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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 June, 2005, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
Afghanistan's first woman governor

By Paul Anderson
BBC News, Bamiyan

Habiba Sarabi
Habiba Sarabi says things would be easier for a male governor

Afghanistan's former women's minister is settling into her new job as the country's first female governor.

Habiba Sarabi was appointed by President Karzai to run the province of Bamiyan. Many observers argue the move was to demonstrate his country's commitment to women's rights.

For many Afghans used to men running the structures of power, the appointment has required a huge leap of faith and imagination.

Bamiyan is well-known for the destruction of two giant statues of Buddha, but the new governor faces a host of other big challenges.

Opportunities for women

Carrying to the provinces the reforms she initiated as women's minister in the capital is at the heart of her mission.

We're illiterate and backward - we've never had a shura [council] before
Ishteran village woman

When she visited the village of Ishteran, all its residents had gathered for a rare exercise in democracy - the election of new village councils or shuras, both male and female.

In this forgotten pocket of rural Afghanistan, a visit by the governor is a first and elders at the village extended their fullest welcome.

"This is a kind of good opportunity for women, and people will not say no for women, that you can't do this job or that job," she said in the car on the way there.

"Women will be encouraged to work in any position."

The mechanics of the election in Ishteran were not immediately clear to all, but villagers applied themselves with purpose. There is $60,000 in development aid at stake.

Traditionally women in such communities have very little say in running their own affairs, all the more so when large amounts of aid are involved.

But today, with the support of Bamiyan's new governor, women in Ishteran and villages like it are voting in new councils.

That will give them the right to influence the decisions which are taken.

On schools, water, animal husbandry, on job start-up schemes, the basics which will give the villagers a future.

"We're very happy," says one villager, a woman. "We're illiterate and backward. We've never had a shura before.

"Usually it is the men who take all the decisions, but this makes us more equal and gives us new opportunities."


But the responsibilities of governor stretch beyond that - to opportunities for all.

We don't have roads. We don't have electricity
Bamiyan man

Her challenge is to harness the province's natural beauty and turn that into income.

"Bamiyan has the biggest potential for tourism - the historical heritage, the nature," Habiba Sarabi says.

I ask her if she thinks the Buddhist civilisation is the biggest attraction?


When the Taleban destroyed Bamiyan's two giant Buddhas, they destroyed one of the few reasons people have to travel to the province. Not, though, for one French tourist, Michel.

One of the giant Buddha statues before being destroyed
One of the Bamiyan Buddhas before its destruction

"The dangers do exist," he says, "but you follow the advice of friends scrupulously and it is worth coming.

"Honestly, I really don't feel the dangers here are any greater than say going out and buying bread."

But the presence of foreign troops testifies to the potential for trouble in the months and years ahead.

Members of Bamiyan's foreign security and reconstruction force from New Zealand say the greatest threat to security in the province has been criminal activity - not anti-coalition militias such as the Taleban, although they are prepared for any such threat.

In a country of continuing turbulence, Bamiyan sits in its own political and security microclimate.

Afghanistan's explosion in opium production and associated crime, militant activity, even political instability have largely passed it by.

And for that, the people here are grateful.

But so too has large-scale reconstruction and that, they say here, is storing up problems for the future.

"We don't have roads. We don't have electricity," one man said.

"They don't have any projects for us to work on. There is no work here because it is a peaceful place. In Kandahar, a lot of construction is going on, but not with us."

'Tough and difficult'

Back at the governor's residence, supplicants line the corridors with an awesome range of requests and complaints.

Hazara woman, Quetta
Afghan women are used to men running things

This is how business is done in Afghanistan.

Only the governor has the clout to make things happen, from acquiring land for returning refugees to sorting out identity papers and resolving often violent disputes between neighbours.

The honeymoon for Afghanistan's first female governor is over, so how has it been so far?

"It was very difficult. It is tough and difficult, but we have to go ahead," Habiba Sarabi says.

Does she feel the weight of responsibility as Afghanistan's first female governor?

"Yeah, if someone in my position would be a man it would be more easy for them to be accepted as a governor."

There are mountains to climb, higher than they would be for men, but there are gifted women in Afghanistan emerging from the destruction and intolerance that is all around.

Habiba Sarabi seems to be one of them.

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