AFGHANISTAN: Campaign consultant sees signs of hope for women in politics
While Afghanistan's top two presidential candidates, Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, spar over who came out ahead in preliminary exit polls, Afghan women's rights activists are hoping the results show higher voter turnout among women.
Despite extremist threats, deteriorating security and a shortage of female poll workers, women appear to be gaining ground in politics, thanks to general disillusionment with the current leadership and the efforts of several grass-roots organizations.
Abeda Osman, for her part, sees small signs of hope. Osman is a former government commissioner, consultant and activist who has spent much of the last six years working with various nonprofit groups in her native Afghanistan. Most recently, she served as a campaign consultant in coordination with the Afghan Women’s Network.
Can you tell us what exactly you were doing during the campaign?
There were lots of local women networks that have sprung up.... I worked with a candidate for the election, and lots of women were coming to his campaign headquarters and I was the one responsible for telling them about his manifesto and his biography, what he does, his issues and priorities.
What issues were of particular concern to women?
The issues in Afghanistan are security, first of all, as well as corruption, narcotics, access to education and health, and most of the women who came, they wanted to make sure the government jobs were given based on merit, to make sure they went to the people.
Did you notice any changes since the last elections?
Women were looking not along ethnic lines. There was one particular group who came, and they made a big impression on me. They were a local network of women, and they said, "Last time we voted for somebody from our own ethnic group and they sold us out. We want someone with a good manifesto who is clean."
Did you get to the rural areas at all? Did you notice any changes in their attitudes toward the elections?
I was based in Kabul but I went to the north and Jalalabad and I also met with people there. They are all looking for someone who can bring positive change. I think there is more awareness than in the last election, more awareness about how to vote. They had TV ads about vote-buying telling people "once you go into the voting booth, there is nobody but you and your God."
How were people’s attitudes different outside Kabul?
Community and tribal leaders, they have a very important role but security is such a concern everywhere. And women, I’m not sure in the rural areas if women can vote because they don’t have as much access.
What is your impression of the election process this time around; are you hopeful?
The Afghan Women’s Network is campaigning for [full participation of women] and encouraging women to come and vote, and we had two female candidates. We know Afghanistan is not ready for a woman president...
It's difficult to tell, but I think the impression I have is that people are afraid, but I contacted a friend of mine [in Afghanistan] and she said in the morning not many people showed up but then, slowly, they started to come.
Be sure to check out the Los Angeles Times' audio slideshow of the elections in Afghanistan
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Despite a shortage of female poll workers and threats of violence, Osman says women are becoming more active in politics. Credit: Aziz Zahed/Fars News Agency