KABUL/KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The deeply conservative, all-male crowd at Afghanistan's Kandahar stadium stared in disbelief as the small woman in a modest black headscarf stood up and reached for the microphone.
Habiba Sarabi's speech in the southern Taliban heartland city lasted only a few minutes, thanking the crowd for supporting her candidacy in next month's presidential election. It was met by a few jeers, wolf whistles and, after a stunned silence, scattered clapping.
During their strict Islamist rule from 1996-2001, the Afghan Taliban had banned women from education, voting and most work, and they were not allowed to leave their homes without permission and a male escort.
Today, Sarabi is one of three female vice-presidential candidates in the April 5 poll and the only one on a front-runner's ticket. The 57-year-old pharmacist and former governor is supporting Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister endorsed by the president's brothers.
A fair election would mark Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power, a monumental achievement for Afghans struggling to end decades of bloodletting and cement fragile gains in education, health and human rights.
Sarabi, appointed as Afghanistan's first female governor in 2005, says she hopes to stop conservative leaders from whittling away hard-won rights for women after most foreign troops leave at the end of the year.
Women have faced a legislative onslaught in the past year and seats reserved for them on local councils have been reduced, triggering a public outcry from human rights groups and Western diplomats. "I'm persuading women to vote for me so they can recognise they are part of the political power," Sarabi told Reuters, a large bodyguard standing by her side.
Like most prominent Afghan women, Sarabi says the death threats against her are too numerous to count. Mullahs have also scolded her for addressing crowds, in a country where some believe that women are forbidden from preaching. "There's definitely a decline of women's rights and people are afraid it will get worse," said Fawzia Koofi, an outspoken Afghan parliamentarian and activist who has survived several assassination attempts.