Habiba Sarobi

(WOMENSENEWS)–Two years ago, even the most ambitious girls going to school in Afghanistan’s central province of Bamiyan dreamed only of becoming schoolteachers, the favored job for educated young women in Afghanistan.

Then came Habiba Sarobi, Afghanistan’s first and so far only female governor, appointed by President Hamid Karzai in March 2005. She presides in a relatively peaceful, poppy-free region where women have significantly more freedom than in neighboring regions.

Still, a concern over the safety of women working in Afghanistan was underscored by the assassination two weeks ago of Safia Ama Jan, a provincial director for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Ama Jan was murdered by two gunmen on a motorcycle outside her house in Kandahar while she was going to her office.

Before naming her as a governor, Karzai had selected Sarobi in 2001 to be minister for women’s affairs, a job she held for two and a half years. She spent five years of Taliban control over Kabul in Peshawar, Pakistan, running workshops for women and funding an underground school in Kabul.

"Now the same girls talk of being a governor when they grow up; some even talk of being the president," says Abdullah Barat, an activist with various civil society groups working to rebuild Bamiyan.

Bamiyan, the home of the giant Buddhas that were dynamited by the Taliban in March 2001, lies in Hazarajat and is dominated by the Hazaras, descendents of Mongol or Turkic groups. They are the third largest ethnic community in Afghanistan and were under Taliban control between 1998 and 2001.

After some Hazaras mounted resistance, the Taliban massacred 200 people in Yakawlang, a town in Bamiyan in early 2001. Reports by the media including the BBC indicated that a scorch-and-burn policy in several villages left at least 1,000 Hazaras dead. The United Nations subsequently reported four mass graves in the town of Bamiyan, which has the same name as the province.

Show of Women’s Rights

When Sarobi became governor last year international media hailed it as a sign of the Karzai government’s commitment to promoting women in a country where political parties are traditionally male-dominated and which, during the last two decades, completely excluded women as armed groups fought each other for political control.

The New York Times described it as a "major advance in a society where only four years ago, under the Taliban, women were denied everything from school lessons to lipstick."

"Her appointment is part of a national initiative to promote women to positions of power," a Voice of America Web site report said at the time.

"There are gifted women in Afghanistan emerging from the destruction and intolerance that is all around," a BBC report concluded. "Habiba Sarobi seems to be one of them."

But a year and a half later, Sarobi, a 49-year-old chemist, says many ultra-conservatives, both nationally and within her own province, are waiting for her to trip and fail.

"Road, road and road," she says when asked to list what she needs most to keep her constituents happy and hang on to her post. Sarobi met with Women’s eNews for an interview at her Kabul home.

Sarobi says she raises the province’s need for better infrastructure in every meeting, whether with the central government or international donors.

Neither the governor nor Sarobi’s staff provided Women’s eNews with details of the provincial budget or funding sources. For proof of the province’s dire financial straits, Sarobi simply points to Bamiyan’s lack of a single meter of asphalted road.

Bone-Rattling Trip to Market

An official involved with disbursing U.S. development aid denies the province is being neglected, and says a ground-breaking ceremony for the first paved road in the province is going to take place soon.

The central government also recently began building a paved road to link Kabul to Bamiyan. The project, announced three years ago, is only just now getting underway.

Sarobi says these road projects are a big relief, but the political heat on her will not let up until traffic is rolling.

A trip from Kabul to Bamiyan that would take three hours on a smooth road currently takes a bone-rattling 10 to 12 hours along an unpaved road.

There are no regular commercial flights to the province and Bamiyan, in the central highlands, needs roads to help diversify its economy. The province chiefly grows potatoes because they are less perishable than other crops and can survive long trips to market.

Three Conditions for Aid

In various statements and compacts, international donors including the U.S. government and U.N. entities, have promised to link development aid to peace, drug eradication and gender justice.

Sarobi says her province boasts all three conditions.

She says it is one of the most peaceful of the country. Insurgent activity is absent and local commanders have largely been demobilized. That relative security allows local government to police poppy cultivation, which is illegal but still rampant in many places. She says the area under poppy cultivation in Bamiyan province has declined from 803 hectares in 2004 to 17 hectares in 2006. A hectare is about two and a half acres.

Two Hazara boys at cliffs in Bamiyan.

Hazara women enjoy relative freedom. Few wear the head-to-toe covering burka common in some other parts of the country. Sarobi herself is a sign of the relatively strong status of women in the province. When asked if she could be governor in Helmand or Kandahar, two southern districts, Sarobi laughs. "It would have been impossible there," she says.

Those districts suffer frequent outbreaks of violence between the international forces and the anti-government insurgents. By custom in those provinces, women can be killed by family members–a father, brother or husband–for the slightest hint of dishonor, such as the suspicion of extramarital sex. They can also be given in marriage to settle a feud or to compensate for a crime.

In Bamiyan, Sarobi says, women are not subject to such treatment.

But a confidante of Sarobi’s–who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject–said her gender is still a political factor. "Some people are not happy that there is a female governor here," she says. "This is still a country where in many places women are not allowed to go out. The fact that she has no political base allows them to create problems. The warlords and lesser warlords who have lost their power in the Bamiyan area are waiting for her to fail."

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 16 years and she has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict development in Punjab extensively.