Female Presidential Candidate Seeks Support in Afghanistan

Afghan News Network
January 25, 2004

KABUL (AFP) - Afghanistan's first female presidential candidate doctor Massouda Jalal sits in her comfortable apartment in Kabul's Microrayon district and tries to estimate the political support she will receive in the country's upcoming elections.

"I expect it will be from all over the country, from all the provinces, but I don't know what the percentage will be," she says.

In a country in which the presidential elections scheduled for June will be its first truly democratic polls, Jalal can be forgiven for not knowing the level of her support.

Particularly since the deeply conservative country has long repressed women, most spectacularly under the ousted hardline Islamic Taliban regime, when women were excluded from public life.

For Jalal, a 40-year-old paediatrician and mother of three young children, the significant point is that she is running for president at all.

"It's very important because in the 5,000 years of the history of Afghanistan, women have never participated in political power in the leadership of Afghanistan," she told AFP.

While her chances of unseating the incumbent moderate President Hamid Karzai are not high, Jalal is confident that among her supporters will be those who have grown disillusioned with the conflicts that have plagued Afghanistan for more than two decades and left the country in ruins.

"Even very, very conservative, discriminating people.... are telling me 'Yes, we think that a woman can bring national unity because women were never involved in the conflict'.

"They say you don't have a party, you don't have a political organisation but we will do that in our villages."

Jalal has challenged Karzai once before. During an emergency loya jirga, or grand assembly convened to prevent a power vacuum following the fall of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime in mid-2002, she also stood for president.

Ahead of the vote, Karzai approached her and offered her a position as his deputy if she withdrew but she refused, preferring to press on with her historic challenge despite some criticism that a woman head of state was "un-Islamic".

"I wanted to make a record and I wanted to challenge, whether I won or not," she says.

Karzai won the contest with 1,295 votes but Jalal came second with 171.

Since then she has participated in the historic loya jirga which earlier this month approved Afghanistan's new constitution and has been building her support base. Despite her growing reputation she still faces obstacles, with some publications banned from mentioning her name, using instead the phrase "a woman".

Jalal admits there are risks for anyone standing for election, particularly since voter registration in Afghanistan has been hampered by spiralling security concerns, but says she has faced worse.

Under the Taliban regime, Jalal who had previously been a paediatrician and lecturer in medicine at Kabul University, ran an all-women program within the United Nations World Food Program.

The warnings came almost daily and she was once jailed, but released after 38 hours when a government minister intervened on her behalf.

"Maybe I'm not a scared kind of person. What I want is what the people want. If they want I can serve them and I have lots of courage in this way."


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