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Afghan women defy Taliban to vote

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Lines of blue burqas marked Saturday's elections as women turned out in large numbers to vote in several cities -- unthinkable under the Taliban, who would not allow women to work or study, let alone cast their ballot.

In the eastern city of Jalalabad, three women posed for photographers outside a school turned into a polling station for the first round of the presidential election.

Each held a baby in one hand and with the other proudly showed her index finger, stained purple to show she has voted.

Nearby, 20-year-old Ayesha wore a look of unwavering determination as she went to cast her first-ever vote, ignoring the threat to attack the polls from insurgents, ever-present in this part of Afghanistan.

"I am eligible to vote and even if there were suicide attacks by the Taliban, I would have not cared about it," she told AFP.

"We have to vote to show the enemies we are not afraid of them. We should give our enemies a jaw-breaking answer by casting our ballot."

Shabnam, in her 20s, who like many Afghans uses only one name, shared her defiance.

"Today is women's day for us and it is our day, I have come here with lots of excitement to come and cast my ballots to choose our next leader," Shabnam said.

In Jalalabad and the surrounding area, women formed long queues even before polls opened -- a sign of a changing society, increasingly aware of the importance of elections.

The deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, pointed to encouraging numbers such as the 300 women standing in provincial council elections.

There are some signs that Afghan men are coming round to the idea of women's involvement as well. Of the eight presidential candidates, all men, three chose a woman among their running mates, including Zalmai Rassoul, one of the favourites.

"When I left home, my wife and daughter told me they were also interested to cast their ballots for the election, and I did not oppose them," one male voter in Jalalabad told AFP.

But, according to local sources, female voters were much fewer in number in rural areas, where the Taliban have more influence.

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