By Rina Chandran
KABUL - The first female founder of an Afghan political party has urged the country to rethink the use of facial recognition technology in elections amid concerns it stopped large numbers of women from voting this year.
Authorities photographed all voters in September's presidential election and used facial recognition software, a measure designed to combat fraud that women's rights activists say deterred female voters from participating.
"Women should be able to vote - it is their right. So anything that impedes that right is a problem," the politician and women's rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kabul.
"Security and fraud are serious issues, but perhaps there are alternatives like iris scans that are more acceptable to women," said Koofi, leader of the Movement of Change for Afghanistan party and a former deputy speaker of parliament.
"We have to find a way that is sensitive to their needs."
A spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) said biometric images of women were taken by female staff where possible and the pictures were stored securely in a digital database.
"This was part of the election reforms we have undertaken to curb fraud and for greater transparency. In the past, men were voting in the name of women without any checks," said IEC spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi.
"Some women agreed to have their pictures taken, others did not. Perhaps our awareness campaign on the technology did not reach everyone, but that can be addressed in future."
Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in September's election after threats of violence by the Taliban who considered it to be illegitimate and warned people not to take part.
The photo requirement is particularly difficult for women, especially in conservative areas, where most adult women and older girls cover their faces outside the home and do not show themselves to men who are not their relatives.
No official data for female voter turnout in the September elections is available, but Sheila Qayumi at the non-profit Equality for Peace and Democracy in Kabul said women made up only a fraction of voters.
"They were not comfortable showing their faces in public, or were not sure how their pictures would be used," she said.
"These cultural sensitivities must be taken into account, and women informed properly. Or we risk losing their say in the affairs of the country," said Qayumi, whose organisation works on raising women's participation in politics.
The roll-out of facial recognition technology in airports, metro stations and other public places around the world poses a challenge to women who veil their face anywhere, said Areeq Chowdhury, founder of London-based think tank Future Advocacy.
He said governments must ensure this is done in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner so the rights and freedoms of minority groups are not impacted.
"If there is no suitable opt-out, and women are forced to show their face in public in order to exercise their democratic right, then this is hugely problematic," he said.
"I would seriously question the need to have such stringent voter ID requirements for any election in any country."
Women were already underrepresented in Afghanistan's election process, accounting for a third of more than 9.6 million registered voters, according to the IEC.
During their strict Islamist rule from 1996-2001, the Afghan Taliban banned women from education, voting and most work. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without permission and a male escort.