In a reversal of the oppressive Taliban era, educated Afghan women are using the elections to the upcoming Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, to press for their civil rights. Many are now seeking a greater political and social role in Afghanistan, whereas until a few months ago women were virtual non-people.

The new possibilities for Afghan women are evident in Ghaurian, a remote town in Afghanistan’s western desert close to the border with Iran. Ghaurian has no electricity, telephones, or running water. The town’s subsistence-level economy is based on rain-fed agriculture. Located about 60 miles from the western center of Heart, families in Ghaurian have little contact with the outside world. “People here are totally isolated but look at the enthusiasm and the participation, especially from the women,” says Abdul Rahimi, one of the 21 members of the Loya Jirga Commission (LJC) that was established by the United Nations last December. “It’s amazing, the Taliban era has disappeared overnight in so many areas.”

Recently a group of female schoolteachers walked into the town’s main mosque where some 800 men were meeting to choose their delegates to the first phase of the elections. “You have 56 delegate seats and we have only 4 seats, but we want 4 more–so either the LJC gives us the extra seats or you yield us the seats from your own list,” they told the men. Hundreds of illiterate peasant women backed the teachers’ demands.

The few educated women of Ghaurian were galvanized in late March when schools reopened for the first time since the Taliban shut them down in 1995. About 1,700 children who have only 400 books between them now study in morning and evening shifts. The majority of their teachers are women. “We ran underground schools in our homes during the Taliban era and kept hope alive,” said Simi Samadi, the deputy principle of the school. “We know now that [Afghan interim government head] Hamid Karzai has called for women’s full participation in national life,” she added.

But the elections have brought women together for the first time in a structured assembly with a specific task to perform. In Ghaurian, as in other towns, the meetings to choose the candidates are segregated, but for the first time women can discuss amongst themselves and with men political issues, urgent developmental needs, and their demands from the Loya Jirga.

“We need a kindergarten so that women can leave their children there and work,” says Najiba Jami, a 25-year-old teacher. “There is no sanitation, no electricity, we need basic infrastructure,” said Parema Abbasi, also a 25-year-old teacher. Samadi spoke of a need for “English courses and computer classes.” The women erupted in laughter when Ojara Naquib, 30 and unmarried, said she would look for a husband if she were elected to the Loya Jirga.

In the first stage of the elections, towns and villages are choosing 16,000 delegates to represent over 400 districts. So far 100 district assemblies have been organized by the LJC and 4,600 delegates chosen. In the second stage at the end of May, these district assemblies will be whittled down to some 1,050 people who will represent the country’s 32 provinces. The LJC will select another 500 people to represent women, technocrats, refugees in Pakistan and Iran, nomads, and Afghans in exile in the West. At least 150 of the 1,501 representatives will be women, but Rahimi says that, given the response, women may number more than the stipulated 10 percent.

However, in many areas the elections face huge problems. In some regions, local warlords are trying to nominate their own candidates. Ethnic strife and poor security also are creating difficulties, especially in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still trying to mop up the remnants of al Qaeda and warlordism is rampant. In areas where elections cannot be held, the LJC has the authority to select candidates.

In more cosmopolitan cities like Kabul women are already working as doctors, journalists, and in many fields of humanitarian and development aid. At least 50,000 women have gone back to work as teachers and tens of thousands more as health workers. But without the elections it would have taken years for rural women, cut off from political events and social changes, to take the same steps.

So far none of the women in Ghaurian have taken off their burkas, the all-enveloping veil ordered by the Taliban, although among themselves and in front of LJC officials and journalists they happily bare their faces. But that does not stop them debating the future of dress codes. “We discuss this all the time, what fashion to follow or to create our own, but whatever we decide it has to be a step by step approach and we cannot just throw off the veil in one go,” said Parema Abbasi.