Speaking from a patio overlooking the stunning Bamyan river valley, she is petite but gives off a confident presence. She wears a smart black dress suit with a sky blue headscarf that accentuates her dark brown hair and kindly, bespectacled face. Gentle and confident, she speaks clearly and calmly like the polished public figure that she is.
“I grew up in Kabul,” she explained. “I studied at Kabul University. I was teaching at a medical institute when the Taliban occupied Kabul, and it became very tough [to do my work] after that.”
With a doctorate in hematology, Sarabi was used to seeing human blood. However, it was the blood being shed in the streets that eventually drove her from her home. She fled to Pakistan with her children, but never severed her ties to Afghanistan.
During the years of Taliban control, Sarabi would sneak back and forth by foot, over the unmerciful mountainous border region between Pakistan and Kabul, risking her life to oversee the more than 20 literacy programs she had started, and visiting her husband who stayed behind to keep watch over their home.
Outside the border, she began acting as a spokesperson for the plight of women in her home country, and teaching women’s rights classes in refugee camps.
“In Pakistan I worked in the Afghan Institute of Learning, to teach teachers,” she said. “We made our own organization called the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan. I would travel around to explain the situation of women in Afghanistan.”
The attacks on the U.S. in 2001 and the following launch of Operation Enduring Freedom provided her the opportunity to return to her home country and help her beloved women there seize a chance for a new start.
“I was in Pakistan when 9/11 happened, and returned immediately to Kabul [after the Taliban were routed by American forces] because I wanted to open schools.”
In 2004 she was appointed Minister of Women’s Affairs, a position created by the post-Taliban government.
“The experience I had as the Minister of Women’s Affairs was a first,” she said. “Gender was a new issue in Afghanistan. Before that nobody was talking about it, so it was a challenge for me to convince people to work on gender policy with me.”
In 2005 President Hamid Karzai appointed her the governor of Bamyan province, a uniquely beautiful area positioned around the western tail of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Full of small potato and wheat farms, it used to be part of the Silk Road route from China to Europe, and is packed with priceless archaeological sites like the famous standing “Buddha’s of Bamyan” statues that were destroyed by the Taliban. The province is also the home to the Band-e-Amir National Park, one of only two national parks in the country.
The appointment elevated her to a level no woman had achieved in the history of the country, and it attracted plenty of grumbling in the government halls that, until 2001, had been walked exclusively by men.
“It’s difficult for women to be in decision-making positions here,” she said. “We have to prove ourselves.”
She is doing her best to inspire other Afghan women to do just that.
“I think she is a very brave woman,” said Razia Jan, the director of Arzu Studio Hope, a non-profit organization that provides education, employment, and health services to Bamyan women, and who has worked with Sarabi on several empowerment projects for women in the area. “It’s a very difficult office, especially being a woman. She really has to have a lot of guts to keep doing it.”
“I did get a lot of opposition when I was appointed,” said Sarabi. “Warlords and extremists all wanted to say something negative against me. I faced a lot of difficulties and challenges but I stood up, and didn’t put up with any of that. I was strong enough to fight them.”
The governor is proud of her accomplishments in the seven years she’s been in office.
“People are shifting from the classic ways of farming to modern ways,” she said. “The main product in Bamyan is potatoes, but due to bad roads and lack of storage they couldn’t sell for a good price. Now we have more than 1,000 potato storage units and good roads.”
“We have 76 health facilities, one provincial hospital and three district hospitals,” she continued. “We’ve had more than 80 midwives trained here this year, and with their support the infant mortality rate has been reduced.”
“We have women in the police force – I encourage women to go into policing and give them special protection. Also, I give women special protection to open shops in the market.”
Another thing she speaks with great pride about is Bamyan’s school system, and the students who are attending those schools.
“We have 125,000 students going to school, and out of that 45 percent are girls,” she said. “That means we have the highest number of girls going to school [out of all the Afghan provinces] and it’s a great achievement for me, and women everywhere.”
“Lots of things have changed here,” she continued. “The first thing I can assure you is that Bamyan has good governance now. I have built trust between the community and the local government. The security we provide here is supported by the community.”
She also makes a point of noting that she still faces plenty of opposition in Bamyan, but that it’s the healthy kind, and that she actually welcomes it.
“Civil society is very strong and active in Bamyan. People demonstrate, and do peaceful protests and this is also a sign of good governance,” she explained proudly. “They have freedom of speech without facing any violence.”
U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive.” In that respect the citizens of Bamyan are firmly committed to the success of their government.
“I wish the governor would expand her health services to the outer districts,” said Fatima Razia, a student of agriculture at Bamyan University. “I would suggest she send more help to the remote areas. We need to transfer services from the population centers, since only 30 percent of the population lives in the Bamyan valley.”
“Governor Sarabi has been governor for a long time,” said a nurse at the Shah Foladi Comprehensive Health Clinic, a free clinic in the Dragon Valley, also named Fatima. “I’m not quite satisfied with the job she’s done. If you compare Bamyan with the other provinces, it’s one of the most poor. We don’t get the money and construction projects the other provinces do.”
Sarabi’s ability to support free speech is perhaps the thing that best exemplifies how healthy the system in Bamyan is, and it’s a liberty she herself uses to great effect.
“She’s very frank and very honest,” sad Jan. “It makes a difference, instead of shutting up and not saying anything. If she sees something she does not like she will tell you. She is very precise, very strong.”
Sarabi has plans for Bamyan to be a tourist mecca one day, with international travelers landing on the soon-to-be-paved airfield, ready to enjoy the incredible scenery and the many historic treasures in the area.
“Bamyan has big potential for tourism,” she said. “And we are working on ecotourism. Bamyan is on the list of World Heritage Sites. All together it’s a unique cultural view.”
Sarabi enthusiastically continues on about her dreams of a circuit of hiking trails around the province, and even ski resorts. The only thing stopping them, she explains, is a present lack of electricity, but of course she has plans to remedy that too.
Sarabi is very conscious of her place as an inspirational figure to the women of Afghanistan, and does her best to crack glass ceilings so other women can push through.
“Sometimes, yes, it is difficult to be a role model,” she said. “But [most of the time] it is enjoyable.”
“She is really brave,” said Nikbakht Karimi, a 20-year-old student and announcer at Radio Bamyan, a radio station supported by the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction Team. “That is why she’s the governor. In the past 20 years, women never had opportunities here, but now women here can get an education, get a position, and serve the country. Governor Sarabi is a success, and every woman here can be like her if they work hard.”
“Dr. Sarabi is an excellent person,” said Parwina, 18, an orphan who lives at the Samar Orphanage just outside the town of Bamyan while finishing high school. After graduating, she will attend college to become a lawyer. “She is helping the women of Bamyan. Other women and girls should follow her way. She is an example. She lets us know we can be great.”
“I have hope,” said Sarabi. “Women here are very strong and getting stronger every day.”