SHEIKHABAD, Afghanistan — The threats come at least once a week in the dark of night, Zaiba Habib Durrani said. The caller vows to kill her or disfigure her face with acid.
Durrani also recounted how insurgents had tailed her husband and her on a 200-mile round-trip drive to Kabul from the eastern city of Jalalabad. One of the insurgents later telephoned and recounted the couple's every move, including a prearranged switch of cars that they'd made to elude their pursuers.
"He said, 'Our people followed you. You stopped at a gas station and changed your vehicle,' " recalled the 34-year-old surgeon and mother of four young daughters who's days away from giving birth to another child. "He said, 'Either our people didn't get a chance to kidnap you or they decided not to.' "
The threats haven't deterred Durrani from campaigning for re-election Aug. 20 to one of the five seats reserved for women on the provincial council of eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, a treacherous swath of Afghan mountains and desert that borders Pakistan. Fourteen seats go to men.
The election also will choose Afghanistan's next president and help set the course of the increasingly costly war with the Taliban-led insurgency and al Qaida that the U.S. and its allies are struggling to win nearly eight years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
Protected by two rifle-toting volunteers, Durrani and her husband and campaign manager, Habibullah Rahman Habib, 36, an ophthalmologist, jolt along rutted tracks in a bruised Japanese car under the crushing summer sun seeking support from the tribal graybeards who'll decide how their villages vote.
Speaking this week to elders and others in Sheikhabad, a hamlet in the insurgent-infested Khogyani district, she said that many male candidates were too scared to leave the relative safety of Jalalabad, instead summoning villagers for meetings in the provincial capital.
"I travel from village to village and explain my aims," she continued as her audience listened, some of the men unwilling to look directly at a strange woman who refuses to hide under a body-covering burqa. "The right to rebuild this country doesn't belong exclusively to men."
"No other candidate has come here," Haji Jan Mohammad, the octogenarian headman, said after Durrani left to speak to the women. "We spent 27 years in Pakistan as refugees and we saw how women and men can work together. We want her to succeed."
However, like the more than 300 other women who're seeking 124 slots on 34 provincial councils, as well as the vice presidency and presidency, Durrani is fighting more than a political contest amid a surge in Taliban violence aimed at wrecking the vote.
She and the other female candidates also are battling ultraconservative interpretations of Islamic law and age-old customs that condemn most Afghan women to lives of abuse, ill health, illiteracy and impoverished servitude, lived out within walled compounds in the far-flung villages where more than 75 percent of Afghans live.
"Women participating in public life face threats, harassment and attacks," a July 8 United Nations report says. "The pattern of attacks . . . sends a strong message to all women to stay at home. This has obvious ramifications for the transformation of Afghanistan, the stated priority of Afghan authorities and their international supporters."
"We don't like that our sisters and mothers stand for election," said Najibullah Qureshi, an 18-year-old English teacher. "They should stay at home. Education for women? Yes, but only until the 12th grade. If our sisters graduate from 12th grade, they are more eligible for marriage."
"Just for a woman to leave the house is a big struggle," Durrani said, sitting on the floor of her modest home, a white scarf enfolding her head and a black gown hiding her swollen belly. "There are people who want to prevent me from pursuing this path."
The efforts of Durrani and a few other activists to win greater political clout for women have significant implications for the Obama administration's goal of stabilizing Afghanistan.
Durrani and her husband are the kinds of moderately pious, educated, middle-class professionals that some Afghans and Western governments want to play central roles in the country's uphill slog to stability.
They have no apparent ties to the pervasive official corruption or to the warlords whose wars devastated Afghanistan. While most Afghan marriages are arranged or forced, they fell in love after they met at a hospital where Durrani was a volunteer midwife during the fighting that followed the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and gave rise to the Taliban.
As his wife prepared to graduate from medical school just before the 2005 elections, Habib suggested that she run for the provincial council.
"One reason our country was destroyed was that no one paid attention to the women," he explained as the couple's 2-year-old, Diana, frolicked nearby. "During the Taliban time, there was no school for women, and they were not allowed to work. My friends proposed that I run for the council, but I thought it would be better for my wife."
Because of their status, however, women face greater impediments to office than men do, ranging from a lack of money to limited access to news media, experts said. War-scarred Uruzgan province has three council seats for women, but only two are running.
Durrani said she'd received no campaign donations. She sold her gold jewelry and used her husband's and her combined $440 monthly income to raise the $6,000 she's spent, mostly on posters, gas for their car and the rental of another vehicle.
Afghanistan's Republican Party, founded by supporters of the former monarchy, has provided her with a few volunteers, some of whom have been harassed for backing a woman.
The provincial councils for which Durrani and other women are daring to run are all but powerless. They can only monitor and advise the provincial governors, whom the president appoints and who often treat their provinces as personal fiefdoms, indulging in rampant corruption and using the police as private militias.
Still, Durrani said she'd been able to use her post to advocate on behalf of women and the poor with senior officials and to recruit sponsors for health and literacy programs.
She hopes that the councils eventually will become provincial legislatures.
"Everyone tells me that I speak too openly, that it creates a risk for me," she said. "But if we are afraid and sit at home, then we can do nothing for women's rights. If I fail in this election, it doesn't mean that I will stop my struggle. I will have to return to my profession or another profession. But whatever happens, I will continue leaving my home."
AN AFGHAN WOMAN'S LOT ISN'T HAPPY:
Conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved since a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001, but that's true mostly in urban centers. The fundamentalist Islamic militia banned women from working or going to school and flogged them for appearing in public unaccompanied by male family members.
Yet even the country's educated elite prohibits female contact with men outside of immediate families. A woman must have her father's or husband's permission to go out, and must wear a burqa when she does. Doing otherwise risks punishment for "un-Islamic" behavior.
Massouda Jalal, a 2005 presidential candidate and a former minister of women's affairs, blamed the lack of progress on resistance from Islamic hard-liners and the warlords who dominate the U.S.-backed government and the parliament, the failure of female politicians to unite and insufficient international attention to women's issues.
Women "are not given responsibilities. They are used only as symbols," she said, noting that a bill to stiffen penalties for violence against women has languished in parliament for three years.
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)
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