Hopes are high that Afghanistan's election Saturday may result in the country's first peaceful transition of power in more than a century. Militant attacks and electoral fraud are the main threats to the vote for a new president, who will take over after President Hamid Karzai ends his second term. Afghan women, whose freedom has often been curtailed, also worry about their future under a new government.
In this beauty parlor in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, the presidential election is the main topic of conversation. Owner Balqis Azizi says it is not clear what the future will bring regardless of who is elected.
"We hope it will be good. It is a concern for all of us. What will happen? Nobody knows what programs the candidates have for the future. People are concerned about who is going to be elected," she said.
During the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, women had to be all but invisible in Afghanistan. They could not leave the house without being accompanied by a male relative, they had to be completely covered in public and most of them were not allowed to work outside the home. Their situation has improved since then, but there are fears that a new leader may reverse some of the gains made by women. Salma Hadari hopes this will not be the case.
"The next president should have good thinking, should have a good mind, he should respect women, he should let women work, like us, so that women go forward. He should think in a modern way; he should be a good man and should work for our country," said Hadari.
Kate Clark, country director at Afghanistan Analysts Network, says laws protect an Afghan woman's right to education and employment but that in reality, men still control what a woman can do.
"Under the Taliban, women largely couldn't work unless they were in the health professions. So it's now a legal thing to work; it's a legal thing for girls to go to school or go to university. There are women in parliament; there are quotas for women which have ensured there is female representation. But Afghanistan is still a deeply, deeply, deeply patriarchal society. There are many women that can't go out," she said.
Taliban militants have vowed to disrupt the elections, and recent brazen attacks in the heart of Kabul are clearly designed to keep voters away; but, Azizi says it is her duty to vote.
"Everyone's responsibility is to cast their ballot. These candidates look good to me, but let's see what will happen. We will cast our ballot and see what happens," said Azizi.
An election banner for a woman running for the Council in Kabul
(photo by Mohammad Babaei, Islamic Republic News Agency)
To help improve security at the polls, Afghan police have trained female officers to search female voters. New police recruit Siddiqa says she is not afraid of anyone.
"My message for my other sisters is to come and join the police alongside their brothers and sisters - to defend their country," she said.
Women in Afghanistan's urban areas seemed determined to vote but, analysts say that in the rural south and east where the Taliban are strong, voter turnout could be weak among men as well as women.
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