to study, it's difficult."

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