Female Governor Fights Lonely Battle in Afghanistan Habiba Surabi, the first woman to serve as a governor in Afghanistan, hoped to be a trailblazer. But two years after she took office, residents of her province still don't have electricity or paved roads, and some critics are calling for her to resign.
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Female Governor Fights Lonely Battle in Afghanistan

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Female Governor Fights Lonely Battle in Afghanistan

Female Governor Fights Lonely Battle in Afghanistan

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Afghanistan, Habiba Surabi is perhaps the best known of the country's 34 provincial governors. That's because she's the first woman governor in Afghan history. She's educated, eloquent and extremely popular with the many international groups trying to rebuild Afghanistan. But her fame has not resulted in meaningful help for her province of Bamiyan, northwest of Kabul.

More than two years after Surabi took office, people still have no electricity and there's not a single paved road. And that has some critics calling for her resignation.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: That Bamiyan is one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces, it's apparent in its capital of the same name. Old cars and motorbikes bump frantically along what passes for Main Street near the famous giant Buddhas blown up by the Taliban. The road is covered with what Afghans call stone carpet, a mixture of rocks and dirt that makes for a teeth-clenching ride.

(Soundbite of generator)

NELSON: Privately owned generators roar in front of stores. They're the only way to get power here. Bakery owner Sia Hussein(ph) says that Bamiyan is best described in one word - frustrating.

Mr. SIA HUSSEIN (Bakery Owner, Bamiyan, Afghanistan): (Through translator) Bamiyan is Afghanistan's most left behind province. How could anyone be satisfied? If we for one minute stop hosing down the road in front of my store, the dust would be so bad I couldn't even work here.

NELSON: Down the street, bookseller Barad Ali(ph) who has spent all of his 60 years here says he doesn't believe things will get better.

Mr. BARAD ALI (Bookseller, Bamiyan, Afghanistan): (Through translator) Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised us in his first year that he'd pave the road but not even that has happened.

NELSON: Many residents share his anger at Karzai but surprisingly a few direct their ire at the governor - a staunch Karzai ally who made the same promises to Bamiyan residents when she took office two years ago.

Mr. ALI: (Through translator) She's one person and can't do everything. The governor is good.

NELSON: Governor Habiba Surabi smiles when told of such praise. But the 49-year-old also shares her constituents' frustration.

Governor HABIBA SURABI (Bayami Province, Afghanistan): Of course, if I lack the success the province no one else will be success - this is the thought of the people and I think they are true.

NELSON: But for all of the governor's fame, Bamiyan which has none of the security issues that hamper reconstruction in most of Afghanistan has pretty much been ignored. Attention and funds are instead lavished on less safe provinces that are in danger of being lost to the Taliban. Paul Fishstein of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit - a think tank in Kabul.

Mr. PAUL FISHSTEIN (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit): She doesn't represent any of the major political parties in Bamiyan and which obviously has plusses and minuses. On the one hand, she may not have access to the type of political power and influence that she would if she were. On the other hand, because she's non-political, she also retains support of many of the people.

NELSON: Surabi, a mother of three who has a pharmacy degree, says she gave up her personal life to take this job that Karzai offered her. She sees her husband and teenaged boys - who stayed behind in Kabul - once a month. But it was important to her to become a role model, especially because she's a woman and a Hazara, a Shiite Muslim descended from Mongol invaders. The Hazara has formed the majority in Bamiyan. Surabi felt it was a place she could make a difference. At first, her goal was to make Bamiyan a hallmark of post-Taliban Afghanistan - to turn it into a premier tourist destination and lift it out of poverty. Today, her dreams are far more modest.

Governor SURABI: At least if I can put a cover of asphalt on the road in Bamiyan City then after that I will say goodbye to the people: This is my desire and my wish.

NELSON: In Bamiyan, Hadjidus Muhammad Hahn(ph) says he doesn't trust Surabi. Last year, his group accused her of stealing artifacts and called on her to resign. Surabi in turn brought the antique jewelry she was accused of stealing to a news conference. She says it was handed over by a man who responded to her plea for residents to stop illegal excavations at archeological sites. She dismisses her critics as politically motivated and ignoring things that have changed. Like that nearly half of the girls in Bamiyan now go to school, that she adds is the highest rate in Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Bamiyan.

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