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Afghanistan: RFE/RL Speaks With Country’s First Woman Governor

Habibeh Sorabi (RFE/RL) The Afghan province of Bamiyan is well known for having a female governor -- the first and only one in Afghanistan. Habiba Sorabi, a former women’s affairs minister, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai as governor about six months ago. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Sorabi says her appointment has had some positive effects on the situation of women in the province. She also talks about plans to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas and the country’s recent parliamentary polls.

Bamiyan, 23 September 2005(RFE/RL) -- Most of Habiba Sorabi’s subordinates are men -- an unusual situation in a country where women enjoy very few rights and men are the main decision makers. But Sorabi’s colleagues say they don’t mind and see it as a great opportunity for Bamiyan and its people.

“The presence of Sorabi as the first female governor of Bamiyan is a unique opportunity for the people of Bamiyan to show that they are willing to cooperate with a woman and contribute to her success," said Ahmad Fouladi, a Sorabi adviser. "It can also get the attention of the international community. It’s a good opportunity and I hope that the work will be successful because the success of the governor can prove that women can also be in executive positions, and it can be a good example for women.”

Sorabi told RFE/RL that her appointment has helped ease some restrictions imposed on women. “One night I was in Band-e Amir and had a friendly meeting with some of the women who had come there," Sorabi said. "It was very interesting for me because they spoke very openly and frankly about their problems.

And what really touched me is that they told me that they used not to even be allowed to go out for worship or other things. But now when they ask something, men do not oppose it, they say since we have a female governor, you are also allowed to go out. I realized that some women are using this opportunity very positively.”

Battling Illiteracy

Bamiyan is a war-ravaged, mountainous province in central Afghanistan, where poverty is widespread. Sorabi -- a pharmacist by profession -- says that in addition to poverty, illiteracy is a major problem for women in the province. “For example, it is very difficult to find educated women whom we can hire for different positions in government offices," Sorabi said. "There are only two schools in Bamiyan; the one for girls has classes only up to the ninth grade. This shows that the level of literacy in Bamiyan [among women] is very low.”

But Sorabi is determined to improve the lot of women and raise their status by creating schools to train female teachers. She says this will create jobs for women and also enable them to educate girls and ensure them a better future.

However, Sorabi says her main priority is to preserve the historical and archeological heritage and identity of Bamiyan, the site of the two giants Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban regime in 2001.

Bamiyan's Archeological Heritage

“The city of Bamiyan has many precious historical and archeological sites and in the past there has been a lot of cases of transgressions out of ignorance -- deliberately or not deliberately," she said. "Now I want to pay special attention to this issue so that the historical sites are well preserved and we will have a city master plan that will preserve the sites and at the same time provide good living conditions for people.”

As for the statues, she says there are plans for rebuilding just one. The other destroyed Buddha statue will be kept as it is now, as a reminder of the destructive act committed by the Taliban. Building roads is Sorabi’s other priority. She says many of Bamiyan’s problems -- including poverty and lack of access to health and education facilities -- are connected with the issue of accessibility.

Unable To Vote

Sorabi, 48, made international headlines when she was appointed as the governor of Bamiyan. This week her name appeared on the front page of most of Kabul’s newspapers because she could not vote during the key 18 September legislative elections because her registration card was deemed valid only for Kabul.

Sorabi says it was unfortunate she could not cast her vote, but she adds that others could and the elections were a success.

“It went very well," Sorabi said. "The elections were held freely. Whoever wanted to could participate. But one problem was the low level of women’s awareness; they did not know whom to vote for. Unfortunately, candidates could take advantage of it. I went to the polling stations and saw that women did not know the difference between the parliament and local councils.”

And what do women in Bamiyan think about Sorabi governing their province? Khadija Bahari, 26, is a candidate for parliament. She tells RFE/RL that Sorabi’s appointment is a good sign.

“I’m very happy that Mrs. Sorabi -- a woman - is the governor of Bamiyan," Bahari said. "The majority of people have to a great extent accepted her. This is a move that opens doors for women.”

But, as Sorabi says, it’s only just a start.

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the legislative elections in Afghanistan, see "Afghanistan Votes"

Afghanistan Votes

Afghanistan Votes

RFE/RL's complete coverage of the historic September 18, 2005, legislative elections in Afghanistan.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.