Afghan woman VP candidate has a place on the ticket — but not at the table

Habiba Sarabi's campaign comes as Afghans are questioning the impact of a decade of efforts to advance women's rights

Habiba Sarabi is running on a ticket with Cabinet minister Zalmai Rassoul.
Mujib Mashal

KABUL, Afghanistan — As Habiba Sarabi made her way from the airport to the governor’s compound in Afghanistan’s central Bamiyan province, the roads were lined with men and children. Women looked on from the rooftops. She made history that spring day in 2005 as the first female governor in the country.

Nearly nine years later, as Sarabi campaigns to become the country’s first elected female vice president — on a ticket led by longtime Cabinet minister Zalmai Rassoul — the crowds are modest. On a snowy January afternoon in her campaign office in western Kabul, the former pharmacy professor and mother of three met four groups of roughly 12 people each: elders from Ghazni, civil-society activists from Bamiyan, medical doctors from Parwan and female madrassa teachers from Kabul provinces.

“The road, Ms. Doctor, the road,” said an old man from Ghazni, who asked for permission to speak. “The road to our village used to take two hours to travel, but now it takes three and a half hours. It’s all potholes. And we fear it will take four and a half hours next year.”

Another interrupted the old man. “She is a candidate now, not an authority. She can’t do anything now.”

“If I don’t share my pain with Ms. Doctor, who should I share it with, then?” the elderly man replied.

Sarabi listened, her eyes focused on her cup of green tea. Then, as she did in her meetings with the other groups, she drew on her experience as a governor who tried to change the way male-dominated politics has been done for decades in this war-torn country, where expressions of discontent have often been met with force.

“I am not saying people did not protest against my rule, did not express discontent against my policies,” she said to the group, referring to many occasions when Bamiyan residents protested on the streets over what they saw as her incompetence in attracting aid. Some of the protests, which she calls politically motivated, employed creative methods like applying a mud plaster to a patch of road in a city center to draw attention to the unpaved roads or building a massive oil lamp in a central roundabout to highlight the lack of electricity. “But when the same (protests) happened in other provinces, there was bloodshed. Lives were lost. That did not happen in Bamiyan.”

Sarabi is one of a handful of female politicians who have risen to national prominence over the past decade. About 28 percent of the parliament is female (a quota introduced in 2004 stipulates 25 percent), and several women have served as ministers in the Cabinet. But those numbers are, in a sense, deceiving. Female political participation at the higher levels of government remains little more than a slogan, activists and analysts say, as women rarely find a place at the table in decision-making about the country’s economy, judiciary and national security. Female politicians, meanwhile, are often branded as simply women’s rights activists.

Sarabi has, to some degree, been an exception. As governor, she was the only woman in an executive position with provincial armed forces under her command. “Isn’t this too revolutionary?” asked President Hamid Karzai in 2005, when he appointed Sarabi as governor, after the loss of her Cabinet position as minister of women’s affairs. (Karzai’s wife, who practiced medicine before becoming first lady, has remained behind closed doors over the past decade, despite the country’s dire need for female role models.) This autumn, as candidates and coalitions jostled to agree on tickets before registering for the presidential election, the high-level discussions were exclusively male. Even Sarabi remained in remote Bamiyan and was contacted at the last minute.

Women’s rights was instrumentalized – as a slogan toward justifying the larger invasion, the war against terror.

Orzala Nemat

academic and rights activist

Rassoul, center, and Sarabi at their campaign launch.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Sarabi’s candidacy with Rassoul and a second vice presidential candidate — which currently lags in polls — also comes at a moment when many are questioning the broader strategy behind a decade-long effort by the Afghan government, the U.S. government and NGOs to improve the standing of women in the country. Barred from school and work, women were effectively confined to their homes during the Taliban regime. Since 2002, the United States has spent over $100 billion on reconstruction aid to Afghanistan; most of that has gone to the country’s security forces, but a large share has gone toward projects promoting women’s rights, often run by some of the country’s 3,000 newly established NGOs.

This year, as foreign forces draw down and foreign aid drops, reported incidents of violence against women increased by 24.7 percent in March through September 2013, compared with the same period the previous year, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Support for women to work outside the home has fallen to 63 percent, from a high of 71 percent in 2006, according to an annual survey by the Asia Foundation. Critics say the work of the past decade, dominated by quick-fix projects that lacked a larger vision addressing the deeper causes of abuses against women, has brought about only limited, fragile results.

“Women’s rights was instrumentalized — as a slogan toward justifying the larger invasion, the war against terror,” said Orzala Nemat, an academic and rights activist. Afghanistan’s widespread violations of women’s rights was publicized as a Taliban problem, she said, and not as an issue with deeper historical roots, so the approach focused on throwing money at quick projects that gave an exaggerated picture of progress. “With no chance to breathe and think about how to use these opportunities, we lost the vision.” 

Instead, influencing men’s attitudes toward women by changing the school curriculum and including more examples of female role models, integrating boys and girls in classrooms and tackling a corrupt justice system, in which 90 percent of the judges are male, should have been priorities, said a female government official whose role does not allow her to speak on the record.

 “In the past 10 years, our women have learned of the rights that they should have but are not given the means through which they could pursue those rights,” the official said. “This has broken families, messed up images.”

If elected vice president, Sarabi, in addition to focusing on health and education, wants to tackle what she and others say has been a superficial approach to women’s issues.

In a passionate speech at the Feb. 3 launch of her campaign, she said that women and the promotion of their rights have been “exploited as a political tool.” Women made up 40 percent of voters in the last two elections, but some politicians say those numbers are used by the Karzai administration to bolster its legitimacy while it meanwhile marginalizes female politicians.

“I have come to replace degrading, monopolistic politics with a humane politics that counts men and women as equal,” Sarabi said to the thousands of supporters gathered at the loya jirga tent, where the country’s constitution, promising equal rights for men and women, was ratified 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, for female politicians like Sarabi, doing substantive work in politics is a tough balancing act with an unforgiving margin for error.

As governor, Sarabi said, “I kept telling my staff to see me as their governor, not as a woman governor.”

That’s true, too, for Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament since 2005. In a society where women are seen, according to one government official, as “an economic liability that need men to clothe, feed and shelter,” it’s not easy for many to accept an ambitious woman establishing herself without men’s influence.

Late on one cold autumn night in the mountains of Koofab in the isolated northern Badakhshan province, Koofi was leading what, on the face of it, looked like a remarkable meeting in the male-dominated country. Dressed in light pink clothes, with a black shawl of modesty draped over her shoulders, the 38-year-old single mother of two was the only woman in a dimly lit room packed with about 50 men. As the men spoke and argued, their voices would rise intermittently, and sometimes she would interject. The meeting lasted until almost midnight, and then she walked out with a stack of papers.

As it turned out, this was not a regular meeting with her constituents. Koofi was interjecting to clean up a mess that her brother Nadirshah Koofi, the district governor of 10 years, had created by beating up a local cleric. As part of a large government delegation, including senior Cabinet ministers, traveling to the province via two crowded helicopters, Fawzia Koofi had picked up two attorneys from the provincial capital to try to quietly settle her brother’s case before it reached the media. Years earlier, another of her brothers was arrested on allegations of smuggling; that story made headlines.

The tensions caused by Nadirshah Koofi were resolved in the late-night meeting chaired by Fawzia Koofi, and a letter of agreement was drafted and signed by the parties early in the morning. For Fawzia Koofi, this was an act of pure — some might say dirty — politics, not an intervention on behalf of a family member. While many assume her brothers helped her get where she is, in reality, they have repeatedly put obstacles in her way. Nadirshah Koofi, appointed governor through his own political connections long before Fawzia Koofi ran for parliament, actually campaigned against his sister for one of her rivals. When she ran for re-election five years later, he realized that she would win even without his support and that it was better for the family if he was on her side.

“We may differ in our principles, but if he has a problem and I do not step in to solve, I fear that he could return to my rivals,” Fawzia Koofi explained.

Yet Koofi, despite her prominence on the national scene, is not safe from the recent push to brand female leaders as solely women’s-rights activists. In her first term in parliament, she was voted a deputy speaker, a role that helped shape a number of national issues. In her second term, she was voted as chairwoman of the Women’s Rights, Human Rights and Civil Society Committee — a much narrower role. 

If wearing the burqa was the only way for me to be able to study or work, I would wear it.

Habiba Sarabi

For Sarabi and others, working to advance women’s rights in Afghanistan often requires a patient and flexible approach.

In her campaign office on that snowy January afternoon, Sarabi, modestly dressed in a gray skirt-suit and covered in a light gray scarf, met with a group of female madrassa teachers. The teachers were wrapped in toe-length black shawls. After hearing their recommendations and responding to their request that she open a campaign office in their neighborhood specifically for women, Sarabi made what she called “a sisterly request” of the girls.

“It’s muddy outside, and your shawls drag in the mud,” she said. “Why don’t you girls wear coats or shawls that are a little shorter and do away with this Qom style.” Qom is a holy city in Iran; Sarabi was referring to Iran’s cultural influence in parts of Afghanistan.

One of the girls responded, “It is a compromise we make with our families so we can go out to study and work.”

Sarabi’s tone softened.

“That I accept,” she said, with encouragement. “If wearing the burqa were the only way for me to be able to study or work, I would wear it.”

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