Image: Sima Matin
Rafiq Maqbool  /  AP
Sima Matin, left, a female candidate in a provincial council election, talks with a male villager, right, as her security guard looks on in Shirak Pirak in Kapisa province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday.
updated 7/29/2009 6:08:55 PM ET 2009-07-29T22:08:55

Sima Matin's burqa limits her vision. It gives her migraines. Now it's causing another problem: It's hiding her from the voters she hopes will elect her in next month's provincial election.

For women running for office in one of the world's most conservative countries, getting out the vote is an uphill battle against social norms. In a place where most women still wear the burqa and do not speak to men outside their immediate family, female candidates are courting danger simply by putting up posters of their uncovered faces. They risk being called prostitutes for trying to explain their platforms to male voters.

In the Aug. 20 election, two women are running for president and 328 female candidates are vying for seats on the country's 34 provincial councils. In remote villages where women do not work outside the home, they face stiff resistance, from death threats to whisper campaigns accusing them of being bad Muslims.

Whenever she heads to a campaign event, Matin, 36, throws on her burqa. On a recent afternoon, the blue, tent-like fabric billowed behind her as she skirted fields of green shoots at the feet of the rugged mountains in Kapisa province where she is running for a second term on the council. When she reached this village a 20-minute walk away from the nearest road, she ducked into the house of a supporter.

Safely behind the mud walls, she took off the burqa, sat down on a cushion and began explaining her credentials to a group of women. That's the way most of her campaign events go — behind walls, in the company of other women.

"If I try to go to a meeting where there are men, my husband says no," explains Matin. "So how can I campaign? The work I am doing is not just for women. It's also for men. I need to be able to talk to them, too."

Campaigning in private
Afghanistan's constitution calls for at least 25 percent of seats on provincial councils and at least 27 percent of seats in parliament to be reserved for women. So in most cases, women are running against other women for set-aside seats. But the two presidential candidates are running against men, and there are also many seats open to both men and women.

Of the 3,196 candidates running for provincial seats, about 90 percent — or 2,868 — are men.

In some provinces, like Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, too few women are on the ballot to fill the quota. In Kapisa, where Matin is running, there are three seats reserved for women and six female candidates running. By contrast, more than 60 men are competing for the remaining six seats, which are open to both men and women.

While their male counterparts hold rallies and plaster their districts with posters, female candidates mostly campaign in private, carefully choreographing each foray outside the home. Even women who did not wear the burqa before say they're being forced to put it on to draw less attention to themselves.

Malika Mayeelzada, a 45-year-old teacher, refused to wear the burqa during the Taliban era until militants beat her with a club, breaking her arm. She took it off eight years ago after the fall of the Taliban — only to put it back on when she announced her candidacy for the provincial seat in Parwan, a district of brown hills just west of here.

"When I go into the villages, I'm always trying to encourage my sisters to take off the burqa," she says. "But because of fear for my safety, I can't show my face anymore."

Showing face
Many female candidates are pushing the limits of what is considered decent by putting up posters of themselves. Their face is shown, though all of them cover their heads with scarves.

Matin says her husband drove her to a photo studio in Kabul and hovered over her as she took her photo, instructing her to pull her veil tightly around her chin so that her hair does not show. But as soon as she put up the poster, a cleric complained, saying the portrait was provocative and un-Islamic because she wore eyeshadow and lipstick.

So in its place, she put up a second poster where she is not wearing makeup — her face washed of all color and her expression blank.

Even so, her husband has asked her not to hang the posters outside. With the exception of a few shops, her posters are distributed to supporters, who put them up behind the walls of their homes.

'A family problem'
Those trying to intimidate female candidates also use their families as a pressure point. Last year, militants kidnapped the husband of Nuria Hamady, a female delegate on the council in Baghlan Province. They beat him and said they would come back to kill him if he did not dissuade his wife from running for a second term.

"It became a family problem for me," says Hamady, 36, the mother of nine children. "Now my husband is against me. He no longer wants me to be a candidate. ... What should I do? I'd like to serve my people, but I'm finding it very hard."

Hamady has stopped campaigning and she goes to and from her home and office under armed guard. Another woman running for the Baghlan council recently went into hiding after a hand grenade was thrown into her home.

Women in politics say the obstacles intensify the more public they become. When they stand up to speak, women parliamentarians say they often find that their microphones have been switched off. Water bottles are thrown at them. The most outspoken are met with jeers of "Kill her!"

Malalai Joya, 31, one of the youngest members of parliament, slept in a different house every night after publicly denouncing the fact that numerous former warlords are now in parliament. She has survived five assassination attempts.

Joya says those ordering the violence against women candidates think they can silence them. "You can cut the flower," says Joya. "But you can't stop the spring from coming."

Targeting women
To be sure, there have also been numerous attacks against male candidates, including the assassination in May of a candidate for the provincial council in Khost province who died after a bomb was attached to his car.

But experts say the difference is that women are being targeted specifically because they are women seeking office, whereas men are being threatened for any number of reasons.

"The fact is these attacks on women are to put women in their place," says Theresa De Langis, a manager at the U.N. Development Fund for Women who is helping run a hotline for female candidates in Afghanistan.

While many say attacks on women are intensifying, there are also signs of positive change.

Fawzia Kufi, one of 91 women in Afghanistan's parliament, says that during her campaign for her seat four years ago, her own brothers tore down her posters. Now her image has become so popular in her home province of Badakshan that people tear it down to sell it as a collector's item.

Still, there are many days when she wonders if it's worth it. Last month, Kufi survived a roadside bomb planted ahead of her convoy. She decided to write a farewell letter to her two daughters. Then she placed it in a cupboard and told her eldest — age 11 — where to find it if one day she doesn't come home.

It begins, "Dear Shaharzad, Dear Shuhra, we will all die one day. But we can be proud if we died leaving something good behind."

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