June 28, 2009 / 5:18 PM / 10 years ago

Key Afghan presidential candidate courts female vote

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani on Sunday identified women voters, long overlooked during harsh years of Taliban rule, as a key bloc in August 20 elections.

Afghan women walk past a picture of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai after attending an election campaign in Kabul June 28, 2009. The presidential election will be held on August 20. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Ghani, one of only a handful of serious rivals to President Hamid Karzai among a field of 40 challengers, outlined a seven-point plan to improve women’s rights during an address to hundreds of female supporters in Kabul.

“Young women voters are an incredibly important voting bloc, not only because they are going to vote but because they are the future leaders of this country and their participation is going to change the landscape of this country,” Ghani told reporters.

According to Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, 38 percent of the country’s 4.5 million newly registered voters are women. Overall figures for women voters from Afghanistan’s roughly 30 million population are not yet available.

Few of the women in the crowd wore burkhas, the powder blue, head-to-toe Islamic covering worn by many Afghan women. Many were teenagers or university students wearing loose-fitting headscarves but few were willing to speak openly.

Ghani, a U.S.-educated anthropologist who served as finance minister under Karzai, said he would create 1 million new jobs in Afghanistan if elected, and at least 300,000 would go to women.

He also said he would appoint a team of 40 academics from across Afghanistan to encourage more young women to enroll in schools and universities and establish a women-only university as part of his policy to increase female literacy.

Ghani was introduced by a female mullah reciting the Muslim call to prayer, a tradition normally reserved for men.

“My support for Dr Ghani is really because I want him to establish rights for women in Afghanistan and protect those rights,” said a school teacher who gave her name only as Parvin.

“I think it’s very important for Afghan women to be involved in politics ... how is it that abroad a woman can be a president or a prime minister? In Afghanistan this is not possible and this should change,” the 35-year-old teacher said.

Women were virtually excluded from public life and banned from working and from education before the austere Sunni Islamist Taliban were toppled by U.S. and Afghan forces in 2001.

“I want the same rights that have been given to men to be given to women ... women must be involved in politics to the same extent as men,” said 16-year-old Soheila, who won’t be able to vote for another two years.

While most in Sunday’s crowd were liberal, well-educated women from the capital, Ghani and other presidential hopefuls will also need to win over women in some provinces where strict Islamic social codes and the influence of the Taliban remain.

Ghani said rural women were hungrier for change than the urban, educated elite. “In the provinces I am really delighted to tell you there is very, very significant movement. Afghanistan today is not confined to Kabul,” he said.

Editing by Paul Tait

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