KABUL Poor security, rampant fraud and not enough female election staff will keep many women away from the ballot box in next week's presidential election in deeply conservative Afghanistan, diplomats and campaign workers fear.
While the female vote has emerged as a potentially powerful bloc in some areas, it is unlikely the majority of women will exercise their right to vote in the violent south and east, where weak governance has allowed the Taliban to extend its influence.
"The southern provinces are a more closed community and more conservative culturally and the illiteracy rate among women is very high," said Massouda Jalal, a doctor who also ran as a presidential candidate in Afghanistan's first election in 2004.
Female voter registration cards are also an easy target for fraud in devoutly Muslim Afghanistan, observers say, because many women will not have their photographs taken for their cards for cultural and religious reasons.
"There is a problem with many women not needing to have their picture taken and this means cards can be misused," Jalal said.
In practical terms, there simply will not be enough female security officials to search women at voting stations in many areas, officials fear.
U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the United Nations have both recently expressed grave concerns over whether women would be able to participate freely in the democratic process.
In volatile areas such as southern Helmand province, parts of which have only recently been secured by foreign troops, voter registration only started within the last few weeks and there have bee few signs of women lining up to register their names.
"I emphasize that in such areas, if we do not have the right mechanism in place, there will be a chance for the head of the family or tribe to use the female card for their own choices," said Jandad Spindar, head of Free and Fair Elections Afghanistan.
Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, has said there have been suspiciously high levels of female registration in Logar, south of Kabul, and other southern areas where conservative Islamic traditions discourage women from traveling and interacting in public.
Female participation in southern and eastern provinces will be crucial for President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who derives much of his support from Afghanistan's largest ethnic grouping based primarily in the south.
But it won't be women who will be voting, said one source with close knowledge of election preparations.
"It's not in any candidate's interest to make a big deal about women. It's a man's club and most of them haven't considered the issue. It's a non-issue," the source said.
"People are aware that it's much easier to stuff a woman's ballot box than a man's."
In several provinces, such as Nuristan in the east and Paktia and Paktika in the southeast, the number of women registered to vote was higher than the actual number of women, the source said.
Female voting patterns are also likely to differ according to Afghanistan's various ethnic groups.
In central and northern provinces where there are greater numbers of Shi'ite Hazaras, whose women traditionally have been
been more liberated than conservative Sunni Islamist Pashtuns, the female vote is likely to be more fairly represented.
"I think Shi'ite women will vote more because ... for instance I am Shi'ite and our men don't place any limits on us to say for instance, you can't go here or there because there are men, whereas Sunni men are a bit more strict," said Fatemeh Hossaini, a district councilor from central Bamiyan province.
Pashtun women, it is feared, will be the least represented in the poll even though Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group.
Kabul, which has a heavy presence of security forces and the highest concentration of educated and employed women, should offer the most telling comparison with women from less liberated, more violent areas in the south and east.
"If you get more women in Nuristan voting than in Kabul you know there is definitely something wrong," the source said.
(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait)