On a recent humid summer morning, two dozen women stream into a conference room overlooking a lush garden at Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani's headquarters. They have come to hear the former finance minister's policies on women - and to tell him what they want from the next administration: more female representation in senior political positions.
"It is worth mentioning that 42 percent of the voters in the last election were women, and it is expected that women voters may top 5 million in the upcoming vote," begins one woman as she stands to read the group's opening statement, which kicks off a lively 90- minute discussion about security, the economy, and the importance of women in government.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and President Hamid Karzai have also held such meetings with these women leaders - Mr. Karzai hosting a group for a three-hour lunch at the presidential palace. Organized by the umbrella Afghan Women's Network (AWN), the gatherings mark the most serious effort Afghan women have yet made to hold the candidates accountable for campaign promises made in their name.
"We were not able to unify and to have one voice last time," says AWN's executive director Afifa Aziz, referring to the 2004 presidential race, Afghanistan's first-ever direct election for the country's top office. "We needed some time to organize, to grow, to mobilize."
This election season, say Ms. Aziz and other community leaders, things are different. They have learned a lot about politics and advocacy in the past seven years. And though some are hesitant to call the nascent efforts a full-blown women's movement, few doubt that women have come a great distance when it comes to knowing and advocating for their own rights.
On Aug. 4, women from across the country met in Kabul to launch the "5 Million Women" campaign aimed at bolstering "women's political participation in order to ensure the rule of law and gender equality."
"Today women are really learning the ups and downs of politics," says Palwasha Hassan, who heads a nongovernmental organization (NGO) promoting women's political and legal-rights awareness. "Women are learning to use the same tools as men; they are learning what real power is. And real power means you have a constituency, so people have to listen to you."
Organize and mobilize
Community leaders say that when it comes to campaigns, women understand that it is all about organization and mobilization.
"We don't have military power," says Orzala Ashraf, a women's rights advocate and AWN board member. "What we have are grassroots connections through our social networks among the communities. We may not have guns, but we have the ability to mobilize."
That grassroots strength could be valuable should the election turn from what was expected to be an easy Karzai victory into a tighter contest that leads to a fall runoff.
Women: 40 percent of new voters
Women represent nearly 40 percent of the 4.5 million citizens newly added to the country's previous roster of 12.5 million voters. Though many females here are expected to follow their family's lead in deciding whether and for whom they will turn out, local women's groups are getting the word out that women have a right to their ballot - …