KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A pick-up van crammed with a dozen or so Afghan women, covered head-to-toe in burqas of black, blue or green, pulls up on the edge of the dusty street and they troop single file into a basement.
They have come to join a few dozen others for a women”s only campaign meeting in the conservative southern city of Kandahar, once the Taliban heartland, to decide who to vote for in Sunday”s parliamentary election, the first since 1969.
In the dark basement, the air thick with a mix of perfumes, Fariba Ahmadi urges them to vote for her, offering to be their voice in the new 249-seat parliament and promising education, water, electricity and peace in a country ravaged by war.
"We have to make our country. If we don”t want to make our country, no one can," she says, wearing a long black-and-grey pinstriped coat with matching slacks, her black headscarf pulled back off her hair.
Sixty-eight seats have been set aside for women in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People, but in deeply conservative Muslim Afghanistan where many women still live behind the purdah, that does not make it easier.
One morning as she left home recently, Ahmadi found a letter on the front door. Pull out or die, it said.
The school teacher shrugs it off: "I am not afraid."
When the hardline Taliban seized power in 1996 they imposed conservative, tribal village codes of conduct across Afghanistan.
Women were forced to wear burqas, confined to their homes and beaten if discovered outside without a male relative.
The Taliban were swept from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities. Now, several hundred women are standing in the elections.
In a basement in the home of one of Ahmadi”s supporters, the women sit cross-legged on a soft red carpet, the popping of soft drink cans punctuating a lively meeting, part open discussion, part question-and-answer and part campaign speech.
Some women have lifted their veils, others still hold them across their faces in the presence of a male reporter.
The government should do more for widows, says an elderly woman who recently returned after fleeing to Iran when her husband was killed. What about roads? Asks another; why is Afghanistan so much worse than Iran? asks another returnee. The discussion goes back and forth over politics and problems.
Despite the dangers involved in this campaign, the women here are not scared.
"We are making our future. Why should we be afraid?" asks Aziza Karima, who has just come back from Iran. "If we are afraid, we cannot make our future, we should just sit at home."
Ahmadi spent years working with agencies helping women.
"I think if I go to the parliament I can do more for women than this," she explains when asked why she is taking the risk of running for parliament.
But Ahmadi cautions there are no quick fixes in a nation where infrastructure has been battered by war and millions still live without reliable water or power and rancid open sewers run through the streets of a provincial capital such as Kandahar.
"We cannot solve our problems in one day," she tells the women, who range from teenagers to the elderly.
"It must be day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year."
"First, we must open men”s minds. They are not letting their women get an education. Without education, we cannot … solve the problems of life. With education, we can solve everything."
Education is Ahmadi”s driving priority. About 80 percent of Afghanistan”s women are illiterate, compared with half its men.
Ahmadi sees the polls as a positive step, but one step on a long journey. She says too many of the 5,800 candidates are former fighters — mujahideen or Taliban — or linked to the powerful drugs trade.
"I don”t think that this parliament will make Afghanistan," she says. "All of them were fighters before. If they win, then Afghanistan will again be in darkness."
But despite the opposition to women joining politics among some conservatives, many support the change sweeping one of the world”s most ancient societies.
Asked what he thinks of women in politics, 18-year-old Ahmad Jan smiles at his scarf stall in Kandahar”s chaotic main bazaar.
"No problem," he says. "I like women better than men."