Afghanistan's first female governor blazes trail for women

Mon Mar 7, 3:28 AM ET Entertainment - AFP

KABUL, (AFP) - Habiba Surabi hopes her appointment as Islamic Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s first female provincial governor will set a trend in a country whose cultural traditions, she says, "bind the hands of women like chains."

AFP Photo

"My appointment has opened a door for other women," Surabi told AFP in an interview in her Kabul apartment as she prepared to move to the central highland province of Bamiyan to take up her post.

President Hamid Karzai made history last Wednesday when he appointed Surabi governor of the province, which is racked by poverty and drug trafficking.

Surabi, wearing a smart black suit with a loosely tied white veil, believes Karzai by choosing her had sent a powerful signal that women were equal to men.

He also intended to break with Afghanistan's violent past where provinces were dominated by warlords and militia commanders, she said.

Also, "Karzai chose me because I have good contacts with the international community and will be in a position to attract funds for reconstruction of Bamiyan which is a very big task."

Surabi, who belongs to the ethnic Hazara minority, was women's minister in Karzai's previous transitional government for almost three years during which time she learnt to speak fluent English.

But her appointment attracted some opposition. When it was announced between 150 to 200 demonstrators loyal to former governor and local militia commander Mohammed Rahim Ali Yar took to the street in Bamiyan town to protest.

They were quickly outnumbered by up to 1,000 people who came out in her support.

"It shows how fed up people are with warlords and fundamentalists," she said.

Surabi, 48, said she was not worried about threats of violence but women nationwide still face daily harassment and intimidation from armed groups.

"The biggest challenge for women generally in Afghanistan is safety from warlords and commanders. Security is very important for women to be able to come to court or visit rights associations," she said.

Afghan cultural tradition "binds the hands of women like chains," she said, pointing to forced marriage, child marriage and the trading of women between tribes to settle disputes over honour.

"There is selling of women like cattle across Afghanistan. These things are not in Islam but in our cultural traditions which is very sad," she said.

Enforcing the rule of law in this deeply conservative country where tribal traditions predominate was difficult because "judges rule for the benefit of men, for the benefit of the tribe and women get pushed into a corner."

Bamiyan, where 48 percent of the voters in Afghanistan's first presidential election in October were female, was relatively liberal in its attitudes to women compared with other parts of Afghanistan.

Surabi said many Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims, had spent time in Iran (news - web sites) and had been exposed to a more modern way of life.

She said her greatest challenges were likely to be bringing reconstruction to the province which has virtually no power and no asphalt roads, and eventually to revive tourism in Bamiyan, famous as the site of the two giant Buddhas.

Members of the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime blew up the statues amid international outrage in spring 2001 before the hardline militia was ousted by US-led forces later that year.

"The dream of the people of Bamiyan is to have a lightbulb and that is my dream too," she said.

Tackling the narcotics trade in the province which is a transit route for drugs from northern Afghanistan to Pakistan would be a tough job because trafficking was "a big problem in the province."

Afghanistan's opium poppy production reached record highs in 2004 and its drugs trade now poses a major threat to global stability, the US State Department warned in a report Friday.

The mother of three will move to Bamiyan later this month to live in a tumbledown rented house, leaving her two sons aged 12 and 17 behind in Kabul. Her 20-year-old daughter is in India studying political science.

And in Afghanistan, behind every great woman is a strong and liberal-minded man.

"It would not be possible to do such a tough job without my husband's support," she said.