BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN -- On the day before Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, Razia Hussaini, 30, one of six female candidates from Bamiyan province, was making a valiant effort to be polite to an American journalist and election observer. Sitting on the floor of her family's humble home in the Hindu Kush, overlooking the old Silk Road, the high-school educated political neophyte had a lot on her mind. Two cell phones in front of her buzzed regularly with updates from campaign workers, to whom she relayed terse directions. Her proud but nervous male relatives sat quietly across the room, serving her guests tea and sweets. If history were a guide, Hussaini, of the ethnic minority Hazara, should have been the one serving. But Hussaini is no victim of history; with these elections, she and other Hazara women hope to write their own.
By E. Benjamin Skinner
"I'm waiting and excited," she said. "I just pray that the elections will be peaceful. Afterwards, I pray that I will be able to help my people in the parliament." On E-Day, Saturday, Sept. 18, her first prayers were answered, at least in Bamiyan, the Hazara heartland. It may take a month before the certified count will determine whether or not she will join at least 68 other women, whose seats are allotted by law, in the lower house. Win or lose, she and the other Hazara candidates expressed gratitude to be living in what is today Afghanistan's most peaceful, and in many ways most progressive, province.
Hussaini is not the only female Hazara politician who describes these as Halcyon days for the province. "Today I feel very lucky," said Bamiyan's Governor Habiba Sarabi, 44, on Saturday morning. Sarabi had just cast her vote at the Saed Abad Girls School, which served as a women's polling center here. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Sarabi had fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, with her family and began secretly teaching girls on both sides of the border, in defiance of her country's new rulers. "Ten years ago around this time, I remember being in Pakistan for its independence day. I cried because I could not celebrate my own nation's independence."
In March 2005, President Hamid Karzai made history when he asked Sarabi, then serving as his minister of women's affairs, to return to Bamiyan as the nation's first and only female provincial governor. The place was still broken from the Taliban's harsh rule: they had destroyed Bamiyan's famous stone Buddhas, banned education for girls, and attempted to eradicate the Hazara. Sarabi went to work to repair the damage, and quickly established an international reputation as an environmentalist, winning support for a long-discussed national park which included Bamiyan's five, sapphire, mineral-rich Band-e-Amir ("Commander's Dam") lakes; and as an educational reformer, overseeing a gradual increase in the overall literacy rate of her very poor province. Today, Bamiyan high-schoolers score above national test averages.
Most visibly, Sarabi is known as a staunch defender of women's rights. In solidarity, then First Lady Laura Bush visited in June 2008, an act that brought the improbable governor a minor coup in the realm of Afghanistan's fraught "road politics." Road construction is an indicator of political clout here, and while thousands of miles have been built across Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, precious few have been built in Bamiyan. That changed with Bush's visit, as the government gave Bamiyan's eponymous capital city its first few miles of paved roads-which extended to her precise travel route, and little else.
Today, Bamiyan's women are arguably positioned more favorably than those of any province in the country. On E-Day, Sarabi waved her purple finger as she beamed about the fact that nearly half of all Bamiyan's girls are in school, and that under her watch the province had accepted Afghanistan's first female recruits into the Afghan National Police. Behind her at the polling center, a line of women dressed in everything from traditional burqas to loosely-fit, sequined hijabs, became longer and longer, and eventually unruly, as the women kicked up dust and accidentally broke a window while pressing forward to exercise their suffrage. Bamiyan was Afghanistan's only province where female polling stations outnumbered male ones, yet the Saed Abad Girls School and others still couldn't keep up with demand, and ran out of ballots well before the close of the polls.