KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - About 1,500 women braved the wrath of family and insurgents, or meekly did as ordered, when they massed in this southern city for a weekend rally in support of President Hamid Karzai's re-election campaign.

While some said they desperately wanted to be part of the electoral process, others said they had no idea why they were there. Still others said they had shown up only because they were told to.

The national elections next month, the second such vote since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, is seen as of critical importance. The international community has been trying to support Karzai's efforts to create a semblance of legitimate central authority in the violence-wracked country.

With insurgent attacks at record levels, security was on the minds of the women, many wearing burkas, who are often treated as third-class citizens, especially in the country's south.

Shabibi, 40, said women needed more work opportunities and more protection, but said she supported what Karzai has done.

"We should look back a few years to what life we had at the time of Taliban," she said.

"We had to stay inside the house and couldn't go out; we couldn't even think of working outside the home, and we could not send our girls to school. But we can do that now."

Where women are seen on the streets of Kandahar, they are invariably clad in baby-blue burkas that hide heads, faces and bodies. Recent human-rights reports have noted high levels of sexual and other violence against them.

Shabibi said women want to vote and help elect the country's president, but showing support openly was risky.

"Since the election campaign started, the Taliban are more angry, and we are too scared," she said.

"(The women) aren't even telling their families where are they going. I told my family I was going to an engagement party. It must be secret."

In many cases, the women at the rally at the Khushbakht Saloon, a private marriage hall in central Kandahar city, said they would vote for Karzai because their husbands wanted them to.

Others said they came because they were asked or told to.

"I don't know why I am here, but I was told by my neighbours to come with them," said a 50-year-old woman, who gave her name as Shagufta and said she would be voting for Karzai on Aug. 20.

Faridah, a mother of five, said she planned to vote for Karzai whatever the consequences.

"I am going to select my own president for my own country," Faridah said defiantly.

"If I get killed by the Taliban, it will still be a source of pride for me."

In a speech to the crowd, Friba Ahmadi, Karzai's women's-issues campaign director, reminded the audience of what life had been like under the Taliban, whose austere brand of Islam had relegated women to positions of complete subservience.

Transgressions of the Taliban-imposed rules were swiftly and harshly punished, in some cases by death.

"Look back a few years at what life we had, at the conditions of our beloved sisters all around the country, and look at what we have now," Ahmadi said.

Audience members fretted about security at polling stations Aug. 20, while others suggested there was simply no point voting.

"They believe nothing will change," said Agha Wali a farmer from Arghandab district.

"They say: 'If I can't see any change, I won't vote, and I am telling everyone who will listen to me not to vote and not to waste their time'."

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