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.