Ghazni's Formidable Females

Lack of security and opposition from family members are minor obstacles to some of the candidates standing for parliament in a staunchly conservative region.

Ghazni's Formidable Females

Lack of security and opposition from family members are minor obstacles to some of the candidates standing for parliament in a staunchly conservative region.

Rahila Kobra Alamshahi.
Kobra Sadat.
Hosai Andar. Pictures by Wahidullah Amani.

The women parliamentary candidates of Ghazni province really are quite special. One, Hosai Andar, travels fearlessly to the remotes regions and swears that even al-Qaeda supporters will vote for her.

Another, Rahila Kobra Alamshahi, found two tiny children living alone in a container, scouring rubbish bins for food. She took them home with her – permanently. And a third, Kobra Sadat, hid her candidacy from her husband, who hit the roof when he found out but eventually realised he couldn't win, so he joined her campaign.

While female candidates, as elsewhere in this male-dominated country, are in the minority in this province southwest of Kabul, there are enough of them to make their mark.

Twelve women and 119 men are competing for the province's 11 seats in parliament, with three of the seats specifically reserved for women. There are nine women among the 123 candidates chasing 19 seats on the provincial council, where five places are allocated to women.

"I feel proud that my al-Qaeda brothers have assured me that they will cast their vote for me," said Andar, who sounded quite plausible when she told IWPR she was not afraid of anyone.

She smiles when asked about lack of security in the province, something other candidates confess prevents them travelling to many areas. According to Hosai, she has no problems with security, despite the fact that she is utterly opposed to the warlords who still control parts of the province.

While security may not be a problem to Andar, it is for at least one of her male rivals, Ali Asghar Hakimi. "There are lots of places in Ghazni province that I can’t go and launch my campaign, because it could cost me my life - which is more than any campaign is worth," said Hakimi, adding with irreproachable logic, "If I got killed during the campaign then I wouldn’t be able to serve in parliament."

Andar seems serene when she considers the same security challenges. "My motto is civility, and if I can find my way into parliament I will get rid of all the warlords," she said.

One of her rivals for parliament, Alamshahi, is an economist who has set up her headquarters in a two-room modern apartment on a dusty, smoke-polluted road in Ghazni city.

Rented for 160 US dollars, the apartment is luxuriously furnished, with elegant curtains and a beautiful Iranian rug on the floor. In one corner stands a 21-inch colour television. The walls are adorned with Alamshahi’s photographs and campaign slogans such as "Parliament is the House of the Nation".

The candidate, joined in the room by 10 men who make up part of her campaign team, talked about some of the problems facing the nation, such as the homeless and abandoned children she encountered. She explained why she decided to take two little girls – Sausan, aged about four, and Nilofar, about six - home with her after finding them living alone on the streets of Kabul.

"These two girls were living in a container. During the day they used to search through boxes of rubbish to find rotten fruit, which they ate and survived on," she said.

Alamshahi says her two girls exemplify the plight of the many others in Afghanistan who live in appalling conditions, "This is why I decided to try for parliament - so that I can work to help these sorts of children.

"I am taking care of these two as a mother, and I will be their mother as long as I am alive.”

Her major problem on the campaign trail has been accusations that she is a Christian.

"Other candidates spread rumours that I am American and a follower of Christianity, so people shouldn’t vote for me," she said. "Afterwards, I go back to people and swear that I am a Muslim, and that they [rivals] are lying when they say I’m not.”

Alamshahi, who is a Shia and spent 27 years living in Iran, said she felt insecure in areas dominated by Pashtuns, who are mostly Sunnis, and unable to go there. She also said some parts of the province were not safe because of the presence of the Taleban.

The first election battle that Kobra Sadat won was at home. She worked secretly to get registered, and only told her husband she was a candidate once her name had been added to the list.

"I finished all the mandatory work with the help of my son, who is 18. It was all hidden from my husband because he wouldn’t give me permission to stand for parliament," she said. “I had discussed it with him before, but he’d said that everyone who knew him would insult him and demand to know why his wife was standing.”

Sadat’s husband reacted predictably when he found out. “He told me I should get my name struck off the candidate list before people heard about it. I did not agree to do so," she said.

After many struggles and with the help of her husband's family, Sadat finally succeeded in changing his mind and even winning his support.

"Now my husband is helping me in my campaign and is urging people to cast their vote for his wife," she said with a smile. Her only problem now is lack of money for campaigning. So far, she has spent only 3,500 afghanis, about 700 US dollars, on the contest.

But she adds optimistically, "People know the difference between good and bad, and there’s therefore no need to spend more money."

She may be right, but it is not a philosophy shared by everyone.

Sayed Hamidullah Hashemi, a male candidate for parliament, has spent 12,000 dollars on having some 58,000 posters and flyers printed in Iran to help his campaign. Some of the posters bearing his photograph are 2.5 metres high by 1.5 metres wide and can be seen from far away.

But like other candidates, he complains about rivals' supporters defacing his posters, "I’ve pasted up about 5,000 posters in Ghazni city, and at present there are only 800 of them left, with most of the rest torn down by supporters of other candidates.”

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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