First Female Governor in an Afghanistan Province

Enthusiastic Support, Heavy Criticism for Habiba Sorabi

President Karzai has named Habiba Sorabi Governor of the Province of Bamian. The appointment has been welcomed in the West, but in traditional Afghan society her appointment is highly controversial. By Said Musa Samimy

President Hamid Karzai named Habiba Sorabi Governor of the Province of Bamian. The appointment has been welcomed in the West, but in traditional Afghan society her appointment is highly controversial. Said Musa Samimy provides the details

photo: AP
Sorabi is no newcomer to politics. In Afghanistan's former transitional government she served as Minister of Women's Affairs

​​The appointment of Habiba Sorabi to the governorship of Bamian is by no means a coincidence. To the contrary, her appointment is supposed to demonstrate that equality measures for both sexes, which are now firmly anchored in the country's constitution, are now being implemented.

In this very traditional and ethnically stamped society in the Hindu Kush region her appointment has expectedly come up against some heavy criticism, while advocates believe the self-confident Sorabi possesses all the prerequisites for holding the governor's post.

Born in the Afghan city of Masare Sharif, the 47-year-old Sorabi has never been afraid to stand up for women's rights and fight for their freedom in the past. In fact, under the despotic rule of the Taliban regime from 1997 to 2001, she risked her life as she stood up for the causes she passionately believed in: the right of all young girls to go to school as well as the right of women to receive medical care, both of which were regarded as taboo at the time.

Sorabi is no newcomer to politics. In Afghanistan's former transitional government she served as Minister of Women's Affairs and earned the reputation during this period as being a pragmatic politician.

Without "polemical discussions" or "emancipatory rhetoric", Sorabi, a pharmacist by profession, has displayed the keen ability to efficiently implement health services and women's care programs not simply by taking the funds needed out of her ministry’s budget, but she also actively raised funding from non-government organizations.

"I was welcomed warmly by the population"

Ethnic considerations – as is common in multi-cultural Afghanistan – obviously also played an important role in her appointment as Governor of Bamian. The province is inhabited primarily by members of the Hazara tribe. Sorabi herself also comes from a Hazara middle class family. This, so one hopes, could possibly raise her acceptance in Bamian in spite of her sex.

Speaking on "Radio Deutsche Welle", Sorabi said she doesn't believe that she will experience major acceptance problems just because she is a woman: "I have visited Bamian and the surrounding area many times in the very recent past. In addition, in Kabul I had many discussions with a number of people from Bamian."

"My impression is that the population there feels very isolated," Sorabi goes on to explain. "The province of Bamian has sacrificed a great deal during the course of decades of war and fighting. The region has suffered immensely from it. It became clear to me in the conversations I had: If someone wants to do something for the people of Bamian province then they would most certainly be accepted there. In any case, I have been received very well by the local population."

Sorabi stressed that setting up a judicial system in Bamian is one of her top priorities. However, she also wants to devote more time involved in creating new sources of income for the region: "Bamian is a historical cultural town. It must remain that way! That means, on the one hand, the historical identity of the region must be restored by the reconstruction. And on the other, we want to attract tourists to the region, thus creating new sources of income for the province and for its people."

The rule of a woman in Islam

The reactions to Sorabis appointment stretch from gruff refusal to enthusiastic approval. Sarwar Mawlayeen, Dean of the University of Bamian, is one of Sorabis' advocates and expressly stands to her: "In spite of the traditional character of the society the population in Bamian is very diverse historically and culturally. For the people here achievements carry more meaning than mere words. And I am sure that a clever woman like Habiba Sorabi will produce these achievements. I am certain that she will be received well here. Her appointment by the Karzai government was a very sensible one."

The followers of the ex-governor Abdul Rahim Ali-yar have demonstrated against Sorabis' appointment - not necessarily because of her sex. Their protests are directed primarily against the move to transplant their former governor and militia leader Ali-yar.

In the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, once considered a Taliban stronghold, the opposition is much gruffer. The average individual there has major doubts about a woman taking the governor's chair.

Haji Mohammad Khalil Dorani, a Pashtun from the town of Kandahar has an easy argument ready: "For the first time in the history of the Islamic nation of Afghanistan has a woman been appointed Governor. We are by all means in favour of rights for women. But by this we mean the rights that are described in the Koran and that are compatible with Sharia law. Islam forbids women rulers!"

Asserting yourself in a man's world

Another citizen named Aceksai says, he himself has nothing against Sorabi's appointment, nevertheless, he believes that Afghan society is not yet ready for a female governor. Meanwhile, however even in conservative Kandahar there are voices which think that a woman too should be able to to rise to the seat of governor.

For Hemmat, an intellectual from the town of Kandahar, it makes no difference whether it is a man or a woman. "Ability is the important thing. I am happy with her appointment!" Similarly Gulnar, a female student from the East-Afghan province of Paktia comments: "This is a positive step. And Mrs. Sorabi certainly possesses the ability to govern a province."

Women in government positions: This is also tradition in Afghanistan despite all the cultural opposition and the ban during the Taliban era. Already in the 1960s women held minister posts and were members of the cabinet. In fact, in the present central government three women now hold ministerial positions.

But at the provincial level the opposition is much greater resulting in a real acid test for Habiba Sorabi. She is taking it calmly and stresses: as the only daughter in a large family, and with four brothers she has already learned to assert herself in a man's world.

Said Musa Samimy

© Deutsche Welle 2005

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