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A vote in Afghanistan
Scripps Howard News Service


September 19, 2005

A little-noticed aspect of this past weekend's elections in Afghanistan was the high rate of voter turnout among women. It was a heroic effort deserving of international acclaim.

Yes, turnout overall was disappointing: only half of eligible Afghans went to the polls to elect members of parliament. A year ago, more than three-quarters of eligible citizens voted in that dust-lined, mountainous, bombed-out shell of a country's presidential election.

But given the dangers involved for Afghans in general and women in particular, their unprecedented turnout rate was nothing short of spectacular. When compared with our own somewhat dilatory use of the hard-won right to vote, turnout by Afghan women should serve as an international hallmark and inspiration.

Certainly we cannot forget America's history of violence-ridden elections.

As recently as four decades ago, blacks in the South risked physical harm by going to the polls. But in today's America, can we conceive of lining up to vote if we risked our lives in the process? Hard to fathom. Afghan women did just that this weekend.

In June, three women were killed and 13 wounded by a bomb that exploded on a bus carrying female election workers. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Taliban terrorists continue to torture and kill women who defy their skewed and highly repressive version of Sharia, or Islamic law.

Last November, Laura Bush delivered the weekly presidential radio address on the women of Afghanistan. The Bush administration has made the liberation of Afghanistan's women a cornerstone of its democracy incubation project there.

In her radio address, the first lady recounted progress toward women's freedom, but pointed out that even a newly democratic Afghanistan is controlled, in large part, by warlords and Taliban leftovers. She said, "Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women's fingernails for wearing nail polish. The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control."

Last spring - and five months after delivering that address - Laura Bush led a U.S. delegation to Afghanistan to view firsthand how its women are faring. Legitimate questions abound on whether the administration's verbal support for Afghan women is real or public-relations-based. If it is real, it must be matched by the resources needed to destroy the tyranny that still afflicts Afghan women. So far, tyranny still reigns.

According to a San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service report on this past weekend's elections, "One quarter of all seats in the new parliament ... are reserved for women. But not all Afghans were convinced they can make a difference, even other women. 'Women cannot work in Afghanistan, so if I give one my vote she cannot achieve anything,' said Latifa Ahmadi, 18, who voted in Kabul. Women wearing all-covering burqas were segregated from men at many voting stations."

How liberated is that? Then, the Bush administration's own State Deportment released a report in February detailing the state of Afghan human rights (or lack thereof). It reads like something out of a gothic horror novel. Rapes, beatings and kidnappings of Afghan women continue on such a massive scale as to be incalculable. Rape victims are often prosecuted for their own rapes -charged inexplicably with having unlawful sex.

The State Department's Web site recounts, "In rural areas, local elders and shuras (community councils) were the primary means of settling criminal matters and civil disputes ... as well as ordering, in murder cases, the defendant to provide young girls in marriage to the victims' family. In such proceedings, the accused typically had no right to legal representation, bail, or appeal."

No wonder then that the State Department also reports that thousands of women choose to enter prison voluntarily rather than endure rampant and unrestrained domestic violence. Lastly, and only in this topsy-turvy regard does it make sense, a growing number of Afghan women are self-immolating - some 300 last year.

Given these roadblocks, it is beyond amazing that women turned out in record-setting numbers to vote in Afghanistan. Perhaps the only thing more amazing is our government's chutzpah in claiming we've done a fine job of liberating them to vote.


Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.
E-mail bonnieerbe(at)

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