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HERAT, Afghanistan, Sept 14 (AFP) - The number that appeared on Gheida Tavaen Afif's cellphone was unfamiliar, but she answered it anyway. "Step down or you'll be dead," a gruff voice barked.
It was the latest in a string of threatening calls made from payphones and cellphones to the 26-year-old, who is standing for parliament in Afghanistan's western city of Herat, but she ignores them.
"Why should I step down? Because I am a woman? No, never," she said at her campaign office, which situated in her family compound.
Afif says her father is supporting her financially, along with her brother and sister who both live overseas, although the family did not report the calls to the police because they were powerless to stop the harassment.
"Even if I risk getting killed, I will still struggle and push my way ahead because someone needs to stop this stupidity," she adds.
Hundreds of women like her are defying threats, instability and conservative attitudes to stand in the parliamentary polls on September 18, the country's first for 30 years and the next step in its tough path to democracy.
In the south and east they face a situation that has barely changed since the time of the Taliban, the hardline Islamic regime that banned women from studying, working or leaving the house without being covered by a burqa.
The region is also in the grip of an increasingly bloody insurgency waged by remnants of the hardline Islamic militia.
Meanwhile in much of northern and western Afghanistan, rights groups say, local warlords who helped lay waste to much of the country during a bitter civil war in the 1990s are now intimidating candidates.
Nevertheless, 328 women are standing for parliament's lower house, where 68 of 249 seats have been set aside for females. Another 237 are running for seats on provincial councils.
Only five seats reserved for women on provincial councils will stay empty because not enough women have stood for election, all of them in the conservative, ethnic Pashtun southern provinces where the Taliban were spawned.
The quotas have given an incentive for otherwise conservative tribal elders and powerful political families to put their normally sidelined sisters and daughters on the campaign trail.
And independent female candidates have found innovative ways around the intimidation.
Shukria Barikzai, 33, who is standing for parliament in the capital Kabul, has received a stream of death threats over the phone and by email.
Instead of planning rallies or meetings, she drives around the city and stops at crowded locations like bus stations to make speeches and distribute leaflets to passers-by.
Election observers say tradition remains a formidable obstacle for women planning their campaigns, because it is almost impossible for them to travel unaccompanied by a male relative, especially in rural areas.
"How can you campaign with a burqa over your head?" said one western election expert.
Money is another problem because few women have independent financial means to pay for leaflets, phone bills and office expenses.
"Women in general are financially dependent on their husbands or male family members, and rarely have good jobs so they have problems campaigning," said Mahboba Jamshidi, a 28-year-old parliamentary candidate.
Jamshidi was lucky, travelling to villages around the city with her father or brother, but in the conservative southeast other candidates face insurmountable obstacles.
Parliamentary candidate Gharghashta Katawazai has not been able to make a single campaign trip to Paktika province, where Taliban insurgents have killed six US soldiers so far this year.
"But I plan to go with the will of God despite the security concerns," she said.
At least one candidate in Paktika withdrew her candidacy after receiving death threats, and other 50 women across the country have stepped off the campaign trail, according to UN election officials.
But even in the south, more women are coming out to vote, with women making up 44 percent of the voters who have registered since the Afghan presidential election in October 2004.
In Ajristan district in conservative southeastern Ghazni province, where no women registered to vote last year, 13,000 have put their names on registers.
And female candidates will need their votes.
In this traditional Islamic culture, it is anathema for Afghan men to vote for a woman, which means they have a much narrower pool of supporters than their male competitors.
"Men cannot see women representing them," Jamshidi said. "We went to a village to campaign, but the elders asked why they should vote for women when there are male candidates."
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