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Dr. Habiba Sarabi: "The existence of an independent Afghan identity fills me with joy"

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Dr. Habiba Sarabi is the first and only woman to be appointed a provincial governor in Afghanistan: she served as the Governor of Bamiyan province from 2005 until 2013. She had previously served as the Minister of Women's Affairs and the Minister of Culture and Education in the transitional government. After finishing her medical degree at Kabul University, Sarabi was awarded a World Health Organization fellowship to study haematology in India. During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Sarabi fled with her children to neighbouring Pakistan where she worked as an underground teacher for girls in refugee camps. She continued to return occasionally to Afghanistan in secret. Sarabi has been selected as second running mate to 2014 presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul.

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Photo : Homaira Saqeb/ Matthieu Hackière

Can you tell us about a time when your human rights were violated, something which has influenced your life?

I was the only girl in my family, with four brothers. My father clearly preferred them to me. I would always get beaten up for no reason; whenever my father was cross with my brothers he would take it out on me.

I also experienced discrimination as a girl at school. The boys were often very violent towards the girls, and treated us unfairly.

What are some important achievements since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan?

The new Constitution, in particular Article 22 on gender equality, is an important achievement. Women are playing a much more active role in society. There has been a huge increase in the number of female students at school, and more broadly in society, there are powerful movements seeking justice for women. Women are also playing a role in politics, even at the highest levels, including holding seats in Parliament.

What gives you hope for the future?

In the last ten years, Afghanistan has been the subject of much international attention. There have been numerous conferences on Afghanistan, which have been attended by the most senior politicians and representatives from around the world: Bonn I, Bonn II, Berlin, Istanbul, Tokyo. This is important for us.

Like thousands of other Afghans, I have lived the bitter experience of migration and exile, and the feeling of disconnection that comes with it. The existence of an independent Afghan identity fills me with joy.

What is your worst fear today?

My greatest fear is that extremism will re-emerge in Afghanistan, and that women will once again be excluded from society. As a politician and a woman, this is a great concern for me.

What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan?

The lack of good governance in Afghanistan is the root of so many of our problems. Insecurity, unemployment, poppy cultivation, and administrative corruption: all of these challenges arise from the absence of good governance and the rule of law.

Will the present-day Afghanistan allow schools to once again be closed to girls and women excluded from society?

Never. The change in awareness amongst women, even just in the last three years, is phenomenal. Women have created remarkable networks, and are supporting each other to build skills and play a meaningful role in society.

The international community would not allow it either. They have invested too much in Afghanistan. For years, the blood of their children has been shed to protect our freedom. It would be a tragedy for them to simply ignore a regression to the ways of the past in Afghanistan. The only way it could happen is if a dictatorial government were to take over.

Can you share with us a memory from a time where the human rights of someone in your family or circle of friends were violated?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is the way that my mother's human rights were violated. She was a victim of the worst forms of domestic violence. Watching her suffer made me resilient and taught me to fight for my rights.

What are some factors deterring women's participation in social, economic, political and cultural spheres?

Unfortunately, reprehensible and out-dated customs and traditions still hold more power in Afghanistan than the law and the sharia. We need to build more awareness around this.
Poverty is another serious factor. Women are the primary victims of violence in poor families.
Another factor that holds women back is the persistently low level of education for women. When they are allowed to attend school, women rarely study beyond the 10th or 11th grade. Then they are married to someone, and the education stops there: it is very rare for women to get permission to go to university.

What changes do women in Afghanistan want to see?

Economic self-sufficiency of women will be a major step towards equality between men and women.

Women need more access to education and knowledge. They should be allowed to continue to higher education, so that they can be empowered and emerge on an equal footing with men in society.

Alongside these changes, programmes raising awareness amongst women of their rights and capacities are extremely important, as are legal reforms in favour of women's rights.

What the sources and centres of power which women can rely on to promote their rights and demands?

The emergence of networks seeking justice for women within civil society and in the media are having an impact. Having good laws in place to support women is important and a good start, but laws are not enough in Afghanistan. As Governor, I witnessed so many violations of women's rights, even within the justice system.

Having accountable parliamentary committees is also important. Unfortunately, these committees have not played their fundamental role in a cohesive and active way in Afghanistan.

What have you done/are you doing in your private or public domains, e.g. your civil and professional work, to eliminate the obstacles including discrimination?

In my family, I made no distinctions between my sons and daughter. My daughter's upbringing was equal to that of her brothers. I have also tried to draw the attention of men in my family to their responsibilities towards women and girls.

In the public domain, I have tried to stand up for the rights of women. For example, as Governor of Bamiyan province, I prevented numerous cases of forced and early marriage - I have so many stories to tell about that. I was also involved in establishing a civil society network for human rights and justice in Bamiyan. I was, and still am, one of their strongest supporters.

"Unveiling Afghanistan, the Unheard Voices of Progress" is a campaign by Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA and FIDH, which explores views held by Afghan civil society actors. Over 50 days, 50 influential social, political, and cultural actors hope to spark conversation and debate about building a society that is inclusive of women's and human rights in Afghanistan.

You can read original interviews in Dari on Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA