I sat on a plush, brown couch, surrounded by bouquets of plastic flowers. A large portrait of a heroic-looking Hamid Karzai – hung on the wall before me. Outside six armed guards joked and slouched in their chairs, their rifles carelessly slung about their shoulders.
I was waiting to meet with Habiba Sarabi. The governor of Bamyan – and the only female governor in Afghanistan.
I tapped my feet nervously on an oriental rug, attempting to make small talk with Mr. Rahim – who had joined me for this interview. But my mind was elsewhere. “Are my questions clear? Are they too controversial? Will she answer them? Will she answer them honestly?” I kept thinking.
Because the Hazara are anti-Taliban, Bamyan’s a microcosm of security and quiet in Afghanistan – and therefore doesn’t elicit much media attention. Aside from the occasional “Wow, she’s a woman and a governor in Afghanistan!” article – Sarabi’s not reported on or investigated. And so I wondered if she was legitimate, or a figurehead. If she was part and parcel with the corruption that so overwhelms Afghan governance, if she stood apart from it all, or if she fell into some foggy in-between.
I’d heard local accounts on both ends of spectrum. There was a large protest against her a few weeks before my arrival. Since my arrival, six or seven members of the Provincial Council camped out quietly under a tent for days on end, playing cards and drinking chai… in protest I suppose. It was certainly the least energetic of protests I’d ever witnessed. They’d adorned Bamyan’s main circle with large, grammatically incorrect signs – demanding her resignation.
Dr. Sima Samar – the founder of Shuhada and the chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission – drove into Bamyan under the cover of night to host a conflict resolution session between the council and Sarabi. It evidently worked – the signs and tent are down. But from the conversations I’ve had, it’s unclear what – if any – concessions were made. It’s unclear what the problems were to begin with.
“The governor is ready to see you,” her assistant said – breaking my train of thought.
Mr. Rahim and I rose, and walked into the governor’s room. In a lavender headscarf, matching dress, and leather slippers – Habiba Sarabi stood and greeted us warmly.
“Welcome, and thank you for coming,” she said, as Mr. Rahim and I took our seats on a leather couch next to her.
“Thank you so much for meeting with me,” I replied, “My name is Afreen Akhter, I’m graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and I’m researching women’s initiatives in Bamyan. I was hoping I could ask you a few questions. Is that okay?”
“Yes of course!” the governor replied – enthusiastically. She was far nicer than I expected.
I first asked her about her work in women’s rights prior to her appointment as governor. She spoke of how she started underground schools for girls in Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban, how she helped develop and implement CEDAW, and how she began gender mainstreaming units as the Minister of Women’s Affairs.
“Can you describe the process of your appointment to the governorship?” I asked.
“Karzai had offered me another job – but I said the women of Afghanistan need me in this position as a role model. They need me as a governor,” she responded. “He said – ‘this is a kind of revolutionary thought, are you sure the people will accept you?’ And I said yes – they will accept me.”
“And did they?” I asked – thinking back to the larger protest a few weeks before, and various others in the years prior.
“Initially I was received warmly in Bamyan. Later on I faced many challenges. My opposition wanted to motivate the people against me. They said ‘you are not good people if you let a woman lead you.’”
I nodded. That sounded about right.
“And one year I gave the 2nd khutba during Eid prayers. Some religious people got very angry and gave a report to the Ulama Council [religious council] against me. They said that women do not have the right to give khutbas – only men – and that I should be taken out of office. This posed a big challenge for me. A delegation came from Kabul to investigate the issue. In the end, they decided that nothing was wrong, but they didn’t punish the people either.”
Khutbas are – essentially – sermons that are given before prayers. They are generally given before Friday (Juma) afternoon prayers. On Eid – which is the major Muslim holiday, celebrated twice a year – khutbas are given before every prayer. Eid prayers are more significant/weighty than Juma prayers. In the States, I’d never seen a woman give a khutba on a Friday – much less on Eid. I was impressed, not only that she did so, but that people attended.
“So do you feel threatened, being a woman in this position?”
“Nobody can threaten me to my face, but I do receive letters at night. They don’t bother me.”
“And what do you think of the relationship between the Karzai government and women’s rights?” I asked – hoping she would answer honestly – feeling quite sure that she wouldn’t.
“Unfortunately the central government – a part of the central government – doesn’t believe in women’s rights. The Afghan Women’s Network and the Afghan Women’s Association lobbied for women in government. They lobbied for representation in the Peace Jirga. It is only because of civil society and women’s networks that the representation of women in government is as it is. But we have to work amongst ourselves to create better networks – with activists, with professionals – to get quality women into government. Some women in government are not quality. We need to find women with an active commitment to women’s rights. They should really believe in women’s rights. The problem in Afghanistan is that women don’t believe in themselves. We don’t believe we have rights.”
I paused for a second – somewhat taken aback by her honesty. I didn’t expect that she would criticize the government – and women in government – so openly. I was eager to hear what she would say next.
“Reconciling the Taliban, by way of offering them a share in government, is at the heart of the international community’s strategy in Afghanistan. As a woman, what do you think of this?” I asked.
“I will say I have the same concerns as other women when it comes to the Taliban,” she said quickly, “but I have another concern — as a Hazara. The Taliban oppressed and killed the Hazara when they ruled. And I’m not sure we can change the minds of the Taliban when it comes to the Hazara. I’m concerned about what reconciliation would mean for myself, my children, and my children’s children. I’m concerned about what it would mean for the future of the Hazara.”
She spoke poetically, I thought. Emotive, determined, candid. Over the course of a half hour, she managed to quiet my skepticism – no easy task. I found her fascinating.
“Could you offer a critique of the international presence in Afghanistan? What do you think we could do better?”
She moved forward in her chair to answer – there was a distinct sense of anger in her voice, that hadn’t been present until now.
“A fundamental issue for the international community is women’s rights – how can they support women. The international community could – should – support me strongly. I was able to bring good governance to Bamyan. Bamyan is secure – but we do not get enough money for our development projects. Bamyan proves that a woman can run and govern a province well – and could be a good example for the rest of Afghanistan. It could be a role model for other provinces that are unstable and insecure. But Bamyan is always forgotten,” she said, waving her hand in frustration.
We spoke for a little while longer about her mandate, the ways in which Bamyan could develop, how local initiatives could better implemented, and her work specifically with women. I looked at the time, and realized it had already been over an hour.
“Well I don’t want to take up anymore of your time. Thank you very, very much for meeting with me.” I said as I stood up and shook her hand.
“It was good meeting you, and best of luck,” she replied.
We walked out of her office, past the lackadaisical guards, and out into the open. Our driver was passed out in the van, his feet sticking out of rolled down windows. That was an excellent interview – I thought as I got into the front seat. An honest, inspiring lady.