For women, Afghanistan's recent elections appear to have been more of a setback than a step forward.

Early reports strongly suggest that voter turnout fell more sharply for women than for men in Thursday's polls. Election observers blame Taliban attacks, a dearth of female election workers and hundreds of closed women's voting sites.

Some worry the result could be a new government that pays even less attention to women's concerns in a country where cultural conservatism already restricts female participation in public life.

Kulsoom Bibi, a woman in her 40s, is among those who did not vote.

``The rockets started coming from the early morning and, until night, the rockets still came,'' she said in Kandahar. ``The government hasn't done anything for women, and there were a lot of security problems. That's why I didn't cast my vote.''

Official results from Thursday's presidential and provincial council elections aren't expected for weeks.

Amid Taliban threats, both women and men appear to have voted in lower numbers than in previous elections. One election official estimated overall turnout at 40-50 percent, down from 70 percent in the last presidential election in 2004.

Women voters, however, faced additional obstacles, observers said.

At least 650 polling stations for women did not open, according to the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent vote monitoring group. In the southern province of Uruzgan, only 6 of 36 women's polling stations opened, the group said.

That was partly because authorities couldn't find enough female staffers.

In some areas, ``there were women who came to polling stations, and found no women workers there and went away. They didn't cast their votes,'' said Nader Nadery, the head of the group.

European Union observers noted that poor security hardened cultural attitudes in a nation where most women won't leave home without wearing an all-encompassing burqa.

``The lack of personal security ... disproportionately affected women and consolidated the opinions of many families and communities that it was not appropriate for women to be active outside the home,'' the EU mission said in a statement.

Afghan women have made great advances since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban government in 2001. Under the Taliban, women were banned from school and could not leave their homes without a male relative. Today, millions of girls are getting an education, while some women hold elected office.

But as the Taliban have re-emerged, especially in the nation's south and east, women have again become favorite targets. Female government officials regularly report receiving threats to their safety. Some women leaders, including a prominent policewoman, have been assassinated.

At the same time, the government has taken steps deemed anti-woman, most notably passing a law that appeared to legalize marital rape. After an international outcry, the law was revised, though activists say the new version still has problems.

The news for women was not all bad. Solid female turnout was reported in the relatively safe north. Many women set aside fears to run in the elections. Two were among more than three dozen presidential candidates. And 333 women ran for provincial council, up from 242 in 2005, according to the EU. However, the proportion of women candidates decreased in 14 of the 34 provinces.

Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, said the low female turnout is one reason the next government is likely to do little for women beyond appointing a handful to token positions.

``Women are scattered, they don't have a unified voice,'' he said. ``I'm pretty sure that they will not have any influence or any bargaining power.''

Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, described efforts to increase women's participation in the election as ``too little and too late.''

``Presidential candidates were more likely to present themselves as able to negotiate with the Taliban than to protect women's rights,'' she said.

Women need to improve their lobbying ability to gain more powerful positions in government, said Shinkai Karokhail, a female

lawmaker from Kabul. She found solace in the fact that many women turned out to vote despite the volatile situation.

``One woman in Kandahar coming out and casting th vote is like more than 1,000,'' she said. ``The fear I had is maybe none of the women would come out.''

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