The Women of Bamyan: A Progress Report

Last Wednesday I reached Bamyan province in Afghanistan. It was a sunny, windy day, and Bamyan looked beautiful and clean. When our small, nine-person plane got close to landing, I saw a group of girls on the road going to school. I saw police with professional and neat uniforms, without beards. I saw so many new buildings and many foreigners–none of which I saw the last time I was here in 2004. I felt so relieved and joyful to see progress in Bamyan.

Bamyan province, with a population of nearly 400,000, is located in the center of Afghanistan. A place that has six months of winter, it used to be the poorest province, with mainly potatoes growing there. It’s most famous for being the site of two remarkable 6th century sculptures of the Buddha built into a rocky hillside, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

In 2004, the situation there shocked my soul. I saw only destruction–of the Buddhas, houses, the bazaar. I heard so much misery about the Taliban’s cruelty in the province. I was crying as I looked around, feeling helpless and hopeless. And I met so many women whose lives were shattered. Time had collapsed for them–the past was so painful to remember, the future too uncertain to talk about. They were just struggling in the present.

But Wednesday felt like the happiest day of my life. I saw development. I saw hope in the faces of people, and hope about the administration of the governor–a woman! This time, I hear more stories of success than misery. Women talk about the future because they can see a future for themselves! Last time, I had only tears to share with the women of Bamyan; this time we share smiles.

I am eager to visit more places in Bamyan and meet more women. I have come here on a fact-finding research trip, just as I did in 2004 when I traveled around and made a video. I’m focusing on Bamyan primarily because it is the center of the Hazarajat–the Hazara ethnic group, to which I belong. I will visit the University of Bamyan, the orphanage run by Dr. Sima Samar, the women’s ministry, the women’s shura (community council), a women’s shelter, a women’s prison and two girls schools. I will find out more about the life of the people here; I am sure they are still facing challenges and obstacles, but overall Bamyan is moving in positive direction.

Right now, Bamyan has many success stories to tell to the world. The governor’s adviser says that their message to the international community, especially the American people is that “your money is not wasted in Bamyan.” She says they have carefully spent international assistance on improvement of the province. Right now Bamyan has 320 schools, with nearly 80,000 students in elementary (up to grade 5) and nearly 35,000 in middle- and high school. The province also maintains a strong literacy program for adults. I can see a revolutionary change in education in Bamyan: It now has no barriers because of age, gender, location or economic status. People have full confidence that they are able to keep learning at any age; there are many literacy courses for the elderly. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Shuhada Organization have so many programs in Bamyan, many to bring awareness about domestic violence and human rights violations.

I also visited Mazar-e-Sharif and could see huge differences from Bamyan. The Balkh province, where Mazar-e-Sharif is, has a male governor and receives more government money. When I visited, the governor had 12 guests in the house and we were served all kinds of delicious food. The poorer province, Bamiyan, is run by the only female governor in Afghanistan, Habiba Sarabi, who was the minister of women’s affairs back in 2004. There are much less trappings of power and politics on display in her government, and government resources seem to be spent more on the people and the communities themselves.

Sarabi is in direct daily contact with the average citizen. She wears very simple dress; people love her. For dinner, she served her guests very simple food–okra cooked with Bamyani potatoes and homemade yogurt. I got to spend a few hours with her, watching her work. She is very friendly with people. The work hours are from 8 to 3:30 p.m., but she didn’t leave the office that day until 5:30; she said she never leaves until she has finished her work. When she left her office she went on a 30-minute walk and I went along. I was breathing so hard, but she was walking without any difficulty. There was only one police officer with us–something governors in other provinces could not do because of security fears. Bamyan, though, is now a peaceful place.

I saw the governor come out of a meeting with the United Nations World Food Program, which wants to distribute wheat to people who are affected so badly from poverty. The governor told them that they should give the wheat in exchange for those people promising to work cleaning snow off the streets and roads in winter time. Sarabi said she wants to teach Bamyan people to learn how to catch fish, not just how to eat fish. She said, “I want to teach the Bamyan people that nothing can come free. You have to work hard.”

Photo of Hazara girls in Bamyan by ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office from Kabul, Afghanistan under Creative Commons 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Zareen Taj is a women’s rights and human rights activist. She is a Feminist Majority scholar. She has a dual bachelor’s degree in women's studies and political science and a master's degree in women studies. She is currently a LLC Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.