KABUL — In a country where most women leave home only under the cover of a burqa, Shahla Atta wears bright pink nail polish, highlights her eyes with glitter and wants to be Afghanistan's next president.
Atta, 42, is one of two women among more than 30 candidates vying for the presidency – an uphill and even dangerous undertaking. Neither has much chance of unseating President Hamid Karzai in the Aug. 20 vote. But just the fact that they are running open campaigns, plastering photos of their uncovered faces around Kabul, is an accomplishment in itself.
Many Afghans, especially in rural areas, believe that a woman should not show her face to non-family members.
"It is difficult for a woman even to invite some people over for tea and tell them about her ideas," said Shinkai Kharokhel, a female lawmaker in Kabul.
Then there is the Taliban, the extremist movement that banned girls from schools and ordered women to stay home and tend to their families during its harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. Taliban militants have targeted female politicians, and have claimed responsibility for the killings of policewomen and officials with the women's affairs ministry in recent years.
Frozan Fana, 40, the other woman running for president, hasn't campaigned in some outlying areas. Her vice presidential running mate, Mohammad Nasim Darmand, said he or other male deputies have gone to rallies instead. Most of her campaign events have been indoors with security-screened guests.
"Taliban and anti-government elements are against everyone, men and women, but women are soft targets for them," Kharokhel said.
Still, Fana, an orthopedic surgeon who has never held political office, has scheduled campaign events throughout the south – a Taliban stronghold that includes Helmand province, where U.S. Marines and British soldiers are fighting major offensives.
Both Fana and Atta come from political families and cite husbands and fathers who were involved in politics as part of the experience that makes them ready to lead.
Atta, a Kabul lawmaker, says women can help reform a political system dominated by male cronyism and corruption.
"The people of Afghanistan are sick of this. Billions of dollars have been wasted," she said in an interview at her campaign headquarters. "My grandchildren will get old before Karzai changes this, so the women should bring change."
At a rally in Kabul this week, Atta, wearing a long black headscarf, told a tentful of more than 100 people – the front rows packed with women – that she has to fight particularly hard as a woman running against so many men.
Fana is more soft-spoken and quick to defer to male deputies on policy. Dressed in conservative black robes and a matching headscarf, she said she was eager to run because her medical work has shown her how much Afghans are hurting. She says she wants to help people who can't pay for care.
Neither woman has the sway of Afghanistan's first female presidential candidate, who ran in the last election in 2004. Massouda Jalal finished sixth in a field of 18 candidates – though she received only 1.1 percent of the vote – and served briefly as Women's Affairs Minister.
Fana and Atta are expected to finish near the bottom of the field in this election, which Karzai is favored to win.
Not all women support them. The Movement of Afghan Sisters, a nationwide voting bloc of 16,000 women, backs Ashraf Ghani, a man who is also a long-shot but seems stronger on women's rights, said Homaira Haqmal, the group's founder.
"Many of the female MPs in Afghanistan today came through warlords or the political machine. They aren't free to speak and they aren't decision makers," said the professor of law and political science at Kabul University.
Haqmal said the real battle for women's rights will be fought in the provinces, where women have to fight conservative culture and male-dominated local government both to run for office and to vote. Dozens of provincial council seats reserved for women are likely to go unfilled this year, because there are no candidates willing to run.
Haqmal's year-old group recruited 47 female candidates for provincial councils this year and is planning car pools to get women to the polls in areas where their husbands would be unlikely to let them out alone.
Associated Press Writer Julie Jacobson contributed to this report from Kabul.