As an endless procession of Afghans passes through the grim Soviet-era office of Masooda Jalal, all apparently enthusiastic about electing her the next president of Afghanistan, there are strange echoes in her responses of familiar American political themes.
She stresses her political independence above all else (echoes of Ralph Nader?), claiming to have no dealings with the political big dogs, the warlords and the United States, jockeying for power in the elections that will be held Saturday. And as the only woman in the field of 18 candidates, and decidedly an underdog, Jalal has an approach to building a viable candidacy that is all about networking -- tell your friends, tell your family, tell everyone in your village to vote for the woman -- that feels almost like a low-tech, oral-culture version of Howard Dean's Internet insurgency.
Foreigners who have come to Afghanistan to observe the campaign have noted, and even complained, that there doesn't seem to be much Western-style electioneering going on. Security concerns, plus the tribalization of Afghan politics, mean that most candidates stick to their home base. The familiar markers of American political activity -- advertising wars on the airwaves, orchestrated rallies and debates -- are minimal or absent. Except for colorful posters plastered all over Kabul -- Jalal's show a woman in traditional, even old-fashioned dress, holding a Koran, or with her hands cupped in front of her in the traditional gesture of prayer -- there are few overt signs of Afghanistan's first national elections.
But a morning spent with Jalal suggests that she, at least, is making a strength of what might appear to outsiders as weakness. She and her supporters say that the constant stream of people visiting this morning is the mark of a candidate whose popularity is rising so fast that people come voluntarily to give her their acclamation. And as for being a woman in a very traditional society that has, in the days of the Taliban especially, forced women into subservience, that, too, is being turned to advantage.
"Try to convince your relatives, neighbors, friends, young people, and all the people you say hello to," she says, urging a young man to help find her votes. If he can convince them, he says, she will have the support of the 400 people who work for him. She tells him exactly what to say: "The expression you should use is: Vote for the mother."
Vote for the mother. The photograph of Jalal used in her posters makes her look positively matronly, and this morning, she is stressing maternal femininity as an alternative to the warlords, ethnic panderers and puppet figures she is running against. Motherhood is generosity, it is frugality, it is fairness, it is healing. Mothers love all their children, equally, and Afghanistan, she says, desperately needs a leader who will fight for the interests of all against the depredations of fierce partisanship.
"The mother thinks always about her children, never about herself," says Dauod Noori, a teacher at Kabul University, who is one of Jalal's supporters. Although women have risen to top office in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh, Noori (who teaches political history) points out that they have all gotten there on the coattails of men, or because of strong family connections. Jalal, he says, is different, a woman with no connections, no money, and only the strength of her reputation -- she is a doctor who stayed and worked, despite the hardship and peril, during the Taliban regime -- to recommend her to the people.
"She is the only candidate who has been able to achieve a personal relation with voters," says Nasrine Gross, a women's rights activist and teacher at Kabul University. "She is making herself a member of the voter's family, and she hardly ever says 'I' or 'me.' She says 'vote for your sister.' "
Gross, who observes that Jalal has not positioned herself as "a women's issues candidate," traces the effectiveness of the mother/sister message to the particular virtues associated with women in Afghan Islam: sacrifice, selflessness, care-giving.
To the journalists who visit her office, she stresses her independence, her professionalism, her desire to disarm the warlords and lead Afghanistan to peace. She speaks English well, and stays tenaciously on message. Asked about what distinguishes her from Hamid Karzai, the interim president and the candidate everyone seems to think will win handily, she is blunt.
"He's with the warlords, I'm with the people," she says. "I am independent, he's not. I am not owing anything to the warlords. He is owing the warlords."
And what makes her think she could curb the warlords' power?
"If I get the success, I will disarm them," she says, with a tone that falls somewhere between impatience and fatigue with stating the obvious. This may not be a candidate blithely promising to do what her predecessor found impossible, but the mark of a fundamentally different worldview than her male counterparts have brought to Afghan politics. Whereas male leaders have fought for dominance, or failing that, internecine alliances that momentarily quell the disruptive power of ethnic and regional rivalry, Jalal's rhetoric suggests that the peace that has eluded men might be had through the simple, sentimental, moral authority of a mother figure. As Noori says, the mother "has a special and holy place in the heart of the people," but the mother is also a woman, which, paradoxically, puts her both on the inside and the outside of male-dominated society.
This may be a very good place for a politician to be. The future Afghan president must be able to make a deep, emotional claim to being an Afghan, with all the collective suffering and longstanding resentment of outsider intrusion that comes with that identity. But outsiders can offer a clean break with the past, and a catharsis that might allow the country to go in a new direction. Jalal often uses the phrase "create a history" or "make a great history" for women, suggesting that a vote for her is not just a vote for her platform -- peace, stability, security, rebuilding -- but for a new chapter in the country's history.
Jalal is a remarkably disciplined politician. To Western journalists, she talks of one set of problems (disarmament and drug production) and defends her vice presidential picks as the result of a disinterested, rigorous vetting process; to Afghan village leaders coming for an all-important bit of basic face time, Mom is kindly assertive. Go back to your villages. Go to the mosques and talk to the men. Tell your family and acquaintances to vote for me. Find the young men where they gather and urge them to think of me as their mother. Tell women not to be timid, to express support for their sister. When Jalal is handed a cell phone, and placed on the line with another woman doctor who is supporting her, the politician moves effortlessly into a new set of metaphors.
"As a doctor, you give advice to the people for their healthiness," she says. "So now you have the responsibility to tell them that they should make a healthy decision as well."
Everyone else in the room is a man, some of them with the creased and leathery skin of people who have spent years in the sun. Some are in neatly cut suits, others in traditional clothing accented by expensive-looking gold watches. One man leaves with a roll of campaign posters tied up with the long scarf that he came in wearing on his head.
Throughout a barrage of interviews and meetings, Jalal never flags. Her posture, and gestures, suggest a velvet way of running a room. Near the end of a conversation with two men who go by single names, Zarmai and Nasrullah, she signs her name to a form that authorizes them to represent her and requests that no one interfere with their efforts. The casual but confidently bureaucratic way she signs the forms and hands them to the men, and the respectful way they take the papers, fold them and place them in their pockets, suggests that there is more going on in the relation between the sexes than the generalized sense of pervasive oppression and misogyny that outsiders bring to the picture.
Outside Jalal's office, Zarmai explains why he came to Kabul to meet her.
"Today we have the idea that we could support her because she is a hero: the only woman," he says. "And she's independent."
A video by washingtonpost.com's Travis Fox of Afghan presidential candidate Masooda Jalal receiving visitors in her office can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/world.