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Afghanistan's Experiment in Democracy

Candidates prepare for the September 18 election.

7:50 AM, Sep 14, 2010 • By ANN MARLOWE
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The most outgoing woman at the table is the ebullient Parween Sufi, a teacher who quickly tells me that her singer son appeared on the popular TV show “Afghan Star.” Though she claimed but 20 monitors, she said she was “100 percent sure” she would be elected. “Love you!” she called out in English as she left.

Sometimes a candidate’s strength isn’t on the surface. When Naheed Nouri introduces herself as a kindergarten teacher, I’m initially underwhelmed. But an Afghan-American mentor to women candidates, Nasreen Gross, explains to me, “This women has given sewing machines to 3,000 women to sew for her. She can bring 3,000 women with her.”

Nasreen – whose unusual surname comes from her having married an American academic she met at the American University of Beirut – is a well-known figure here. An “Islamic feminist” who refuses to wear a headscarf, Gross gets away with it in this form-obsessed country because of her street cred as a member of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets and her family background. She’s a sayeeda, a female descendent of Mohammad, and her mother, Roquia Farhang, was one of the first women members of Parliament in the1960s.  

Nasreen complains tonight that the women candidates have all been placed in one marginal area of the hall. I’m more amazed that some men stop by to say hello to us and that a man is sitting at Nasreen’s table – this is, after all, a country where weddings are divided into separate gender gatherings.

In July and August, Nasreen coached more than 120 women Parliamentary candidates on campaign basics at a series of workshops in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif. As I saw when I visited one of the most successful Afghan women politicians, Qadria Yazdan Parost, campaigning Afghan-style is pretty different.

Qadria, a strikingly attractive brunette who seems to be in her early 40s, was a television presenter here a few years ago. She has name recognition. Her husband lives in the Netherlands (he imports cars into Afghanistan) and Qadria’s campaign meeting took place in their very large new villa. 

Qadria’s polish and confidence are immediately apparent, and she shows me a gift from Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. But the supporters who enter in clusters of ten or twelve are nearly all in traditional shalwar kameez and have non-urban faces. One heads the shopkeepers’ union in an outlying district of Kabul, pledging the support of 500 shop owners who will put her posters in their windows; another is a gold jewelry seller, a lucrative occupation here. There are at least two representatives of groups of youth supporting her – one claims 6,000 voters behind it.

Qadria told me that she also has many women supporters, but that many don’t have voter registration cards, as their families won’t allow it.

She’s unusual in being able to explain to me clearly, in a mix of Dari and English, what she has done for her constituents over the last five years to justify re-election: She has helped bring electricity to the gold-sellers, a major source of support, she reduced their tax from 18 percent to 1 percent, and she prevented destruction of historic buildings in Kabul’s historic quarter. She admits to having only received 3,000 votes in the 2004 election, but hopes for 15,000 this time. “I’ve been campaigning for five years,” she tells me.

Qadria said in English, “I am an optimist person.” And then she continues, in words that express the melancholy underlying this election for many Afghans, “I don’t know what happened here [in Afghanistan]. Because of fear of a civil war people will take a lot from this government. This government does very bad things, they are always wrong.”

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.

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