KABUL — When the Afghan government quietly appointed Shah Bibi Saeedi to what may be the most dangerous job in Afghanistan, it was an easy decision: she was the only person who had dared to apply.
On Saturday, the 44-year-old doctor became the new director of women’s affairs for the eastern province of Laghman. The previous two directors were assassinated within a matter of months. Saeedi, an obstetrician, has not shied away from dangerous working environments. She operates a clinic in Logar province, which is rife with insurgents, but says she has had no problems with the guerrillas.
“I think they know I’m helping people, which is why they don’t bother me,” she said.
Laghman province may be different.
In July, Hanifa Safi, a former women’s affairs director for the province, was killed when a magnetic bomb attached to her car exploded. Her replacement, Najia Siddiqi was shot dead in December while riding to work in a motorized rickshaw.
No one has taken responsibility for either killing and while several arrests were made, no one has been convicted. Laghman officials blame the Taliban, who placed severe restrictions on women during the time the group was in power.
Whoever carried out the assassinations sent a resounding message: when the job was posted, no one applied. Finally, Saeedi volunteered.
“The reason [for the assassinations] is they don’t want the development and improvement of the country,” said Sarhadi Zwak, spokesman for Laghman province’s governor. He said the government is taking additional security measures to ensure Saeedi does not meet the same fate.
The local government needs to do more, said Georgette Gagnon, the human rights director for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Women in Laghman province were more reluctant to seek help and report abuses than before the killings elsewhere, and the local government needs to make clear that it will protect both the new director and those who seek her help, Gagnon said.
“In the area itself and internationally it has become [symbolic] of the situation facing women in Afghanistan and particularly those who do try to participate in public life,” she said.
While Saeedi says the risk is worth the opportunity to help women in a rural area where domestic abuse is common and there are few employment opportunities for women, she is not cavalier about the threat to her safety. She’s pressing the provincial and national government for more security before she starts working in Laghman’s capital, Mehtar Lam.
“The reason why I decided to take this job is because I always wanted to help women and defend women’s rights in the country,” Saeedi said. “If the Taliban are saying there shouldn’t be a Women’s Affairs ministry or women don’t have a right to study or leave their homes, it’s wrong.”
“Women are mothers, they are sisters, they are equal to men,” she said.
Women still face widespread abuse and discrimination in Afghanistan, according to a U.N. report issued the day after Siddiqi was killed. The report stated that Afghan women are still often imprisoned for running away from home and that authorities rarely pursue perpetrators of violence against women.
The problems are greatest in rural areas, where forced marriage is still common and families often settle disputes by offering girls as wives.
“Women face every risk, from killing, abuse, sexual harassment,” Afghan women’s rights activist Shahla Maihandost said. “Despite that, the Afghan women have not given up and have continued to fight against all these challenges. Even in Kabul, women don’t feel safe, so you can’t imagine what is going on with the women in the provinces.”
Maihandost praised Saeedi for her decision, saying she is an inspiration for women.
“Dr. Shah Bibi deciding to become the director of women’s affairs is a great honor for all women and we are proud of her decision,” she said. “It’s a very hard job out there.”
Raised in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Saeedi taught after high school before studying literature at university. In the early 1990s, she fled to Pakistan with her husband during Afghanistan’s civil war. There, she and her husband studied medicine before returning to Afghanistan in 2001 after the U.S.-led invasion.
Saeedi soon went into politics, winning a seat on the Nangarhar provincial council and then getting appointed as a senator for the Afghan parliament, where she served from 2004 to 2009.
Part of a tiny minority of Afghan women who have gained access to higher education, Saeedi sees lack of schooling as the biggest barrier to women attaining greater rights. Without education, women have no way to earn a living and are trapped in their homes, she said.
“Everything depends on economics, and economics depends on education,” Saeedi said.
Those realities are most stark in largely rural provinces like Laghman, where many families are still engaged in subistance agriculture. Illiteracy is rife and continuing violence still keeps many from education.
Despite her visceral dislike for the Taliban’s policies, Saeedi said she’s ready to sit down with insurgents if it can help girls and women in Laghman province.
“If the Taliban are OK for a discussion, I’m ready to talk to them and explain to them that I’m just here to help women,” she said.
Saeedi, who has seven children, speaks optimistically about the future for women in Afghanistan. But she demurred when asked if she sees a future in Afghanistan for her four daughters.
“I don’t think so, because they need higher education and enough possibilities, and I don’t like the violence that is still going on here,” she said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.