A sea change in Afghanistan's politics: For the first time, a woman is head of a province (of Bamiyan)
Declan Walsh, UK
May 24, 2005
Bamiyan, Afghanistan—High in the snow-capped Hindu Kush, visitors stream to see the new governor. A huddle of turbaned men carrying plastic sunflowers in a gold vase nod respectfully. The British ambassador flies in from Kabul. By morning's end, the office is filled with 25 bouquets of fake flowers, and a calf is tethered outside.
Nothing unusual, then, in a culture that prizes deference to authority, except for one thing: The new boss is a woman.
Habiba Sarobi is Afghanistan's first female governor, a major advance in a society where only four years ago, under the Taliban, women were denied everything from school lessons to lipstick.
The job is not for the faint-hearted. Afghan governors are stereotypically gruff, bearded men with a penchant for fighting, sweet tea and political deals worked out in smoke-filled rooms. Sarobi, 48, is a mild- mannered married woman who comes to work with a briefcase and her secretary.
The former minister for Women's Affairs said she turned down an ambassadorial post to demand the job as governor of Bamiyan province from President Hamid Karzai.
"He was surprised," she said. "His first question was, 'Do you think the people will accept you?' I said 'Definitely, yes.' "
After an uncertain start, she seems to have been right. Before she even arrived, 300 local men—bused in by the disgruntled outgoing governor, according to coalition officials—staged a noisy protest in the town center. Since then, support for her has swelled rapidly.
A crowd of 1,000 men gave her a standing ovation at a game of buzkashi, Afghanistan's perilous national sport, in which men on horseback do battle over a calf carcass. In the next few days, delegations of well-wishers flooded in from around the province, including 50 villagers from Shaidan, a five-hour walk away.
"Women have a long history as leaders in Islam," declared their spokesman, Niamatullah Siddiqi. "We are proud to have you over our community."
Still, nobody is expecting an overnight revolution in the nation's treatment of women. Afghan women now can vote, work and go to school, and a quarter of all seats to be filled in next September's parliamentary vote are reserved for women.
But despite billions of dollars in aid, women still have a long way to go. In remote Badakhshan province, one mother in 15 dies in childbirth—the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Forced marriage and domestic violence are rife throughout the nation, and on occasion, women are still stoned to death for adultery.
Sarobi is more no-nonsense manager than fiery feminist. During her two-year stint as minister of women's affairs, she did little to shift attitudes, according to several aid workers and diplomats, concentrating more on disbursing aid than making policy. She said she was stymied by conservative Cabinet colleagues, who even blocked a decree condemning forced marriage.
"I tried my best, but it was not enough for the women of Afghanistan," she admitted. "They said it was our culture and tradition."
In her new job, her popularity stems partly from a solid political pedigree—her uncle is a former vice president—and partly from the relative liberalism of her fellow Hazara, one of Afghanistan's more tolerant tribes.
After the Taliban seized power in the mid-1990s, she fled to Pakistan so her daughter could continue school. She detested the obligatory burqa but found the ankle-length cloak a useful disguise when, years later, she slipped back across the border to establish a network of 35 underground girls' schools, each with 25 to 35 students, which she managed from Pakistan. The schools managed to avoid arousing the suspicion of the authorities, she says, because the girls were instructed to arrive at the schools at irregular intervals and from different directions.
Sarobi doesn't have to look far for reminders of the Taliban's brief rule. Afghanistan's most spectacular memorial to their rigid beliefs is etched into a sandstone cliff across the valley from her office: two empty chambers where giant Buddha statues stood until the fundamentalists used rockets, bombs and TNT to blast them to smithereens in 2001.
Bamiyan lies in a sweeping valley along the ancient Silk Road, so harnessing its vast tourist potential is one of Sarobi's main reconstruction projects. But the challenge is as formidable as the surrounding peaks. Some of the main tourist sites—particularly the forbidden City of Screams, an ancient citadel sacked by Genghis Khan—are littered with mines.
There is no electricity service in the provincial capital of Bamiyan—even the governor's house runs off a diesel generator—and the 150-mile drive from Kabul takes eight hours on a good day. On her first day in work, Sarobi found a spartan office without even a sheaf of paper. Education levels are low, and poverty is endemic. By the feet of the fallen Buddhas, the town's poor live in a network of caves that dot the cliff face.
She also had to worry about the hostility of her predecessor, Muhammad Rahim Aliyaar, the scion of a warlord family widely suspected of tolerating drug smuggling along the old Silk Road that winds through the town.
Sarobi recently toured Europe to rally sympathetic ears and deep pockets to her cause. But she will benefit from the considerable political capital invested in her by Karzai. And the local security chief is behind her, according to coalition officials. Even former governor Aliyaar has lent his support, at least for now.
"It's too early to judge whether a woman can succeed. That will take six months or a year," he said. "But I believe that most people are behind her. And so am I."
From The San Francisco Chronicle, May 24, 2005.
Declan Walsh is a correspondent for The Independent (London).