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One of Afghanistan's rare female Olympians now running for parliament

Robina Jalali, a 25-year-old former Olympic runner, is a candidate for the Afghan parliament and hopes to bring a new voice to the country's conservative body.

"I let her go out and do sports," Jamaludin said. "I ignored all the comments of people who told me not to allow my daughter to travel outside Afghanistan, that as a woman it was a disgrace."

Jalali said she traveled to more than 30 international track meets. In Athens, she was one of two women on the five-member Afghan Olympic squad, lining up in her 100-meter heat, her only race, against U.S. star Gail Devers. She finished in 14.14 seconds, far behind the winning pace of 10.93. In Beijing, she was Afghanistan's only woman, and she insisted on running in a hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf. After both Olympics, she was hailed as a hero by the international media - if not at home.

"I did not have popular support," she said. "People spoke ill of me going on trips."

Jalali's bid for office has been criticized by an unlikely source: fellow women who complain that she is an opportunist with a sparse résumé. A local newspaper recently projected her as one of the nine women likely to win a seat among the 90 running in Kabul, but not everyone is convinced she is ready to govern.

"If you want to run for modeling, you need a pretty face and wonderful body," said Shukira Barakzai, a leading female member of parliament. "But for parliament, the criteria is different. This time women think anyone can be a member of parliament. Well, they take the seat but how can they work? They don't know the constitution, they don't know about the budget, they don't know anything about our oversight job."

Jalali said she has gained valuable experience working with her father's nonprofit organization, which teaches poor women how to sew, and three years working as a secretary at Kabul Bank. She brushes off persistent rumors that Kabul Bank executives are bankrolling her campaign as part of a pro-Karzai bloc of candidates. The only people funding her, Jalali insists, are family members.

But Barakzai makes a valid point: Being a female legislator isn't easy. In 2009, the parliament approved the Shia Personal Status Law, which mandated that Shiite women could not refuse their husbands' sexual demands or get an education without their husbands' permission. Barakzai spoke against the law, but most of her female colleagues, under intense pressure, voted in favor of it.

With Karzai said to be seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, the ability of female legislators to enshrine women's rights is critical. Jalali said that her past performance is good measure for the resolve she would show in parliament. In 2008, she agreed to run on the Olympic team after Afghan sprinter Mehbooba Ahadyar received death threats and sought asylum in Norway.

"Fear is something I lived with every day," she said. "If I caved to fear and left the country, what would happen to all the Afghans who were left behind? What kind of role model would I be?"

Jalali recently presided over a 32-team cricket tournament organized by her campaign. Wearing a slim-cut black pant suit, matching heels and a red-green-and-black hijab, Jalali removed over-sized sunglasses and addressed the players, telling them she was proud of their athletic accomplishments.

Then, a young man handed her a cricket bat and motioned her to the batter's box. He wound up and delivered a half-speed pitch, which Jalali promptly smacked over his head. She laughed, and the men around her applauded.


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