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Maria Bashir: "He threw my documents back in my face, and shouted: 'Go and stay at home!'"

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Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat province. She was the first woman to be appointed Chief Prosecutor in Afghanistan, and is the only woman serving as Chief Prosecutor in any of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. During the Taliban's rule, when women were forbidden from working or going to school, she ran an underground school from her home, wanting women to be prepared to rejoin the workforce if ever the Taliban should fall. In 2011, she was awarded the US Department of State's International Women of Courage Award and listed in Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world.

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Photo : Wahida Samadighalam / Matthieu Hackière

Can you tell us about a time when your human rights were violated?

During the time of the Taliban, women were completely banned from working. Until that time, I was a Criminal Investigator in the Attorney-General's office. Like all other women in Afghanistan, I was laid off my job and forced to stay at home. One day I went along with a group of 400 other educated women; we took our diplomas and protested outside the Governor of Herat's gate. I was in the front row of the protest. When I saw the Taliban-appointed Governor, I reached out to him and waved the copy of my diploma, demanding the right to return to my job. He threw my documents back in my face, and shouted: "Go and stay at home!"

What are three important post-Taliban achievements in Afghanistan?

President Karzai's enactment of the Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2009 is our greatest achievement. Furthermore, we have seen enormous change in the living conditions for women, and their ability to participate in political domains. For example, women now hold roles in the Parliament, the Senate, and the provincial councils. We have also made great advancements regarding freedom of speech.

What gives you hope for Afghanistan? What do you see as a positive development?

After 30 years of war, people have come to understand and value their political and civil rights. Especially the youth, they have really taken it upon themselves to understand their rights as citizens and spread this awareness in society. The heightened level of awareness in society about rights and politics does give me some hope.

What is your worst fear?

I fear that the international community will desert Afghanistan before the country is self-sufficient, before our security forces are adequately strengthened. The growth of corruption in the administration also worries me a lot.

What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan?

Blind prejudices in Afghanistan have allowed for ugly traditions and customs to get mixed up with, and legitimated as, religion. There's a general lack of knowledge about the real principles of Islam, and this leads to all kinds of mistaken and damaging interpretations. I also think that, as a people, we are lacking a spirit of patriotism.

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

I hope we won't let this scenario be repeated once again in Afghanistan, but at this point it can't be ruled out. Right now there are many risk factors: some people are too readily inclined to fight others; neighbouring countries keep interfering in our affairs; and poverty and unemployment continue at worrying levels. If we don't resolve these fundamental challenges, there is always a risk of returning to the errors of the past.

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?

Most of my memories of human rights violations date back to the dark days of the Taliban. One incident that has never left me is something that happened to my brother. He used to work for the government, but had lost his job after the Taliban came in and was making his living by driving taxis. One day, he made the mistake of parking his car in front of a car belonging to a member of the Taliban. They beat him so badly that he came home in a terrible state. I will never forget that night.

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

There is a lack of trust from society in women's abilities, even amongst the intellectuals. Among women themselves, there is a lack of trust, and of cohesion. Another major deterrent is the fact that the government and the international community have forgotten their promises of support for women.

What are three major things women are seeking to change?

Women want to see the laws being implemented and enforced. Laws must not just be confined to paper - they have to be put into practice if they are to mean anything.

Until today, the role of women in Afghanistan is still too symbolic. Women need to be recognised as citizens of Afghanistan, and have their rights as citizens and as human beings respected.

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

Women can depend on some sections of the police, the Prosecutor's Office for Combating Violence Against Women, the Ministry of Women's Affairs, and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

What do you wish for your daughter?

I wish that my daughter will reach the status that other women around the world have reached. That she will enjoy the right to choose her own husband, to own her house, to work, and to enjoy all the other human rights to which she is entitled.

What have you done in your private and professional life to eliminate the obstacles for women such as discrimination?

In my life, I have tried to respect the rights of others, to appreciate and value the capabilities of women, and to encourage these capabilities in other women. When a woman comes to me to seek redress for violations of her rights, I try, with the help of my colleagues, to solve her problems in the shortest time possible.

Do you have a specific message?

Women need to carefully protect the power of their vote in the elections by making precise and informed choices. They must not allow other people, whether they be their parents or prominent people in their district, to interfere in their decision. Women should take part independently, diligently, and freely in elections. They should go to the other women who are active in the cultural, social, and political domains in Afghanistan; these women will be able to help them get accurate information about the candidates standing for election.

"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

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