A single encounter can pivot the course of one’s life. A single decision can be the spark that changes society. A single person, a woman nonetheless, can challenge a patriarchal system and prove that, by eliminating barriers, women can transform the world.
A skin rash covered his arms, but when the little boy with ruddy cheeks, his smiling face upturned to her, placed his hand trustingly in hers, Habiba Sarabi immediately decided that she had to help the poverty-stricken Hazaras of Bamyan Province in Afghanistan.
Although an ethnic Hazara herself, she had few ties to the province. A grandparent had once owned a piece of land in the province, but her remaining relative, an aunt, had long since left. She had just alighted from a helicopter to view a dusty landscape when the little boy ran up to welcome her, a perfect stranger, to his town. “He was such a good boy,” she remembers.
A small encounter, but sometimes major decisions pivot on such seemingly trivial incidents. The memory of the small boy who touched her heart remained with her, and when Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, asked her after her term as Minister of Women’s Affairs if she wanted to be an ambassador, she replied that she wanted to help her people, and asked to be appointed governor of Bamyan. The answer surprised him. A diplomatic position was a plum job, far more glamorous than the governorship of a poverty-stricken province, but he agreed.
Karzai, however, should not have been surprised; the desire to help people has been the leitmotif of Sarabi’s life. It is a desire that she has pursued with steely resolve against great odds, disguised under a motherly smile and gentle, softspoken demeanor.
Sarabi would be the first woman to be appointed governor, not just of Bamyan but in the entire country of Afghanistan. The singularity of her appointment cannot be underestimated; even now Afghan society is intensely patriarchal and tribal, where warlords wield power and influence and control great swathes of land, and where the behaviour expected of women is that of total obedience to father and, later, husband. In such a society, the barriers that prevent a woman from achieving her full potential as a human being are formidable.
Habiba knew all about those barriers first-hand. She was born into a middle-class family; her father, Abdul Hamid, was an agricultural specialist, overseeing agricultural projects in several provinces. At the time of her birth in 1957 in Balkh, Mazar Sharif, Afghanistan was still ruled by Zahir Shah, the last king, who encouraged education for girls.
Nevertheless, her father, was a traditional Afghan with three wives and would not have sent his daughters to school at all. On the other hand, Habiba’s mother, who was almost illiterate, burned with the desire for Habiba to study and have a life different from hers, confined as she was to the walls of her home and completely subservient to her husband. Fortunately, Abdul Hamid’s more progressive brother, who at that time was based in Moscow, wrote him to urge him to educate all his children, daughters as well as sons.
As a consequence, Habiba was able to study high school and college at the University of Kabul. When she was thirteen, Habiba’s mother died, and she took over the task of educating her younger sister and brother. When she was 27 her father also passed away; but by this time, according to Habiba, he had changed, coming to accept such notions as the right of girls to education, health and respect.
At the University of Kabul, she had wanted to enter the medical college because she admired the doctors in her own family who helped people and saved lives. That dream had to be set aside; a quota system was in place, and she was unable to secure a place. However her future husband was allowed to enrol, while she studied pharmacy instead. She finished her studies in 1981 and initially worked in the hematology section of a medical laboratory. In 1986 she was awarded a fellowship for further studies in hematology in India.
By this time she was married, with one child, a daughter. As with most Afghans, it was an arranged marriage; but unusually for an Afghan family, her husband’s family cared for her daughter while she was studying in India. Upon her return, she taught at the Kabul Medical Science College.
The political turmoil, however, disrupted their lives. After the king was deposed in 1973, a Communist-controlled government had been installed. The Soviet Union supported the Communist government, and by degrees its involvement in Afghanistan increased. Six years later, Soviet forces entered Afghanistan, embroiling themselves in a war with Islamist warriors, the mujahideen, who were supported by Pakistan and the United States. Habiba’s husband had to stop his medical studies, and wartime inflation drove food prices sky-high. About a million Afghans died during this war and millions fled to Pakistan.
In 1996 the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and the most extremist of the mujahideen, the Taliban, won control of Kabul. In their efforts to set up a pure Islamic state they instituted incredibly harsh sanctions against women, banning their education, making the burka compulsory, forbidding women to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative, and imposing the penalty of death by stoning for adultery.
The situation would have been intolerable, but an uncle who lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, threw them a lifeline, inviting families with young children to join him. Habiba and her husband agreed that she would take the three children and her youngest brother to Peshawar so they could continue their education. He would remain in Afghanistan to look after his aging father and their business.
In Peshawar she taught English in a Pakistani primary school, but she realized that the education needs of the Afghan children in the refugee camps was even more acute. She joined the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1997, where she trained teachers to work in the camps. She also conducted women’s rights awareness programs in the camps and later became a health manager.
Periodically she would sneak back into Afghanistan to visit her husband. While in Afghanistan she also started some 13 clandestine literacy programs for girls. These were very risky, as discovery by the Taliban would bring harsh penalties for those whose homes were used for these underground schools. Indeed, the husband of one teacher who was discovered was jailed and he would have been executed except for the intervention of tribal elders.
Together with other Afghan women she set up the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), and from 1992 to 2001 travelled to the West to call attention of to the plight of Afghan women and children. Prior to this, she said, there was complete silence on the situation of women in Afghanistan.
The successful intervention by the United States in 2001 allowed her to return to Afghanistan and continue her women’s advocacy and literacy programs. The AIL, which started out as a non-governmental organization (NGO) working solely with refugees, set up an office in Kabul and then a school in Mashar Sharif.
The following year, President Karzai appointed her to be the Minister of Women’s Affairs. Women and children had suffered the most during the civil war, and her mandate was to raise awareness of gender and women’s issues. This was an astonishingly novel concept for a patriarchal society, hard to understand and even harder to accept.
Nevertheless, against much resistance, she succeeded in opening gender units in the Ministries of Finance, Education, Health and Rural Improvement. She set up women’s centers in the different provinces to espouse women’s advocacy and also to train women in skills that would enable them to be self-sufficient. The latter was especially important since the prolonged war had left many widows.
In 2005, she was appointed governor of Bamyan province. The city of Bamyan had been on the fabled Silk Routes and its history stretches back to the first century after Christ. It is an area of great archaeological riches which reflect the influence of those peoples who travelled the route— Greeks, Turks, Persians, Chinese and Indians. In 2001 Bamyan made world headlines when the Taliban destroyed three colossal statues of Buddha that dated back to the fifth century.
Although Bamyan has been proclaimed a World Heritage site, its glory days were long gone when Habiba assumed office. What faced her was a harsh climate that made agriculture difficult, poverty, an absence of infrastructure, low literacy rates. The distance between Kabul and Bamyan was only about 200 km, but travel by land lasted eight hours because of poor roads.
Bamyan, however, had another jewel in addition to its archeological treasures—Band-i-Amir, 220 sq. miles of six brilliantly-hued lakes and naturally-carved limestone fortresses, a natural wonder to rival America’s Grand Canyon. Habiba decided that tourism would be a priority area for development. Prior to the war, many people, both local and foreign, had visited Bamyan to visit the archeological sites and the lakes, and she determined that they would do so again.
Guards were posted around the archeological sites to prevent looting of valuable artifacts, and infrastructure projects were undertaken to improve access to Bamyan. An airport was built and 200 miles of roads were asphalted. A road linking Bamyan to Kabul is in progress. Two new hotels were built, boosting the number of beds available from 100 to 1000, with more hotels under construction. Festivals which highlighted the local color and Hazara culture were promoted.
However, while tourism is promoted as the quickest way to improve the local economy, agriculture remains the lifeblood of the population. Habiba is proud of the fact that she has convinced the farmers to give up the cultivation of the opium poppy. Instead, they now cultivate potatoes and wheat. Under her administration, a 1,200-potato storage facility has been built. A packing facility has also been built and two more are under construction. A food processing facility is also planned.
Electricity, in the form of micro-hydro plants now lights up 26 per cent of the villages. The city of Bamyan itself, will eventually utilize solar and diesel power plants.
Her life’s work — education and women’s rights — has continued unabated. To accelerate functional literacy in the province, she launched a 2 + 1 program, with the support of UNESCO. Under the program, everyone who is educated is encouraged to teach two more persons to read and write. The program was promoted through radio and community gatherings, teachers’ assemblies and mothers’ meetings. It now enjoys a participation of 3,000 volunteers who supplement the work of teachers.
Formal education has also been expanded. At the time she assumed office, the province had 221 schools; now it has 352. There are four teacher training colleges, with 2,000 students. Bamyan’s university had been demolished by the Taliban; but it has been rebuilt and includes a department of education, geology and a medical faculty.
The province boasts of a large percentage of girls in school — 45 per cent, the highest in the country.
Health facilities have also increased. In 2005 there were only 20 health facilities; today there are 89, including the four district hospitals and health posts in the villages, each with a health worker, a midwife and an ambulance. She has also set up a midwifery school where young women from the villages are trained for 18 months, and then set back to their villages to work in their communities. So far, 100 midwives have already been trained.
She is proud of the vibrancy of civil society in Bamyan. Every village has a chief and around the lakes community development committees have been set up to protect the ecology of the area. Every person, she notes, is free to voice his opinion in these gatherings, and women are encouraged to participate, which was unthinkable in the past. Habiba has also encouraged women to join the police force.
All these have been attained in the face of opposition, particularly of warlords who sit in Parliament. Habiba’s high profile has exposed her to death threats, particularly from the Taliban. But, while she has not made light of these threats, taking the necessary precautions with her security detail, she remains unfazed. After all, peril has dogged her footsteps ever since, as an unarmed civilian, she set up the underground literacy programs during the Taliban regime and travelled to and from Pakistan incognito to supervise them. But, as she says, in her calm, soft voice, “If you are afraid, you cannot work.”