Hopeful women candidates face particular risks in Afghan poll

* Death threats, hate emails await women candidates
* Right to vote, education for women at risk

Nima Suratgar had only just entered her name on a list of candidates for Afghanistan’s Sept. 18 parliamentary election when the first of scores of abusive and threatening emails arrived in her inbox.

Entitled “The Famous Afghan Prostitute For Parliament”, the anonymous email — which was also sent to media outlets and election officials — comprised a vicious four-page attack on Suratgar’s private life, urging voters not to support her.

This marked only the beginning of the 39-year-old Kabul teacher’s worries.

“Oh, that email, that was just the start,” said Suratgar from her modest campaign office in the Afghan capital. “I get emails and phone calls every day now from men threatening to kill me if I don’t stop running for parliament.”

Such threats underline the tenuous grip women have on their hard-won rights — the right to vote and education among them — since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Talk of reconciliation with the Taliban only underscores the fragility of that grip.

Suratgar is not alone and represents what election observers have called a worrying and widespread trend of intimidation of female candidates by insurgents and hardline conservatives bent on deterring women from participating in this month’s poll.

While men are not immune — four male candidates and some 15 campaigners have been killed — Afghanistan’s largest observer group, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), warned last month women faced particular risks.

Out of 10 threats observers reported targeting specific candidates, 9 were aimed at women, FEFA said. One woman was forced to suspend her campaign in a rural province in central Afghanistan after receiving death threats and moved to Kabul.

On Aug. 29 armed men killed five campaigners working for female candidate Fawzia Gilani in Herat in the west of the country. It was not immediately clear whether the attacks were carried out by insurgents or political rivals.

For most of the women vying for a seat in parliament’s lower house, however, the threats are more subtle.

Robina Jelali, 25, an ex-Olympic runner and now head of a women’s charity in Kabul, said Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society made it harder for women to succeed.

“Women don’t have access like men. We cannot go to most places, especially at night, and visit our supporters. Men can go wherever and whenever they like,” said Jelali.

Unlike Suratgar, Jelali has not received any threats on her life but each day she goes out on the campaign trail she sees her posters either torn down or defaced with red paint, a common complaint of most female candidates.

“They do this because I am a woman and I am young,” she said.

Educated, working and outspoken, Suratgar and Jelali, like most of the 406 female parliamentary candidates, represent everything a woman should not be in the eyes of not only Taliban insurgents but for much of Afghanistan’s male-dominated society.

Afghanistan’s constitution says a quarter of the seats in the wolesi jirga, the lower house of parliament, should be for women — or 68 out of the total of 249.

Despite the threats and obstructions, Jelali and Suratgar, like many women in Afghanistan, remain pragmatic and determined.

“I love my country and my people. I can’t sit here and be quiet and do nothing after seeing what is happening to my country. I also urge other women to get involved,” said Suratgar.


See also: Women in Afghanistan need our support

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