Habiba Sarabi: Rebuilding lives in a once fabled land
After the land of turquoise blue lakes, awesome cliffs and sweet pomegranates had been turned into a place of terror, violence and death, after the once fabled land of misty valleys, craggy hills and historic monuments had become a battlefield, what is there to do?
“Rebuilding lives and the land in a socially divided nation” is the daunting task and challenge for Habiba Sarabi, governor of Bamyan province in Afghanistan. This was also the running theme of her sharing sessions with those eager to learn from her experience.
The first and only woman governor in a “fiercely patriarchal” nation that has gone through years of strife brought about by foreign domination, warring tribes, warlordism and terrorist attacks, Sarabi has shown what an educated woman, wife, mother and leader can do for her suffering people.
Sarabi, 57, is one of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay awardees. In choosing her, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) recognized “her bold exercise of leadership to build up a functioning local government against daunting odds, serving her people with a hopeful persistence grounded in her abiding commitment to peace and development in Afghanistan.”
Coming from a family of relative means, Sarabi studied pharmacy in a Kabul university and later specialized in hematology in India. She was teaching at Kabul Medical Science College when the fearsome and extremist Taliban seized power in 1996, sowed terror among the populace and imposed harsh measures, especially on women.
But before the rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan was already a troubled country. Russian occupation (1979 to 1989), the civil war among mujahideen groups (1992 to 1996) and Western intervention had already sown the seeds of chaos in the predominantly Muslim country. It did not take long for Afghanistan to become a lair and training ground for anti-West extremist groups, the ones linked with Osama bin Laden among them.
This was not the case when Sarabi was growing up. “The tribes got along,” she said.
To escape Taliban rule, Sarabi fled with her children to Pakistan where the children could continue their education while she became a teacher and activist. She joined other Afghan women in organizing the Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (Hawca). She went to refugee camps, held classes on women’s rights and organized doctors to work in the camps.
Despite the risks during those years, Sarabi would traverse on foot the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border to supervise some 80 literacy classes. She served as general manager of Afghan Institute of Learning in Peshawar, Pakistan.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Sarabi and her children returned to Kabul. She immediately set up a Hawca office, resumed teaching and continued her work in the field of women’s rights and literacy.
An ambassadorial post was offered to Sarabi but she declined it. In 2003, she was appointed to head the Ministry of Women’s Affairs under the government of President Hamid Karzai. Her abilities did not go unnoticed. In 2005 she was appointed, that is, on her own proposal, as governor of Bamyan (population 500,000), a poor province in the central highlands, 150 kilometers from the capital Kabul. The appointment was a challenge because Sarabi was not a native of Bamyan. There were some opposition and even jokes about her.
With her businessman husband and three grown children left behind in Kabul, Sarabi buckled down to work at her new post.
Bamyan saw many changes on Sarabi’s watch. Roads and other infrastructure projects as well as health services were among her priorities. But the education of women was always important to her. Now, more women in Bamyan are building careers, something once forbidden by the Taliban.
“When you educate a man, you educate only a person,” Sarabi told a crowd of young people. “But when you educate a woman, you educate a community.”
Women’s rights, along with peace and prosperity, are among her dreams for her people. “That is why we have to work with families, so that we can educate the men,” she said. To make them see.
Among her immediate concerns are child and maternal mortality and the lack of health professionals. Safe drinking water is badly needed. Agriculture is not easy in Bamyan because of poor soil, Sarabi said. Afghanistan is a land of harsh winters (as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius) and fierce summers.
Before Sarabi became the governor, Bamyan had only 41 health centers; in 2009 the province had 89. Bamyan had no asphalt roads in the past; now 200 kilometers are asphalted. The number of students has increased from 100,533 in 2005 to 135,000 in 2009. There used to be only 367 students in higher education (seven of them women); this increased to 2,627 (418 women) in 2009. There used to be only 100 beds for tourists; now there are 1,000. The number of policewomen has increased from one to 21.
Because Bamyan happens to be a place with natural, historical and archaeological assets that have great potential for tourism, Sarabi established the 570-km Band-e-Amir National Park, which is Afghanistan’s first. Bamyan is the site of the tall ancient Buddha statues that the Taliban destroyed. (What remains is now a Unesco Heritage site.) The destruction caused international furor.
“Though we are Muslim, we wanted to preserve those ancient Buddha statues,” Sarabi said. “The Taliban wanted to erase our history.”
Being a member of an ethnic and religious minority (she is a Hazara and a Shi’ite), Sarabi is very aware of conflicts and hostilities that could arise among her people because of ethnic and religious differences. But she remains undaunted.
Sarabi recalls an incident where male religious leaders accused her of preaching during a religious feast, something women were not allowed, and she could have been punished.
“Luckily we had video footage of that occasion,” she said. “I was not preaching at all.” She was giving instructions.
Death threats do not scare her. The governor puts great importance on transparency and accountability in governance and the rule of law. (She had sent her own bodyguard to jail.) The media, she said, have been a big help.
Sarabi notes with sadness that one of the casualties of the conflicts in her country is trust. “It is easy to build trust, but it is hard to rebuild trust. We have to earn the confidence of the elders,” she said. One has to be attuned to the “sensitivity of society,” she added.
“We have to inspire the next generation, we have to go beyond the family,” she said.
Her daughter and two sons are very lucky that they are educated, she mused. She is very proud of her daughter, who has a Master’s Degree in Development Management from Germany and is now in the United States working for her doctorate in economics. Sarabi expects her back.
Sarabi does not hide her cynicism about international aid. “They have their own …,” she said. But she is aware of the implications of the withdrawal of international forces in 2014, including the decline in foreign aid.
The challenge is awesome, the future is uncertain but there is no stopping Sarabi in continuing what she has begun.
International donors have noticed Sarabi’s accomplishments. She is considered among the top performers in local government. This has earned for her province budgetary rewards.
The Ramon Magsaysay recognition is not Sarabi’s first. She was among Time magazine’s 2008 Heroes of the Environment. She also received citations from the French government in 2007 and from a US organization in 2005. This year she received an Outstanding Performance Award after selection “by referendum” in 34 provinces.
Sarabi is only the second Afghan to receive the RM award, which started 55 years ago. The first was Sima Samar, a woman and doctor, who was awarded in 1994. Sarabi and Samar know each other. This year’s batch of RM awardees brings to 301 the number of awardees.
The award is named after the charismatic Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay, who died in a plane crash in 1957.
The RM Awards honors “change-makers” who have created “ripples from the base of the pyramid,” women and men who have shown “greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia.”