Most tables at today’s banquet lunch at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel were filled as per local tradition: Men at many of the tables, and women separately at others.
The exception was the head table, where Afghanistan’s first-ever female vice presidential candidate sat with other mostly male politicians, offering a striking symbol of social change. Habiba Sarobi, bespectacled and wearing a pale blue head scarf, smiled as supporters circled around her to pose for photographs.
Before 2001, the mere idea of a woman running for high political office was laughable. Under the Taliban's rule, women had to wear all-covering burqas, required permission to be outside the home, and girls could not go to school.
Now, after more than a decade of social and political progress by Afghan women, the idea is reality: Ms. Sarobi is sharing a ticket with former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul on Saturday's presidential ballot.
She knows what her candidacy means for her country. And, after weeks on the campaign trail, she also knows how far women have yet to go before they hold an equal role in this deeply traditional society.
“[Women] are very surprised, they are very happy – they couldn’t imagine that a woman can be a leader, the third highest position in the country,” Sarobi said in an interview.
“Everyone says: You should be our voice in that new government. You should understand our difficulties and problems, and fight for our rights – that is their message,” says Sarobi, a hematologist and former governor of Bamiyan Province – another first in Afghanistan. Under outgoing President Hamid Karzai, she served as minister of women’s affairs and of education.
Each of Afghanistan’s eight presidential contenders have lauded the contributions made by women. At a Kabul rally yesterday, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – a former finance minister with a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University – praised Afghan women as “heroes” in society who educate their families, and therefore the nation.
Three hundred women candidates are running for provincial council posts in Saturdays's election, with 20 percent of the seats set aside for them. Years of focus on women – with the women’s affairs ministry and clear rights in the Afghanistan constitution, as well as gender quotas and women’s education pushed by Western donors who have spent tens of billions in Afghanistan – have had an impact.
Afghan women have continued to break new ground, such as the first graduation in 30 years of a female Afghan Air Force pilot last year, and in a multitude of other areas.
Sarobi says she has been struck by how women have become an increasing political force, even in some of the most conservative areas of the country.
“Everywhere – I was in Helmand, I was in Kandahar – but I had a big rally with women in Kandahar, and women in Helmand participated in the same rally with men, and a big part of that were women,” says Sarobi. “It seems that now it is acceptable for the people.” She concedes, however, that acceptance by men is “difficult in some places."
As the Taliban continue to target Kabul in a bid to stop the election – today a suicide bomber killed six policemen just inside the Ministry of Interior compound, the fourth such high-profile attack in the capital in eight days – questions have been raised about what happens to women's rights when US and NATO troops leave and donor aid slackens.
Sarobi says the changes are now irreversible in Afghanistan, and growing expectations among women have taken root, regardless of the future status of the Taliban or the scale of Western aid – or even whether she is elected as vice president.
“Of course the donor aid is less, but we are here, Afghan people are here,” says Sarobi. “So we are doing our job, we have to do our job. I’m sure that [women’s progress] will continue.