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Woman makes history in Afghanistan


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An Afghan woman runs for president.
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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Massouda Jalal is making history by becoming the first Afghan woman ever to run for president.

"Three years back I could not even dream of being a presidential candidate," the 41-year-old mother of three says.

"And if I won what is the translation? The whole world would say the people of Afghanistan won the election, not gun, not dollar."

With less than a week to go, the only female candidate begs for more television time, organizes grassroots support, strategizes with her 70-year-old male running mate, and dreams of what could be.

With Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election set to take place on Saturday, the government estimates that 10 million Afghans have registered to vote.

The poll is seen as a crucial test for the war-torn nation's troubled transition to democracy after the fall of the Taliban nearly three years ago.

The hard-line Islamic regime was known for its harsh treatment of women. Under the Taliban, women were banned from working or going to school and were subjected to myriad dress code and travel restrictions.

But despite inroads being made, women are still not participating in the economy, political power, or leadership of the country.

So while she's a long shot to win, Massouda's candidacy is all about change.

In the capital Kabul women are being educated and can find work, but outside of the cities the majority of women can't leave their homes without permission from their fathers or brothers.

But a source of hope, says the United Nations, is that 41 percent of the registered voters are women.

Threats to women

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Letters have been distributed to parts of Afghanistan warning women not to vote, a report says.

In a busy market street in Kabul women are excited about voting and about their first female candidate.

"She's capable and deserves to be a candidate," says one shopper.

But in a bakery run by war widows, they shriek at the very thought.

"At no time could a woman become the leader of our country, never," says one local woman who goes by the name of Roya.

But these war widows say they will vote for anyone except candidates who represent the warlords who kept the country at war for 25 years.

In most provinces, people say the primary obstacle to democratic rule is the warlords, says John Sifton from the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Particularly since some Afghan warlords share the Taliban's views on women.

A 36-page report released on Tuesday by the Human Rights Watch says Taliban insurgents and government-allied warlords are both guilty of intimidating women not to take part in the election.

"A pervasive atmosphere of fear persists for women involved in politics and women's rights in Afghanistan, despite significant improvements in women's lives since the fall of the Taliban," the report said.

So-called night letters distributed in many parts of the south and east have warned women not to vote, and four women were among 12 election workers killed in attacks in the months leading up to the vote.

But such threats could drive the vote towards Massouda.

"Afghanistan is completely ready for a woman president, people are tired of war, people cannot trust the fighters who were men," she says.

"So that's why they trust a woman, woman does not know how to fight at all, women were not involved in the fighting and bloodshed, the hands of a woman is clean."

Many women are hopeful that the election will add substance to freedoms anchored in a new constitution passed in January -- which enshrines equal rights for women and has been hailed as one of the more enlightened in the region.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour contributed to this report.


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