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Fitness instructor plans first Afghan women's party

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HERAT, Afghanistan, Nov 5 (AFP) - With no beard and no turban, the surprise winner of parliamentary elections in Afghanistan's conservative Herat is a petite, 33-year-old dynamo: Fauzia Sadat Gailani is a fitness instructor and wants to form the first women's political party in the country's history.

In this devout western province on the border with Iran, few could have foreseen that this young woman with a round face would have triumphed over influential war commanders and other local leaders.

But with 16,885 votes, about 3.6 percent of the provincial total, on a crowded ballot paper, she has topped the tally for Herat's seats on the new national assembly, Afghanistan's first in more than three decades.

Gailani was largely unknown before the September poll but her success cannot only be attributed to her election poster, which put her pretty face -- with big brown eyes and bright red lips -- against a mauve background.

"She was really busy: people say that she's done an excellent campaign," says Abdul Aziz Samiem, from the National Democratic Institute non-government organisation which monitored the poll.

"We saw her red 4X4 everywhere, in villages, in schools, in districts," he says, putting Gailani's success down to several factors.

"Ordinary people think she's pretty, she's done a very strong campaign, women may have thought that she could be a good candidate for them," he says.

She was also helped by her name, with Gailani and Sadat two respected families in Afghanistan, despite her limited education.

Born in Herat, she fled during the Soviet occupation and spent 16 years in Iran before returning home after the fall in 2001 of the hardline Islamic Taliban, which kept women at home and under the burqa.

Now Gailani pushes, before everything, the equality of rights between men and women.

"Women are not seen as human beings in Afghanistan, but like objects that people can sell, trade or buy," she says.

"There are not enough rights for women in this country: they cannot study, they cannot work."

She is particularly against child marriage, which is common in Afghanistan.

"I can talk about it: I was married at 12, I had my first child at 13, and I hated that," she says.

Sitting at her side, her husband nods with an embarrassed pout. Later, when he has left, the mother of six adds, "If I could have chosen, I would have had only one child. One is good."

As though trying to make up for the time she lost while away, she is involved in a plethora of activities which cement her local network of relations with women.

A key project is a fitness centre she set up on her return to Herat with equipment imported from Iran. About 30 contraptions, some rudimentary, are spread out across a red carpet, in front a mirrored wall decorated with plastic flowers.

"I'm more powerful when I'm doing sports," Gailani says. "It's healthy and it's also good for the mind of women, to make them understand that they can get their rights."

This is what happened with her election campaign. "At first I thought that I couldn't say all that and win in this closed society. But after the campaign started, I saw people and I realised that I could make it. Now that lots of people voted for me ... no one can stop me at the parliament," she says.

She knows, however, that she will not have an easy time in the national assembly, which will be dominated by mujahedin warlords and Islamist jihadis, or holy warriors, often as conservative as the Taliban.

To "raise the voice of women", Gailani says, "I want to make a women's political party at the parliament with other elected women."

Members could include Malalai Joya, a strong critic of warlords who came second in the parliamentary vote in neighbouring Farah province.

But before rallying other MPs, Gailani has some convincing to do at home. "You're going too far," exclaims her husband when she mentions her goal in front of AFP. "A women's political party... It's not possible."

"Even at home, I have problems with my husband sometimes," Gailani admits, before betraying her own fears. "Do you think that it's possible to create a women's party now in Afghanistan? Isn't that dangerous for us?" she asks.



COPYRIGHT 2005 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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