Mon, 07 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

First female Afghan governor ready for challenge in Bamiyan

David Brunnstrom, Reuters/Kabul

Habiba Sorabi knows she has her work cut out as the first woman ever to govern an Afghan province.

Among the tasks she has to look forward to are a tricky reform of local government, the rebuilding of war-shattered infrastructure, decisions on the fate of Afghanistan's most famous historical site, and even turning the ominously named City of Screams into a tourist attraction.

It is as well then that the 47-year-old former minister of women's affairs is not shy of a challenge, having campaigned for women's rights in refugee camps and run underground schools for girls during the hardline Taliban regime.

She sees her appointment last week to run the historic central province of Bamiyan as a golden opportunity to raise the profile of women and encourage respect for constitutionally enshrined women's rights that are still a long way from becoming a reality.

"We have to change the minds of the people," she said told Reuters at the weekend in the modest government apartment at a run-down Soviet-built complex in Kabul she shares with her husband and three children.

Sorabi turned down President Hamid Karzai's offer of an ambassadorship abroad to take the Bamiyan job. "I didn't want to be far away from my country," she said.

She said her ambition was to help create a better life for Afghans and her new job would help: "I think it will open the door for other women," she said.

Sorabi knows she faces a huge task to bring prosperity to one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces, but says it is all about good management and dismisses any thoughts of nervousness.

"In any kind of work there can be problems -- not only for women, but for men too," she said. "But if we manage things properly, then we can solve the problems."

Sorabi says her priorities will be to rebuild the war- devastated provincial capital and to create a prosperous future for the province based on tourism.

Bamiyan is home to what in 2001 became Afghanistan's most famous historical icons -- two giant stone Buddhas, which had stood for 1,600 years before being blown up by the Taliban, shocking the world to the extent of their religious intolerance.

Sorabi said the future of the statues, reduced to rubble in their giant sandstone niches overlooking the town, still had to be decided and she would defer to experts from the UN cultural organization UNESCO.

"For the rebuilding, restoring, or rehabilitation of the Buddhas, someone professional should decide about this," she said, but stressed that tourism would be a major focus.

"There should be a lot of work done because tourism will be the major income for Bamiyan and show the future of Afghanistan and the picture of Afghanistan to other people of the world."

She aims to see Shahr-i-Gholghola, or the City of Screams, which overlooks the Buddhas, restored to a tourist attraction.

First though, the haunting hilltop ruin named after a 13th Century massacre by Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan needs to be cleared of countless mines sown by Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

To get tourists to Bamiyan, today a rough though spectacular eight-hour drive from Kabul, Sorabi says roads will have to be rebuilt, and investment is also needed in hotels.

She is hoping that much of the money will come from donors overseas as the central government simply did not have the funds.

Sorabi, picked from an all-female short list, admits it will be easier for her in Bamiyan than in other parts of Afghanistan.

She is an ethnic Hazara, who form the majority of Bamiyan's people and are known for their greater acceptance of women's rights. The Hazaras were especially persecuted by the Taliban.

Sorabi said women still faced an uphill battle to ensure their rights in a male-dominated society where attitudes were ingrained by culture and tradition.