This is Freedom, Say Courageous Women Risking All for Democracy

As Afghanistan falls back into violence at the hands of the Taliban, a small number of courageous women risk their lives for the cause of democracy. Emerging from a history that has notoriously treated women’s views, education and personhood as beneath consideration, several female politicians – including one 18-year-old – have come to prominence in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, that prominence is accompanied by violent reactions from irate factions who chafe at the idea of women participating in the Afghani government. Female politicians win with impressive returns, but then encounter traditional prejudice once in office. Security, often provided with foreign support, remains a top priority for women politicians as well as citizens. In public and private, the women politicians strive to provide education, business and other programs that contribute to a civil society. – YaleGlobal

This is Freedom, Say Courageous Women Risking All for Democracy

Councillors face deaths threats and resistance from their male counterparts
Declan Walsh
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

When Raazia Baloch, a mother of four with a thousand-watt smile, was elected to Helmand's provincial assembly last October, local authorities congratulated her with a Kalashnikov.

"They said it was for my protection," she said wryly. "But when I tried to fire it the bullet was stuck inside. Even that was broken."

Politics is a rough game in Afghanistan, where last year's landmark elections produced a crop of budding democrats, retired warlords, drug-smugglers and former Taliban fighters. For women, it is potentially fatal.

Two weeks ago inside the new national assembly in Kabul, turbaned parliamentarians hurled water bottles and bloody threats at Malalai Joya, a firebrand female deputy who dared criticised the country's mujahideen fighters. Now Ms Joya changes safe house every night and travels with three bodyguards.

The dangers are equally potent in Helmand province, 350 miles to the south. As 3,300 British troops deploy amid the worst Taliban violence in years, a small number of courageous women are leading their own campaign, armed with nothing but their voices.

Salima Sharifi was an 18-year-old pupil when she started campaigning for the provincial elections last summer. Months later she won 2,114 votes - and a place in history as Afghanistan's youngest female politician.

"I just wanted to make a difference," said the bookish young woman, sipping tea in a carpeted room adorned with Persian poetry. Her proud father, Muhammad Zahir, sat nearby. "I warned her it would be risky but she just smiled," he said.

That risk is very real in Helmand, where clashes with the Taliban are becoming an almost daily event. One French soldier and 16 Afghan soldiers died and 40 other troops were injured in two firefights on Saturday.

This is an explosive province where zealots torch schools and assassinate girls' teachers. Ms Sharifi has received several death threats, and the most recent caused her family to move house. Yet she remains undeterred. "Of course I am scared. But I am willing to make any sacrifice, even to die," she said.

Like Ms Sharifi, Ms Baloch, 33, returned from exile in Iran after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She was married at 12; her police officer husband died in a bombing. She prizes education above all else. "The prophet says women should be educated. This is freedom," she said.

But her liberal notions are tempered by local culture and gritty necessities - she sought her four brothers' permission before standing for election, and her first daughter got married at 11.

"I was on my own and I couldn't afford to support her any more," she explained. Every morning the two friends don their burkas and pad through the streets of Lashkar Gah to take their seats at the provincial council, the shura.


But democracy has proved a bitter disappointment. The four women councillors meet some resistance from the 11 male councillors - mostly bearded, conservative men who declare certain subjects "not women's business".

But the greater frustration is the shura's impotence. "We haven't done much to help the people," said Ms Sharifi gloomily. The council has only fig-leaf authority that gets little respect from underpaid and often corrupt officials. For example, Ms Baloch said, the council once ordered that a village near Goreshk be electrified, "but when we took a letter of authorisation to the power ministry, the desk clerk tore it in two".

Extending the reach of the Kabul government is a central plank of the British mission, which includes officials from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. But for the province's women campaigners, like all citizens, security is the first priority.

Two weeks ago an unknown gunman emptied his AK-47 into a van leaving the province's women's ministry, which is a stone's throw from the British base. The driver died instantly but miraculously the two female passengers survived. Fauzia Ulomi, the ministry head, believes she was the real target.

"It wasn't necessarily the Taliban. It could be anyone opposed to the government," she said, standing by the bloodstained steering wheel.

The ministry behind her, which runs internet, embroidery and beautician classes for 170 women, was closed. "Nobody dares come here anymore," she said, raising her voice as a British Chinook helicopter lifted off next door.

Ms Ulomi is as stubborn as she is fearless. Her husband left Afghanistan 21 years ago for school in Russia, never to return. She herself fled during the Taliban after threats for teaching girls.

An admiring western aid worker in Lashkar Gah describes her as "inspirational, presidential material - if only that were possible".

Now she continues her work thanks to foreign support. But without security the help rings hollow; both the deserted women's ministry and the bullet-pocked vehicle were bought with US money.

If the British mission to Helmand is to succeed, she warned, its soldiers must overcome Afghans' aversion to foreigners. "Even my father or grandfather would not accept the British. How will this generation be different?" she said. The British must also counter a powerful Taliban whispering campaign. "Most people believe the British are the enemy, that they are coming to take revenge for past defeats," said Ms Ulomi's bodyguard, Khan Almas, referring to British colonial disasters of the 1880s.

Ms Ulomi's family is pressuring her to quit her job. As ever, she refuses, but warns of a worsening situation. "I tell you, our enemies are winning," she said.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006