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Afghan Women Eye Loya Jirga Elections

June 10, 2002

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Marila Habibi is caught between the weariness of war and the promise of peace _ a woman who reads Dale Carnegie in the Dari language every day, yet keeps a burqa in her bag.

Habibi is waiting for a signal that her future is secure, watching this week’s loya jirga, or grand council, to see just how firmly women’s rights will be enshrined in the next Afghan government.

``Maybe after the loya jirga we will have many more freedoms. And maybe we will all take off the burqa,″ Habibi said.

Ask Afghan women what they want, and their answers are succinct: Peace. Education. Jobs. A voice.

Some 200 women are participating in the loya jirga _ just over 10 percent of the 1,550 total delegates, but by far their largest representation ever in a traditional council.

Most of the seats _ up to 160 _ were appointed to ensure women’s participation. Another 40 won local elections with critical votes from men _ 86 percent of Tajik delegate Nadia Salih’s support came from men _ amid reports elsewhere that women were intimidated or barred from standing.

Long ignored in Afghan society, the female delegates spent their first day together Sunday crafting unified positions and showing a determination not to be sidelined.

``If anyone obstructs, we will definitely boycott,″ said Zia Kakar, a 48-year-old chemist from Kabul province who recited a 25-year-long resume supervising sections of the Ministry of Mines and Industry.

``We’ve already told the government that women’s rights should not be a slogan,″ said Sfoora Ilkahani, 26, an ethnic Hazara from Bamiyan province. ``If rights are not given, we will definitely come on the floor and fight.″

Malalai Ashakzai of Kandahar named ministries the women wanted: defense, education, intelligence and health. Currently, they have only the women’s affairs and health portfolios.

``If a Frenchwoman can become the defense minister, why can’t an Afghan woman?″ Kakar said, referring to France’s Michele Alliot-Marie, who recently visited Afghanistan. She also wants women to sit on a committee that will draft a new constitution and in the transitional legislature.

While some people in this tradition-bound society tolerate a growing women’s role only under international pressure, some male delegates say women can restore credibility to government.

``Only the women are clean; all the men are dishonest,″ Ali Shah Khan, a delegate from Kandahar, said at the loya jirga compound.

Arriving from across the war-shattered country, the female delegates conveyed their sense of duty to help women in their home regions.

They include Aziza Azimi of Parwan province north of Kabul. Among Afghanistan’s thousands of war widows, she sews long coats for women and traditional shirts for men to support her six children. Her monthly income is $42.

Aziza is watching the loya jirga but also looking for ways to contribute. She joined about 1,000 Afghan women this weekend at a non-governmental forum drafting a resolution of shared priorities, from across-the-board acceptance to adequate garbage collection.

``The first thing I want is stability and security,″ Nasia Ghafuri said at the forum. ``And we should have enough income to survive.″

The school where she teaches in Gulbahar village lacks sufficient furniture for the 1,200 girls who study there. The village has no electricity and was bypassed during recent food distribution.

Ilkahani, a loya jirga delegate, said 70 percent of the women in her district in Bamiyan are widows. ``They were poor and are becoming poorer.″

Ashakzai said women in Kandahar are frustrated that Pashtun men are jailed as Taliban because the deposed religious militia were mostly ethnic Pashtuns.

And Nooria Bawari, arriving at the loya jirga tent with a small suitcase and a male escort Sunday, said people in her mountainous region of Uruzgan province are isolated, with just one road to Kandahar. They need hospitals and schools closer to home.

Even in the capital, most women still wear the all-covering burqa, commonly worn by rural women long before the Taliban.

``We don’t want to push them to take it off,″ said the women’s affairs minister, Sima Samar. ``They will do it when they feel confident.″

Like Habibi, who just last week began going out wearing just a scarf _ as long as she’s being driven around.

She’s 21, and accustomed to years of hiding books in her sleeve so she could attend underground schools for teen-age girls, who were banned from classrooms by the Taliban.

Now, she carries her copy of Dale Carnegie’s ``Rules of Life.″ Tucked away in her handbag, it is three months old and already dog-eared.

She believes it holds answers not only for herself, but for Afghanistan.

``I think it is written for the Afghan people. It says if you want to have a good life, don’t think about the past and don’t think about the future. Just think about the present and try to get the full benefit.″

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