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Afghanistan holds its second presidential and provincial elections later this month. A record number of women are running for both offices, a major change in a country where women weren't even allowed to attend school eight years ago. But there is a darker political reality for women in Afghanistan. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, many female candidates and voters are facing oppression, threats of violence and fraud.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: When U.N. officials in the eastern city of Jalalabad asked these women about the run-up to the elections, they got quite an earful, like from Zahede Nuristani, a midwife trainer from northeastern Nuristan.

Ms. ZAHEDE NURISTANI: (Through Translator) Conditions for women taking part in the elections haven't got better since last time. They've gotten worse.

NELSON: Nuristani says Taliban fighters control most of her province. The insurgents vehemently oppose women being involved in politics and have vowed to disrupt the elections. Nuristani says that as a result, none of the four female candidates running for the provincial council is permitted by their families to go out and campaign. Nor do their male relatives allow them to use photos of themselves on campaign posters. Back in Kabul, where Afghan and international forces have tightened security in advance of the polls, women candidates have an easier time reaching out to voters. Farida Bayat is one of 63 women running for the nine provincial council seats that are set aside for her sex.

Ms. FARIDA BAYAT (Candidate for Provincial Council, Kabul, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The 37-year-old says she's campaigned at schools, local organizations and even a neighborhood mosque. Her face is visible on thousands of campaign fliers. She doesn't wear the head-to-toe burqa frequently worn by women in Afghanistan. But per Islamic tradition, her hair is covered by a loose-fitting scarf.

Ms. BAYAT: (Through Translator) I'm determined to see future generations of girls like my daughter gain confidence by seeing me and other women taking these steps. Women are half the population of this country and should be taking part in politics and everything else.

NELSON: Not everyone agrees. Bayat says a man called her two weeks ago to deliver a death threat because she's a woman running for office. She's also gotten other harassing phone calls. Her husband, Lutfallah, says he fears for her safety and has asked her not to travel outside of the capital.

Mr. LUTFALLAH: (Through Translator) Sure I'm frightened, because some people are just ignorant and violent. They think that being Muslim means that their women must stay at home. They don't understand that women should work and be in the government. This is what has kept our country from advancing.

NELSON: In a June report, Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission said it had received 15 formal complaints from women candidates about intimidation. And even though there have been no reports of violence against women running for office so far, the Ministry of Interior was concerned enough to start assigning a policeman to any female provincial candidate who requested one.

Sima Samar, who chairs the human rights commission, says it's not just Taliban militants who are impeding women in this election. She says female candidates are also stifled by chauvinistic traditions and a lack of campaign funds. She also accuses the country's male presidential candidates of setting a poor example for other Afghan men. She says women are almost invisible in their campaigns, even at their rallies.

Dr. SIMA SAMAR (Chairperson, Independent Human Rights Commission, Afghanistan): You see a small group of people in one corner, but the rest are all men. And this is sad. This shows the reality in this country.

NELSON: Samar says it's not only women candidates who are suffering. Fear of violence also makes potential women voters vulnerable to election fraud. In May, local election watchdogs reported suspicious voter registration trends in several eastern provinces, like in Logar, where a whopping 72 percent of new voters signing up were said to be women. Many Afghans here, like Wadir Safi, a political analyst who teaches law at Kabul University, fear women's voter cards will be sold to the highest bidder. Safi says such fraud is hard to prevent, given that women's movements are so restricted.

Professor WADIR SAFI (Law, Kabul University; Political Analyst): They cannot come out of their houses. That's why a person is coming to the commission there, and say I'm representing 300 houses, for example. Give me so many cards. In every house, there are 20 ladies, and they have given (unintelligible). They have paid them money to collect such cards, and it goes to the ballot box of one candidate.

NELSON: But Afghan election officials insist that on election day, there only be one vote per person. They say men will not be allowed to cast ballots for their female relatives. The officials add that after Afghan voters cast their ballots, their fingers will be stained with an indelible ink that can't be removed for several days.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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