Influential Afghan women's rights advocate says hope is lost
KABUL — Rangina Hamidi sat down with President Hamid Karzai inside his heavily guarded palace and waited for the question she knew would come.
In late July, a suicide bomber had killed her father, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the strong-willed, reform-minded mayor of Kandahar and a close Karzai ally. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Ghulam had returned to his native Afghanistan in 2007 after more than a quarter-century away to snuff out corruption in the nation’s second-largest city.
One of Afghanistan’s most influential and outspoken advocates for women, Rangina traveled from Kandahar to meet Karzai in mid-September. She had prodded her father to serve as the city’s mayor; the president had appointed him.
Karzai offered condolences to Rangina and extolled Ghulam, his childhood friend, lauding his efforts to tame Kandahar’s culture of venality and coercion. Her father had made progress, he said. The work needed to continue.
The president looked at Rangina. “Would you consider carrying on his political legacy?” he asked.
Hamidi replied without pause.
“My dad got the reward of death for doing good,” she said.
“And all the guys who are doing the opposite, they are still in power and getting bigger and bigger. So why should I join this system? You answer me. Why should I do this?”
She had spoken truth to power. In response, power fell mute.
“He was speechless,” Hamidi said, recalling the conversation two days later. “He wasn’t confused or angry. He knows what is happening.”
Her frustration with the status quo and Karzai transcends words. The 34-year-old Hamidi, who left Virginia in 2003 to promote women’s rights in her homeland, has decided to return to the United States, disillusioned by what she views as Afghanistan’s descent into entropy.
Her departure suggests the country, swirling in “360 degrees of chaos,” as she describes it, will struggle to find a new generation of leaders to confront the guns-and-graft ethos that afflicts Afghan politics and policy-making.
“I’ve lost all my hope,” said Hamidi, founder of Kandahar Treasure, a company that employs about 350 women who produce embroidered handicrafts. “You’d think that things should go forward in eight years. We’ve gone backward.”
Hamidi possesses qualities that would make her a natural choice to nurse Afghanistan’s nascent democracy toward maturity over the next three to four decades. Articulate, educated and worldly, she shares her late father’s sense of urgency for change and desire for the country to surmount its ethnic schisms.
But since her return, she has watched politicians and street-level power brokers in Kandahar, Kabul and elsewhere wield clout through extortion, threats and violence. Among many culprits — the Taliban, Pakistan, the U.S., ISAF, NATO, NGOs — she faults above all others the nation’s besieged president.
“By allowing corrupt individuals to continue on within his government, I think he has certainly let the country down,” she said.
“Personally, I have nothing against him. I think he’s a good person, he’s very kind. But politically, I think he’s responsible for the mess of Afghanistan.”
Hamidi left Afghanistan as a toddler when her family fled to Pakistan in 1981 during the Soviet invasion. They moved to Northern Virginia seven years later, and Rangina went on to earn a bachelors degree in religious and gender studies from the University of Virginia.
Two years after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban-led government in 2001, Hamidi gave up the comforts of her adopted home, where her six siblings still live, and moved to Kandahar.
“It was an undeveloped nation: no roads, no electricity, bombed-out buildings,” she said. “Yet there was still this energy of people wanting to do things. Everywhere you looked, people were trying to start a new life, trying to invest in businesses.”
She started working on women’s issues for a nonprofit formed by Qayum Karzai, the president’s brother. Her efforts have since drawn the attention of dozens of international media outlets, among them CNN, Time, the BBC and Radio Free Europe, and she has spoken at women’s rights and peace conferences around the world.
Then as now, the country suffered from a paucity of progressive leaders. Hamidi believed her father, who had worked as an accountant in Alexandria, Va., for almost two decades, could remedy the blackmail and bloodshed plaguing Kandahar, a city of almost 1 million people and the cradle of the Taliban insurgency.
Since becoming president in 2001, Hamid Karzai had tried in vain to lure his old friend to Afghanistan for a political position. Six years later, relenting to Rangina’s entreaties, Ghulam accepted an appointment as Kandahar’s mayor.
As he told The Washington Post earlier this year, “None of my relatives wanted me to move back here, but Rangina said, ‘Dad, please come. If you die from a car accident in the States or a bomb in Afghanistan, what’s the difference? You are needed here.’ So I came.”
Lean and silver-haired, with a manner at once affable and direct, Ghulam brought a reformer’s zeal to the job.
He demanded payment of delinquent taxes from store owners; if they rebuffed him, he ordered their shops razed. He required developers to make space for parking and bathrooms in their building plans and ousted tribal leaders who illegally occupied public lands. His call to modernize the city spurred the building of schools, roads and sidewalks.
The changes gained Ghulam praise and enemies alike. A roadside bomb detonated beside his car as he drove to work one day in 2009; though he escaped injury, he began traveling with bodyguards and limiting his public appearances. Two of his deputy mayors were assassinated in separate incidents the following year.
Rangina feared her father would meet the same fate. For years she had asked him to help save Afghanistan, but by last spring, she wanted him to save himself. He ignored her pleas to return to the U.S., and in the months before his murder, angry at his obstinacy, she seldom spoke at length with him.
“I knew the threats he was getting were so real,” she said. “That’s why I was mad. That’s why I was telling him to please quit. And of course he never listened.”
Ghulam’s ties to the Karzai family, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother and the powerful provincial chairman of Kandahar, sparked accusations of influence peddling. Criticism over Ghulam’s role in transferring public lands to Mahmoud Karzai, another of the president’s brothers, and private developers close to the family crescendoed during the first half of this year.
Tensions climaxed in July. Ahmed Wali Karzai was gunned down by a member of his security detail on July 12. Fifteen days later, a man with a bomb under his turban approached Ghulam outside the mayor’s office.
“It finally happened,” Rangina thought when she heard of his death. He was 65. She once told him that, assuming the worst happened, she wished his sacrifice for Afghanistan would equal that of Mohandas Gandhi’s for India.
“I knew it wouldn’t,” she said. “I think he accomplished quite a lot, pretty much all by himself. But for right now, (his death) is extremely painful because no matter what good things people say about him, we’re not going to have the loving man we had.”
Despite the Taliban claiming responsibility for the assassination, Hamidi’s suspicion falls on the business and political factions opposed to her father’s reforms. She excoriates U.S. officials and President Karzai for enabling those malefactors to linger in positions of authority across the country.
“America came to Afghanistan and aligned itself with the very people who destroyed Afghanistan and who continue to destroy Afghanistan: warlords, drug lords, gun lords,” she said. “Investing in them and considering them allies to the movement of reconstructing Afghanistan was the first wrong step America took.”
Unable to quell the nation’s fighting, Karzai has blamed a lack of autonomy for hampering his control of the country’s disparate ethnic groups. Hamidi finds the complaint hollow.
“He’s been president for 10 years — he has to take responsibility,” she said. “Even if you buy his argument that outside forces are not allowing him to clean up the mess, then if I was in his position, I would resign. I would simply say, ‘Sorry, brothers and sisters, I can’t do it.’ ”
Hamidi has made the choice her father rejected. She and her husband, Abdullah Sidiq, a civil engineer, and their 1-year-old daughter, Zara, will move to Virginia next month.
As the family prepares to leave, Hamidi sees a nation unraveling.
“When we first came to Kandahar, I’d go out without a burqa and not think twice about it,” she said. “We used to hop in a car whenever we felt like it and drive to Kabul. Now? You don’t go anywhere without a burqa, and I can’t even think about driving that road — it’s too dangerous.”
She has not received explicit threats on her life, which helps explain why she has yet to go back to the United States. The Taliban has seldom targeted women for assassination, and Hamidi, while mindful of her elevated profile, believes she faces less danger than a public official.
But her father’s murder and the existential condition of the insurgency in Kandahar, where a trip to the market can be cut short by a suicide bombing, has drained her of the resolve to disregard the everyday danger in Afghanistan.
“I think it would be irresponsible for me to stay in such an insecure country, risking my life, when my daughter is not even 2 yet,” she said.
In her analysis of Afghanistan’s unrest, Hamidi contends foreign aid exacerbates both violence and indolence. She asserts that money from abroad, in addition to presenting an irresistible temptation to corrupt officials and contractors, has given rise to a kind of feral welfare state.
“What the international community needs to do is to get themselves out of the mentality of seeing Afghans as these poor creatures who need to be spoon-fed,” she said.
“Stop giving charity to Afghans. Period. Let them start thinking about rebuilding their lives, rebuilding their country, rebuilding their communities with their own hands and sweat. That’s the solution to Afghanistan because when they are busy building, they are going to be less busy fighting.”
Hamidi offers her own business as an example of gradual self-sufficiency. She launched Kandahar Treasure as a nonprofit in 2003 with the help of grant money from foreign donors. Five years later, she converted it to a for-profit enterprise and stopped accepting aid, and in 2010, her company finished in the black.
The business will remain open during her indefinite absence from Kandahar. Once back in the U.S., she intends to seek a job connected to Afghanistan, likely with a nonprofit group or the government.
Her decision to leave deprives Karzai of another ally. The president has lost numerous intimates during his decadelong reign, with most of them murdered. Last month, a suicide bomber killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, whom Karzai had appointed to oversee the High Peace Council, a panel charged with negotiating an end to the Taliban-led insurgency.
Perhaps Karzai had in mind his shrinking circle of confidants as he bid goodbye to Hamidi after their recent meeting in Kabul. “Don’t forget about us,” he told her.
She vows to always remember. Whether she will live here again is less certain.
“I will only come back when I know that I can help make my people a free people again,” she said. “Right now, I don’t think we’re free.”