KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Thirty Afghan women leaned forward on their plastic chairs Monday as an instructor showed them how to count votes and seal them away to keep the country's first presidential election as fair as possible.
"There might be journalists and foreigners watching, so be professional," Rahima Wasifi told the class during a crash course ahead of Saturday's vote.
The women are key to the success of the election in Kandahar, former capital of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban and a city synonymous with the hard-line Islamic regime's harsh treatment of women.
Since the militia's ouster three years ago, millions of women and girls have returned to work and education, especially in the cities. But some Afghan warlords who took power share the Taliban's views on women.
A report released today by the New York-based Human Rights Watch says progress in women's rights has been made, but Afghanistan has a long way to go.
The group says in a 36-page report that Taliban insurgents and government-allied warlords are both guilty of intimidating women to avoid the election.
Still, many women are hopeful that the election will add substance to freedoms anchored in a new constitution passed in January -- which enshrines equal rights for women and has been hailed as one of the more enlightened in the region.
According to the U.N.-sponsored electoral commission, 41 percent of the 10.6 million registered voters are women, more than expected. Still, the number of women who registered in the south was fewer than expected -- apparently hamstrung by conservative customs and a lack of security.
Of the 606,825 Afghans who signed up to vote in Kandahar province, 27 percent are female. Women account for less than 10 percent of those registered in neighboring Uruzgan and Zabul provinces, where only under U.S. military protection would election staff venture out to sign up voters.
Given the violence already directed at women who have dared to participate in the vote in the south, the trainee election workers know they are at risk.
"I'm happy to do something for my country," said Maimana Tarek, a 43-year-old aid worker who was among the oldest in the class. "But some are afraid of what might happen, that there might be rockets and bombs."
Men and women will vote separately, and election officials in Kandahar acknowledge they cannot find enough educated women to staff election sites in remote districts. In some places, Islamic clerics and male elders will oversee voting by women.
Recruitment and training has been delegated to district-level organizers who are not expected to report whether they have been successful, acknowledged Homayoun, the top election official for five southern provinces. "It's all in flux."
The arrangement raises questions about the freedom of women to vote freely, or whether elders will try to organize a block vote to bring favors from the victor -- probably Kandahar-born interim leader Hamid Karzai.
In Kandahar, views are mixed on whether women should be allowed near a polling booth either to work or vote.
Mohammed Hanifia, a 70-year-old security guard, said he saw female suffrage as part of a change for the better. But a farmer with a black turban and long beard was against the whole idea.
"In my village, people think it's very bad for woman get involved," Haji Abdullah Jan said. "If we let them out, they will soon be demanding all kinds of things."
Associated Press reporter Paul Haven in Kabul contributed to this report.