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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.
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.”