Afghanistan’s Lone Female Governors Defying Sexism & Religious Conservatism To Do Their Job

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We’ve posted quite a few articles on the women who are pushing through long-held gender barriers in Afghanistan, and it should be noted that one of the biggest proponents of gender equality, and the reason for this uprising, is current President Ashraf Ghani, who is not only a supporter of women in leadership, but has personally appointed and promoted women in government and the Afghanistan legislature.

In a country that is still suffering from the effects of the Taliban regime, political and economic instability, war, and lack of equality in basic facets of life such as education and employment opportunities, especially among women and for those in rural areas, the need for more women in positions of power is just one step toward changing the patriarchal dominance.

Under the previous president, Hamid Karzai, who rose to power after the US toppled the Taliban from power in 2001, the people of Afghanistan witnessed the first woman to be appointed governor. Habiba Sarobi, a former women’s minister, became the governor of the Bamiyan province in 2005 and turned down an ambassadorial job demanding to be appointed as governor despite the opposition she knew she would face.

Masooma Muradi was the first female governor to be appointed under President Ghani a year ago, but her start on the job was quite rocky due to the push back on women occupying positions of power in public. When she was appointed, protestors would not not allow her to leave Kabul and staged sit-ins to keep her away from the Daikundi province, where she governs today.

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And although Masooma is one of 3 female governors in the country (President Ghani appointed a second female, Seema Joyenda, who governs Ghor Province) there is still plenty of negativity surrounding the idea of a woman in power that she deals with on a daily basis.

A recent AFP report says that her all-male cabinet (that should go without saying!) is filled with “mansplainers” and condescending attitudes of sexism which are unaccustomed to dealing with women giving them instructions, as the patriarchal traditions forbid.

But this is 2016, and although times are certainly changing, a woman like Masooma isn’t about to falter under cultural pressure because she knows the part she plays in paving the way for more women in political leadership.

“People claim to be open-minded but many cannot bear having a woman in this position. I won’t allow men to hush me up — society is not used to that from a woman,” said the 37 year-old.

The mother of two who has a degree in business administration was handpicked by President Ghani to rule in a province that has been wracked with instability and male dominance. It is also covered in snow for a number if months each year, affecting the harvest and local economy of rural farmers.

Predictably, there are male leaders who aren’t afraid to voice their disapproval of the appointment of Masooma as well as the other two women when the announcements of their roles were made public.

“Useless,” said one man as he passed Masooma.

“Maybe she should be a governor just for women,” another growled.

“I don’t believe the appointment of a female governor will be effective for Ghor. This is a traditional society, and it is an insecure province facing enemy threats. A female governor will struggle to lead military and security meetings,” said Abdul Basir Qaderi, a local elder voicing his disapproval of Ghani’s appointed of Seema Joyenda in the Ghor Province.

“The situation here is fragile, and a woman cannot have an active military position in suppressing the enemy,” said Mohamad Mahdawi, a provincial council member who was not optimistic change could happen under a woman.

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There are others who aren’t necessarily opposed to a woman in leadership, they are just desperate for their economic situation to change.

“I support women’s empowerment but will having a woman governor solve all these problems?” said a local grocery seller in Nili, Daikundi.

Lack of jobs is a big issue in the province which is reliant upon the local harvest, which gets damaged in the snow. There are many who want to see the new era of Afghanistan where the Taliban are no longer in control. Unfortunately in many areas, such as the Ghor Province, they still have a stronghold which effects many aspects of life.

Seema Joyenda, despite being appointed there in the middle of 2015 by President Ghani, was forced to step down due to pressure from local religious conservatives, but was then reinstated toward the end of the year. Ghor Province has also seen some gruesome attacks on women accused of adultery, who were then subjected to public stoning.

Aside from the defiance of traditional conservatives, there is the knowledge that a female leader must also acknowledge the physical dangers that are very real and present in places across Afghanistan even today.

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Human rights organization leaders say that President Ghani must be tougher in pushing back against those who are resistant to change.

“The attitudes throughout Afghanistan still are such that not everyone is ready to be governed by a woman,” said Douglas Keh, Afghanistan country director at the United Nations Development Program.

“To genuinely give women a role in governance, Ghani needs to push forward when he encounters opposition. This hasn’t been happening,’ said Heather Barr, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In the Daikundu Province, Masoom Muradi can at least count on one man’s unwavering support – her husband.

“People call me her secretary, her baby sitter. But I am very proud of her,” said Khalil Hashem.

The catch 22 situation is that a nationwide attitude change will only happen if more and more women are seen in positions of leadership, from the local level all the way up to the federal government and the Supreme Court. It will take time, but if President Ghani is determined to help alter the status quo to become for gender equal, we hope to see less and less resistance, even from conservative groups not used to anyone other than a man in power.

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