Saira Shakeeb Sadat wants her district, Khwaja Dukoh, to change. Surrounded by mud walls, the dusty hamlet in the remote northern Afghan province of Jawzjan is home to about 5,000 families. The isolation means security is good here, but little aid has reached the town.
But Sadat wants to make a difference, and now she has her chance: last month she was appointed Afghanistan’s first female district governor.
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“I was disappointed for so many years that while there was peace and security here, there hasn’t been any development,” she said.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she worked in the department of foreign affairs in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and then as a consultant in the parliamentary affairs ministry.
“I was a parliamentary candidate in 2010, but I didn’t get a seat because of election fraud,” she explains. “I sat at home and when the opening came up for district governor, I applied for it. I thought about it and thought when I take this position I can serve my people, work for my people. And when I decided I could do it, I applied for it and I succeeded.”
A new appointment process for district officials was introduced last year, intending to weed out patronage and corruption. In order to get a district job, the candidates competed in a lengthy evaluation process including written and oral tests, on which Sadat outscored her competitors.
First woman district governor
In a sign of her popularity – or perhaps of the power of her office – hundreds of men and women from the district braved the winter cold to sit outside during her welcoming ceremony. Since then, a parade of officials and constituents visit her office to congratulate her and to introduce themselves – some bear small gifts, others ask for help. The United Nations representative tells her she has the capability and experience to do a good job, while officials from the province promise her an aide and office equipment, and inform her the local budget hasn’t been finalised yet. A man with a deeply lined face and his wife, in a blue burqa, plead their case in a land dispute as their two children sit by their side.
“I am proud that we have the first woman district governor in Afghanistan,” says Mohammed Sadeq, a member of the local council. “It’s an honour for us. I hope she does great work, as we know that women have good habits. We are happy. Our previous governors didn’t do anything wrong, but she is going to be better. I hope that she does more than they did.”
That is what Sadat hopes to do. “We will try to close the gap between the people and the government, and we can close the gap by working with the people at the district level,” she explains. “Women are interested in taking part in this government and women are interested in development, and interested in reforms so that we can be as women take part in rebuilding the country.”
“I want her to support education for girls. In remote districts like this, many women are interested in education. I hope she will push the ministry of education to help more.”
– Najib Nazari, school principal
Sadat may be the first female provincial governor, but there are other women politicians in Afghanistan. A quota system ensures a quarter of the parliament is female and in 2005, President Hamid Karzai appointed Habiba Sarobi as governor of Bamiyan province.
In her role as district governor, Sadat hopes to further implement the national development strategy that aspires to bring more women into government and other positions of responsibility.
In this country, that can be difficult. Many conservative Afghans believe that a woman’s place is at home, and are reluctant to allow their wives or daughters to work or go to school beyond a basic literacy level. Sadat says she was lucky because her family sent her to school. When she was wed in an arranged marriage she says her husband was proud to have an educated, independent wife. He disappeared shortly after the Taliban captured Sherberghan, where they were living at the time. That was more than a decade ago. They had no children and she hasn’t remarried.
When she applied for the position as district governor, she knew she would be breaking new ground in the eyes of some here.
“There are a lot of limitations for working women everywhere in the world but especially in Afghanistan, where there are cultural restrictions,” she says. “The only thing I have learned from the limitations of women in our society, is that if we have a goal and have self-confidence, we can get things done and fight those limitations.”
Fixing the education system
She believes that one of the key steps in battling those confines is education. After taking office, one of her first visits is to the local girls’ school. Principal Najib Nazari guides Sadat through dilapidated classrooms, some with no desks at all.
Paint peels from the walls and there is water damage in the corner of one room. The school has 1,300 students and 33 teachers. In addition to the structural problems, there aren’t enough supplies.
“We don’t have enough textbooks,” says Nazari. “For example, in a class of 30, there might be 10 or 15 books.”
The school does have some facilities like a library and a science lab, but currently they’re in the same room. The principal would like to separate them, so both can be used at once. She has high hopes that Sadat will be able to help.
“I am happy to see her become district governor,” she says. “I want her to support education for girls. In remote districts like this, many women are interested in education. I hope she will push the ministry of education to help more.”
“When I see the welcome of my family, the government, the international community it gives me a good feeling in my soul.”
Regardless of what she receives for her school, Nazari says having Sadat working as a local official will serve as an excellent role model for her students, a real-life example of progress for women in Afghanistan.
Human rights observers and many Afghan women are concerned some of that progress could be reversed as NATO’s International Security Assistance Force withdraws its troops and international aid drops to levels far below that of previous years. The government has been pursuing a political accommodation with the Taliban that could grant them some role in a future government. No women have been included in that process.
Sadat, however, says she doesn’t fear them. “The Taliban has a negative idea towards women. But I say Islam gives us rights, the Koran gives us rights,” she says. “We all know that the Taliban opposes us, but Allah has given us our rights. The holy Koran says working and education is obligatory for both men and women. And if we are educated, we should use our education.”
Sadat anticipates that her new job will teach her many things.
She’s been surprised by her first few weeks in office. “I didn’t expect to be so warmly welcomed,” she says. “When I see the welcome of my family, the government, the international community it gives me a good feeling in my soul.”
But that hasn’t made Sadat complacent. She knows that there are many eyes on her and that she stands as an example. She has big plans to transform Khwaja Dukoh, such as paved roads and better medical facilities.
“As I am the first woman appointed as a district governor, I hope in a year my district will be number one in terms of reconstruction and development.”