Attempts by Afghanistan to prevent the type of electoral fraud and chaos that marred previous elections could result in fewer women going to the polls in next month's vote.
The Afghan government's plan to use a sophisticated biometric voter-identification system that includes fingerprint, eye, and facial recognition for the September 28 presidential election has raised concerns it might prevent some women from participating. Women in the religiously conservative Afghan society are often reluctant to have their photos taken.
“My family won’t allow a photo of me to be taken and I wouldn’t want to do it either,” Samira, from the northern city of Sheberghan, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.
“My mother and I are planning to vote in the presidential election as long as the election takes place like before, without having to take photos,” said Samira.
In the absence of clear information about how the system works, Samira believes the biometric system means her photos will be taken and “printed” by election officials. That is a deal breaker for Samira and her mother.
Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), insists the biometric system will not infringe on anyone's privacy and is sensitive to religious customs.
“The biometric images of the female voters will be taken by female election workers inside the closed, designated areas that men won’t be allowed to enter,” Ibrahimi said. The photos will also not be printed but rather kept in a digital database.
The Afghan NGO Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), which monitors the election process, supports the use of the biometric voter-verification system, which is designed to prevent people from voting multiple times or voting in the place of others.
“In the past several elections, there were many cases in which men cast ballots on behalf of women,” says Yousuf Rasheed, FEFA's executive director. “In the documents, it even looked like women’s participation in the election was much higher than men’s.”
Rasheed thinks that in some deeply conservative areas of Afghanistan, the use of the biometric system -- and especially “a lack of correct information about it” -- will have a negative impact on women’s turnout in the presidential election.
Biometrics or no biometrics, I’ll go and vote for the candidate that I support. It’s my right."-- Afghan voter Sahar
Rasheed also doesn’t rule out that “some elements who are generally against women’s attendance in elections” would use the biometrics as a pretext to try to stop women from voting.
In the 2018 parliamentary elections, women were reported to have made up about 33 percent of the total number of voters.
Rasheed criticized the country's election officials for not explaining earlier exactly how the biometric system works in order to assure women and their families that the system will not violate a woman's privacy or social customs.
Although the use of the biometric kits in the presidential election was announced earlier in the year, the IEC waited until August 19 to publicize that the process involves facial recognition, in addition to fingerprints and a scan of a person's iris.
“Now it’s very important for election officials and candidates to work together with local leaders, education officials, religious scholars...and other influential figures to explain to families that taking biometric images of the women doesn’t violate their privacy, to make sure female election workers are hired to take the photos, and to reassure people that the biometric [material] will be kept private,” Rasheed told RFE/RL on August 24.
Sahar, a resident of the western city of Farah, said the introduction of biometrics won’t stop her from exercising her right to vote.
“Biometrics or no biometrics, I’ll go and vote for the candidate that I support. It’s my right,” she told RFE/RL.
In the northern city of Kunduz, Marzia urged “all Afghans” to take part in the important vote to decide the country's next leader for five years.
“Despite all kinds of problems or issues, every Afghan has to cast their vote for the sake of the country, for the sake of peace and security,” Marzia told RFE/RL.
Afghanistan used a biometric voter-identification system that recorded voters' fingerprints in the October 2018 parliamentary elections -- but some workers who were trained to use the biometric devices didn’t show up on election day and thousands of the devices were also reportedly lost or stolen.
The gross mismanagement and organizational problems led to chaos, and fraud allegations caused the voting results from Kabul to be annulled.
Afghanistan's last presidential election, held in 2014, was also vexed by allegations of fraud and led to a disputed result between Ghani and his competitor in the runoff, Abdullah Abdullah.
The UN had to be enlisted to help sort out the questionable vote count, and then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry eventually had to negotiate a power-sharing agreement that made Ghani president and Abdullah the country's chief executive officer.
The upcoming presidential election was initially scheduled for April but was postponed until September to allow time for election workers to be trained on the new biometric systems and to help verify voter lists, among other issues.
Zabeh Sadat, an IEC spokesman, told RFE/RL that authorities hope the multitude of problems that plagued previous Afghan elections “won’t be repeated” on September 28.
Ghani -- who is viewed as the front-runner -- is being challenged by 16 other candidates in a crucial election that comes amid reports of a possible peace deal with the extremist Taliban group and an ongoing insurgency in the war-torn country that has killed thousands of people this year.
The U.S.-led peace talks with the Taliban are aimed at ending the nearly 18-year-long war between the United States, Western, and Afghan forces against the Taliban and other Muslim extremist groups vying for control in the country.
Some analysts have even suggested that a peace deal with the Taliban could result in a power-sharing agreement with the extremist group that would lead to the postponement or even cancellation of the September 28 election -- and render all of the fuss over the biometric voting system meaningless.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Neda.