Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan – Travelling in a line of white Lexuses, Habiba Sarabi’s convoy could belong to any politician in Kabul.
But this isn’t just any motorcade. As presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul’s choice for second vice president, Sarabi is the only female candidate on a major ticket in Afghanistan’s third-ever presidential polls, to be held this April.
This is a fact she embraces. “People are proud that we are making history,” Sarabi told Al Jazeera on the road to Maidan Wardak province, an hour’s drive south of Kabul.
Aware that politics is largely a man’s game anywhere in the world, Sarabi said there is power in her presence on one of the leading tickets. “It is making a difference,” the former governor of Bamiyan province said of the way people responded to her on the campaign trail.
Addressing a crowded hall in the campaign’s election office in Maidan Wardak, Sarabi turned to a few dozen women sitting in the corner to convey that message directly. Looking towards the women – many of whom were wearing blue chadaris, or burqas – Sarabi tried to convince them that if they “want women in this country to have power and take a lead in decision-making”, they should cast their ballots for the team of “moderation and rebuilding”.
But some of the young men gathered in the provincial capital that Thursday morning said it is exactly that prospect that would keep them from voting for a team with a woman on the ticket. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Abdul Malek, 24, was blunt with his objection: “This woman can’t solve our problems.”
Abdul Malek referred to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad stating that “those who entrust their affairs to a woman shall never know prosperity”. Societies led by women, claimed Abdul Malek, are more susceptible to bribery and corruption. “Islamically, how can I support a woman [in politics]?”
Gains and setbacks
Despite such objections, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has embraced the participation of women in politics. At 28 percent, the Afghan legislature is one of the most heavily female lawmaking bodies in Asia, with a higher rate than that in the US and many European countries. This surpasses even the 2004 quota that called for 25 percent female presence in parliament. Last year, Saira Shakeeb Sadat made history as the nation’s first female district governor.
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But there have been setbacks. Most notably, last December the United Nations cited a 28 percent increase in reported cases of violence against women. Further, the report found that of the 650 reported incidents of violence against women and girls across 18 provinces between October 2012 and September 2013, a law targeting violence against women was only applied in 109 cases.
Earlier this month, the government faced fresh criticism over a bill that rights activists had described as a threat to the prosecution of violence against women. Last week, the cabinet called for a rewrite of a provision in the law that prohibits “relatives of the accused” from testifying in a court of law – which activists said would make the prosecution of domestic abuse cases near impossible.
Meanwhile, many at the campaign event in Maidan Wardak were not there to see Sarabi, but to support Rassoul, the presidential candidate and former foreign minister. Asked why he planned on casting his first-ever ballot for the Rassoul ticket, 18-year-old Faizullah’s answer ignored the woman speaking behind the podium. “[Rassoul] wasn’t involved in the fighting” of the civil war, Faizullah said. What the people of Maidan Wardak want, he added, is “for the fighting to stop. Wardak has seen too much fighting.”
Maidan Wardak, once an important transit hub, has come to be known for violence in recent years. This is among the reasons why women like Sarabi cannot serve as a leader in Afghanistan, said one man outside the event who declined to give his name to Al Jazeera. “Women are oppressed. They aren’t aggressive enough to serve as leaders. Men should lead,” he said.
Afghanistan’s safest – and poorest – province
Driving to Maidan Wardak, Sarabi said she was happy to return to the province after 10 years. Given her eight-year tenure as governor of Bamiyan – the so-called “safest province” in Afghanistan – some in the audience wondered whether she lacked the experience to address people in a province with a heavy Taliban presence.
She has not done anything for the people of Bamiyan... Someone who doesn't make a good governor will never make a good vice president.
“You think the election will actually reach unsafe areas like this? This is all just talk, a show. No one in the districts will be able to vote and have their voices heard,” Malek, 26, told Al Jazeera.
Some in the province Sarabi once governed also question her abilities. Speaking to Al Jazeera shortly after Sarabi was announced as Rassoul’s choice for second vice president, residents of Bamiyan said they saw little progress in the nation’s poorest province under her leadership.
“She has not done anything for the people of Bamiyan,” Qadria Jaffari, a student in Bamiyan, told Al Jazeera. “We have plenty of water but no electricity. Bamiyan has a large population but we have no faculties, no dorms in the university. Someone who doesn’t make a good governor will never make a good vice president.”
But for Barat, a resident of Sayed Abad village, the security in Bamiyan province was proof of Sarabi’s success. Though he admitted that “there is still work to be done” in Bamiyan, Barat said that Sarabi did what she could within the government structure at the time.
“We are happy with her,” he said. “She has worked for us.”
Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye