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Women embrace new freedom in Bamiyan

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BAMIYAN, Afghanistan -- The five men traveled three hours across rugged Afghan terrain to take their troubles to the provincial governor. Their problem: A local warlord was blocking a crucial irrigation project; no bribe, no water.

After listening patiently to their story, the governor agreed to send police to the remote district to deal with the local commander and his armed thugs. "I will solve the problem," the governor said. "We'll have to do it by force."

The extortionist warlord is all too typical in Afghanistan. The decisive governor, who declined to name the offender to avoid further trouble, is anything but. Habiba Sarabi is the first woman to run a province in Afghan history.

Perhaps more than anywhere else in Afghanistan, women in Bamiyan province are leaping into the political space created by the U.S.-led overthrow of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban militia four years ago. They are more likely to run for office and to vote than other Afghan women.

Sixteen women will be on ballots in Bamiyan province Sunday, when voters choose candidates for the provincial council and the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly, known as the Wolesi Jirga. Elsewhere, some provinces couldn't field enough female candidates to fill the seats reserved for them.

In Bamiyan, 48% of registered voters are women, who are a majority in some districts. Nationwide, women are less than 42% of voters.

The enthusiasm with which Bamiyan women embrace politics reflects the relatively moderate brand of Islam that predominates in the remote province, best known for the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues the Taliban destroyed in March 2001. Bamiyan men are more likely to tolerate female candidates and voters than the men in Afghanistan's fundamentalist-dominated southern and eastern provinces.

Sarabi was appointed six months ago by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She has emerged as a role model for Bamiyan's aspiring female politicians.

"She gave great hope to women. They know they can run a province," says Marzia Mohammadi, a female Wolesi Jirga candidate and former kindergarten principal.

Ardor and resistance

Khadija Bahari, 26, is out campaigning in a Toyota van that has a red heart labeled "Love" dangling from the mirror.

"This country has operated at a very low level," says Bahari, who is the former head of a human rights group. She aims to start fixing things if the voters give her the go-ahead Sunday.

Under Afghan law, women are guaranteed 68 of the 249 Wolesi Jirga seats being contested nationwide and 124 of the 420 seats on the country's 34 provincial councils. In Bamiyan, one of four Wolesi Jirga seats and three of nine provincial council seats must go to women. Bahari reckons she's one of seven women running for the one legislative seat reserved for a woman.

In some places, the appearance of women on the ballot is causing a stir. In the western city of Herat and the northern province Badakhshan, three young female candidates are attracting ardent admirers, according to the Daily Outlook Afghanistan, an English-language newspaper. Smitten storekeeper Mohammad Karim plastered posters of candidate Qaida Afif, 28, on the wall of his shop in Herat. "We are determined to vote for the most beautiful," he told the newspaper.

Other Afghan men are less than thrilled to see women running for public office. In many places, tribal and religious customs restrict women to the home and require them to wear head-to-toe coverings called burqas when they go out.

After Bahari gave a campaign speech at a Bamiyan mosque, the mullah denounced her as un-Islamic. "The fundamentalists don't like me," she says.

Mohammadi says she was confronted in a remote Bamiyan village: "A man argued with me that women should stay at home. He was telling me women must not go to parliament because there are so many men there. ... It was difficult to make him understand."

Things are worse for female candidates and election workers elsewhere in Afghanistan. According to a report last month by the New York-based activist group Human Rights Watch, a total of five provincial seats reserved for women in the Taliban strongholds of Zabul, Uruzgan and Nangarhar will remain empty, probably because women are too frightened to run. Elsewhere, women who want to run for office face intimidation, the report said. "Violence against women, forced marriage and early marriage are endemic problems," it said.

The group cited statistics from UNICEF that show that one in six Afghan women die in childbirth and 87% of those deaths are preventable. The illiteracy rate for Afghan women over 15 is 86%. In Afghanistan's seven conservative southern provinces, less than 10% of girls go to school.

The appearance of female candidates is raising hope that issues such as women's health and education finally might get on the national agenda. "No one cares about women's health in Afghanistan," says nurse Zainab Rezai, 40. "The husband must allow (his pregnant) wife to go to the hospital every month. They are now treated like a prisoner in their homes."

Sarabi cites another simple advantage of putting women in high office: It gives ordinary women a place to go to air grievances and make suggestions. For many Afghan women, the idea of visiting a male politician in his office is unthinkable.

'Pride of all Afghans'

Sarabi's office sits in a one-story yellow building overlooking the bluffs that once held the Bamiyan Buddhas. Bamiyan is a poor, isolated place. The 130-mile drive to Kabul over unpaved roads is a bone-jarring 81/2-hour journey. The people here are predominantly Hazaras, a long-oppressed ethnic minority group. They are probable descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongol armies, which swept through in the 12th century. The Persian-speaking Hazaras are moderate Shiite Muslims in this majority Sunni country.

The Pashto-speaking Sunni Taliban hated them. When the Taliban overran the province in the late 1990s, they slaughtered hundreds of Hazaras. Nurse Rezai remembers how she had to slide into bed and pretend to be a patient whenever Taliban members came to inspect the hospital where she worked. With women banned from work and girls from school, "I thought women in Afghanistan had lost everything," she says.

Now she is delighted to have so many female candidates to choose from. "They will work for women's rights," she says. And she is overjoyed to have Sarabi running the province. "She is the pride of all Afghans, not just women," Rezai says.

A decade ago, Sarabi was a pharmacist living comfortably in Kabul. Her political days as a Kabul University student leader organizing demonstrations against the Soviet occupation in the early 1980s seemed far behind her. She was a mother of three when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Sarabi fled with her children to Peshawar, Pakistan. Her husband stayed behind to care for his aging father and their property.

In Peshawar, Sarabi found a job training teachers to work in squalid Afghan refugee camps. Eventually, she founded an aid group that ran clandestine girls schools inside Taliban-occupied Afghanistan. Four or five times, she sneaked into the country.

When the Taliban fell in late 2001, she came home. President Karzai named her minister for women's affairs in 2002. He sent her to Bamiyan as governor six months ago. She is Hazara, though she is from Ghazni province, southeast of here.

Sarabi's job is overwhelming. Bamiyan needs so much -- roads, schools, clinics, clean water -- and has no money to pay for it. She is reduced to begging for cash from the central government and from aid agencies whose "bureaucracy is worse than our bureaucracy." She also must contend with "dozens" of provincial warlords such as the one holding up the irrigation project.

She says another warlord is blocking a health clinic a day's drive from Bamiyan town. When the election is over, Sarabi plans to dispatch the police to deal with him. Still, she describes her management style as motherly: listening patiently, seeking consensus, cracking heads only when she has to. It's made her popular. "We don't want a boss," says driver Mohammed Hassan, 29. "We want someone to serve the people. She is doing a good job."

"About the only complaint I've heard about her," election officer Gezim Kiseri says, "is that she's put on a little weight since she took office."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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