Afghan women defy death threats to stand in election

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The Independent Online

Many of the women have had death threats. But it has not stopped more than 300 standing for parliament, ranging from glamorous ones who refuse to cover their hair to those who still wear the burka. Suraya Perlika has been threatened twice, by men who forced their way in to her office.

"The Afghan people's clothes have changed but their minds have not," she says. "Their minds are still like the Taliban. Maybe it's the government's fault."

A former official in the old pro-Soviet communist regime, Ms Perlika has an axe to grind. But she also used to run girls' education courses in secret under the Taliban, risking imprisonment and beating. She is among a remarkable number of Afghan women with the courage to brave the threats and stand for parliament.

Under Afghanistan's new constitution, 65 of the seats in parliament are reserved for women. But Ms Perlika says: "We cannot go to the villages to campaign, we can't stay outside the city overnight. The men can use the mosques to campaign, but we are not allowed."

Ms Perlika, small and stern, wears a dark Western business suit and a simple headscarf. But most of the women at one of her rallies in Kabul are still wearing the burka.

"The status of women is a little better than it was 30 years ago, because the UN's been here for the past three years," she says. "We have women's rights under the law, but in practice we don't. Girls are still married as young as nine or 10. It's mainly in the villages but it happens even here, in Kabul city." In the provinces, Ms Perlika says, women are still traded to settle disputes. If a man commits a crime, the victim's family can demand his daughter in lieu of justice. She is married to one of the victim's family for the sake of propriety, but treated as a piece of property, not a wife.

"Women have no economic independence," Ms Perlika says. She is calling for schools for adult women who missed an education during the Taliban years, when girls' schools were closed.

Under the Communist regime, Ms Perlika was the secretary general of the Red Cross in Afghan-istan. In the mujahedin regime, she secretly ran the All Afghan Women's Union.

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