KABUL (Reuters) - Suraya Dalil is a medical doctor, has worked for the United Nations and studied at an elite U.S. University, but this is not enough to convince Afghanistan's parliament she is qualified to run the country's health ministry.
Last week her nomination for the top position in one of President Hamid Karzai's key ministries was vetoed by parliament. Another female candidate, Palwasha Hassan, chosen to run the women's affairs ministry, was also rejected.
The decision was a blow to women's rights advocates who had lobbied hard for Karzai to pick both Dalil and Hassan.
They supported the pair not just because they want to see more women in positions of power in conservative, Muslim Afghanistan, but because they say both women are highly qualified and politically independent.
"Suraya Dalil in my opinion was one of the most qualified of any cabinet member that was introduced. She is very experienced and well educated," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a member of parliament (MP) for Afghanistan's southeastern Ghazni province. "Her rejection was very sad for me because I campaigned for her.
"Qualifications in this parliament, or any other parliament, are irrelevant. It's an obstructionist parliament in relation to the cause of women," he said.
In a sign of how sensitive the issue of women in politics in Afghanistan is, Hassan declined to be interviewed and Dalil was reluctant to talk about her rejection, saying she was grateful for the support she had received from many MPs.
"I don't know about what's going on inside parliament and how views are shaped and are decided," she told Reuters in an interview at the ministry of public health, where she has been appointed deputy minister and is currently acting minister.
Dalil's rejection was also a blow to Afghanistan's attempts to shed its reputation for corruption. Not aligned to any faction or political group, Dalil's independence and clear mandate may have even worked against her.
"Someone like Suraya didn't get voted in, not because (Afghans) are against women's participation, but because there are so many interests," said Orzala Ashraf, a leading human rights activist and close colleague of Hassan.
"Conservative elements are the first reason, but (other MPs) could simply have not voted for her because they would not expect some contracts (that benefit them) to be signed," she added.
Afghanistan's parliament is made up of around 240 seats. After the Taliban were ousted in a U.S. and Afghan-led military operation in 2001, Karzai's Western backers were determined to bring women back into education, work and public life.
To ensure women are sufficiently represented in politics a quota system exists, with 68 seats in parliament reserved for women, regardless of whether they have secured popular support. There has also been at least one female minister, usually heading the women's affairs ministry, in all Karzai's cabinets.
Alongside Hassan and Dalil another woman, Amena Afzali, was nominated by Karzai to join his cabinet when he submitted his list to parliamentarians for a second time two weeks ago.
Afzali, the widow of a well-known military commander who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, was approved by parliament to be minister of martyrs and the disabled.
But activist Ashraf says many female lawmakers do not have any grassroots support with their constituencies and with the quota system, so parliament seats are vulnerable to being bought.
"Some of the women are clearly representing warlords. They don't come from a strong grassroots movement. We have to make sure the right role models are in place," Ashraf said.
"Don't think that the 56 people who voted for (Hassan) were all women. That's a typical Western assumption. I know men who voted for Palwasha," Ashraf said.
Many women in parliament are not concerned about or active in the women's rights movement and are just as likely to align with ethnic and political powerbrokers as men are.
"Women lost their luster. They did a lot of damage to themselves," Sultanzoy said, adding that the arrival of women MPs was broadly celebrated but had failed to live up to expectations.
Ashraf said women in Afghanistan would not give up fighting for greater representation despite Hassan and Dalil's defeat.
"It's a shame for someone who is honest and true. It's a shame for them not to be voted in. It's not the end of the story, for Palwasha or the women's movement. We will continue to fight." (Editing by Bill Tarrant)