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July 19, 2004

Where the Taliban Once Tread

by Sanjay Suri

LONDON – Dr. Massaouda Jalal is not a winner yet, but she has won at least something just by contesting the presidential elections in Afghanistan as the only woman candidate.

Dr. Jalal, 41, just about qualified to contest past the minimum age of 40. This makes her also a younger candidate than the 13 males in the contest, including President Hamid Karzai.

Presidential elections in Afghanistan are due on Oct. 9 after being postponed twice first to June and then to September. Parliamentary elections are due in April next year.

More than seven million people in a potential electorate of 10 million have registered to vote so far, according to UN figures. Forty percent of these are women.

That could be good news for Dr. Jalal, who has given up work temporarily as pediatrician and psychiatrist at the Kabul Medical School to try and cure the ills of the country.

"A lot of women are clearly very happy that I am contesting," Dr. Jalal told IPS in an interview in London. "In meetings, and on local radio and in the newspapers many are raising their voices to support me."

Inevitably, it is harder with the men. "I do face individuals in mosques and at other gatherings who object to what I am doing," she says. "But I tell them that what I am doing is quite legal and based on the new constitution, and it is nothing new in the Islamic world."

There have been women heads of government in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey. "Look at President Megawati, and Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country, with 200 million Muslims."

Despite the objections she encounters, Dr. Jalal, who is contesting as an independent candidate, says she is getting a response far better than she could have expected.

"They say I am their sister and their mother, they say a wounded Afghanistan needs a mother and a doctor to get looked after and healed," Dr. Jalal says. Whatever they say, this certainly seems a line she is putting out to present her case for presidency.

Contesting an election in Afghanistan cannot be easy. "The security situation is a very big problem," Dr. Jalal says. "I know the dangers, the difficulties, the risks. But when you follow a great idea there is always a risk." But security, she says, is "the first need and the first wish of the people of Afghanistan."

Dr Jalal has addressed several election meetings in Kabul and also in other towns. "I usually get gatherings of about 500 to 1,000 people," she says. She has spoken at meetings in schools, universities, mosques and at other places where gatherings have often been organized by local women.

She speaks to people in her native Pushtu and also in Dari, the language used by most Afghans for communication between different peoples in the country. Beyond that, she is talking the language of a new Afghanistan.

"I never have met the Taliban," she said. "Women do not support the Taliban. Democrats, technocrats, the youth do not support the Taliban. But I have lived through those bad days. After the international community came in I decided to put myself forward even though I have never been a part of any political organization. If anybody at all, I represent civil society."

Dr. Jalal, whose husband is a teacher in Kabul University, has two daughters and a son. She was in London on a visit to meet women's groups.

Women's issues would be a matter of prime concern to her, she says. "Fortunately girls have started again to go to schools. There is good cooperation from all people for this. But lack of access to education means that many girls cannot go to schools, because there simply are not enough schools."

If she becomes president, she would like to change that, certainly. But among the many "ifs" about Afghanistan, this is among the bigger ones.

(Inter Press Service)

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