Afghan Women Edging Toward Bigger Roles in Public Life

Interview with Habiba Sarabi, Minister of Culture and Education

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MILAN, Italy, SEPT. 15, 2002 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- Life is changing for women in Afghanistan, little by little.



A year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and a few days before the anniversary of the start of the military action that brought down the ruling Taliban, there are still only three Afghan women in the Kabul government. They were selected to form part of the transition administration that came to power last December.

Among them is Habiba Sarabi, the Minister of Culture and Education, who spoke with the Italy daily Avvenire.

Q: You lived through all the phases of the Afghan wars, trying not to abandon your country. In the aftermath of the last war, how do you evaluate the present situation?

Sarabi: I think it has been quite disagreeable for the world to realize the reality of Afghanistan and its problems, following the catastrophic and tragic U.S. events.

I feel profound respect for all those who lost their lives in those attacks, and I think that we should take the necessary precautions so that similar incidents are not repeated. My country and its people have begun a new chapter of their history and I hope that, with the support and encouragement of the world, we will achieve that peace that, even in these days, is threatened by the repugnant attacks of those who still want to delay the hour of democracy.

Q: After the government's coming to power, of which you form part, controlled above all by the leaders of the Northern Alliance, has the condition of women improved?

Sarabi: The situation of women has changed, since the fall of the Taliban regime. Many Afghan women think they can play an active role in the future of the country. There are women going to schools and universities, or who have started to work.

The transition government is trying to create democratic rules to be able to guarantee rights and liberties to women, but this cannot happen in a short time -- especially while there continue to be people who are opposed to these changes for all women. And these differences arise more forcefully in connection with women who live outside the principal cities, where opportunities for employment and education diminish.

There are few schools for girls, who often get married early and then do not leave the home. We would like to change this situation with the help of the international community, raising compulsory schooling to 16 years of age in all the provinces of the country.

Q: What measures are being taken in this respect, and how are they reconciled with the reintroduction of the Council for Vice and Virtue?

Sarabi: Since last December, the Minister of Culture and Education, whose predecessor was Sima Samar, who now heads the Human Rights Commission, started a literacy center for adult women in Kabul and, in some provinces, a specific health program for women, which we are trying to open gradually in each region, having established it already in 16 districts of the capital. As regards the reintroduction of the Council for Vice and Virtue, it is a decision that is valued by the president's Cabinet.

Q: What are your relations with other members of the government who, with the exception of Samar, the Commissar for Human Rights, and Sohalla Siddiqui, the Minister of Public Health, are all men?

Sarabi: I have excellent relations with the other two women of the government, with whom I collaborate daily, especially with Sima Samar, because of my activities. Relations with all the other members are essentially professional, carried out with reciprocal respect.