Afghanistan: The woman who wants to be Afghan president

The Independent
Afghanistan's only female candidate for president has no money for campaigning and almost no coverage in the media. Islamic fundamentalists hate her, and instead of a political party to support her she has a group of students from Kabul University.
But none of this dismays Massouda Jalal. "I can win on 9 October because I am a woman, and in Afghanistan it is only women who have no blood on their hands," she said.
Of the 23 candidates, 41-year-old Dr Jalal is one of the few to run on a platform that is pro-democracy and anti-warlord and mean it. She is probably also the only one to have no bodyguard. "I refuse to arm anybody," she said. This is despite the murderous threats against women brave enough to stand up to armed factions.

Dr Jalal demonstrated bravery as a doctor in Kabul during the civil war in the 1990s, then ran the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' office under the Taliban, who forced her to wear a burkha and once jailed her for a few days.

Despite her confidence, she has little chance of winning. Hamid Karzai, the interim president, is widely expected to be victorious.

One factor that could help Dr Jalal is the unexpectedly high number of women who have registered to vote. Of 9.5 million possible voters, more than 8.5 million have registered, and about 42 per cent are women. For the first time in Afghanistan's history, women will be playing a major role in the political process, although many will vote as their husbands say.

The line-up of candidates is heavily influenced by warlords and ranges from fundamentalists with beliefs close to the Taliban, to the whisky-swilling General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek strongman.

Dr Jalal, a paediatrician with three children, could prove a standard bearer for Afghanistan's beleaguered democrats. Amid the cynical manoeuvrings and naked greed, her message stands out. Amina Afzali of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said: "Even if she fails she will help encourage more women to get involved in politics."

Dr Jalal said: "I want to serve my people - everybody, with no discrimination towards ethnic group, language or gender." She is the kind of potential Afghan leader the West dreams of. "I don't want Afghanistan to be a land of terrorists and drug dealers, I want it to be a modern cultured society," she said. Her policies stress building a civil society, protecting women's rights and implementing the constitution.

Yet in a land full of warlords flush with dollars, with an election in which corruption is expected to be rampant, she has received not a penny from the international community. "Why are there no funds for Afghans to campaign?" she asked. "My rivals, the faction commanders, have millions of dollars."

Dr Jalal has incurred the displeasure of Afghanistan's most powerful warlord, Mohammed Fahim, the Defence Minister. He took a dislike to her at the Loya Jirga, the traditional Afghan council that elected President Karzai in 2002 . When Dr Jalal challenged Mr Karzai, Mr Fahim ordered her husband to rein her in. Her defiance gave her national exposure.

Dr Jalal's candidacy has already angered fundamentalists. She refuses to be intimidated. "If I show weakness some men will say, 'look she is not brave'. They will say, 'there is another woman who gave up'."

Afghanistan is ready for a female president, she says. Asked when the country will have sexual equality, she says 9 October - "if I am elected". "If not, perhaps in another century."