Struggling to pave the way for future female leaders in Afghanistan

Ghor Gov. Seema Joyenda is only the third female governor in Afghan history.
(Ali M. Latifi / For The Times)

When she became governor of her native Ghor in June, Seema Joyenda knew that she was taking responsibility for not only one of Afghanistan’s most insecure and impoverished provinces, but also the political aspirations of many Afghan women.

As soon as her appointment by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was announced, local religious leaders launched a protest.

Mawlavi Mohammad, a member of Ghor’s religious council, an advisory board of local mullahs, contended that Friday prayers — a religious obligation for all able-bodied Muslim men — would be voided in a community led by a woman, because women cannot preside over a communal prayer, according to religious custom.


The religious leaders ended their complaints only after Joyenda invited them to meet with her. She said support for her appointment, especially from women, has outweighed criticism.

“If you go to the flower shops and greenhouses of Ghor right now, you won’t find anything. When the people came to welcome me, they were so kind, they brought the most beautiful flowers they could find,” she said in an interview in her office in Firoz Koh, the provincial capital.

“Any successful woman in Afghanistan, particularly in politics, knows that they are a sacrifice. We will struggle so one day, in the future, others will be able to thrive.”

Malina Ahmadzada Ghori, a member of a community development council in the northeastern district of Dawlatyar, said complaints about Joyenda simply because she is a woman are unfair and ill-informed.

“Criticize her like you would any politician. Say she is uneducated. Say she is unqualified, but don’t invent reasons from thin air,” Ghori said. “Where in any holy book does it say if a woman is governor there can be no Friday prayers?”

Joyenda, who had been elected to represent Ghor in the parliament, is only the third female governor in Afghan history.


She may well be judged most directly on whether she can help improve security in a province that has become a key transit point for illegal arms and drugs. More than 139 illegal armed groups are active in the western province.

The illicit trade fuels an array of tribal militias that are the main source of violence in Ghor, unlike in other provinces where militants are more loyal to antigovernment Islamist insurgents such the Taliban.

Shahla Khatebi, the province’s director of women’s affairs, said women are the most vulnerable.

“It’s the lack of security that keeps women from working and contributing to society,” Khatebi said.

Joyenda said she hopes to launch a dialogue to resolve the conflicts and power struggles among the armed groups and would invite women who have lost family members in the fighting and arms trafficking.

“They will turn to each of these power-thirsty men with Korans in their hands and say, ‘Enough, we have lost too many of our own people, end the fighting,’” she said.

But some call her plans naive, noting Afghanistan’s long history of broken peace agreements.

Residents wonder why Joyenda has suggested inviting Ismail Khan, a former warlord from neighboring Herat province, as a possible mediator. Khan has been accused by the people of Ghor of supporting several of the armed factions in their province.

As much of the fighting stems from decades-old tribal grudges, some doubt whether Joyenda, as a Ghor native, can serve as an effective mediator.

“A Ghori [native] has too many connections to all of these groups,” said Shah Mamor Shehab, who runs the Jam-e Ghor news website. “What we need is someone from the outside, someone who has no ties to anyone here to resolve the issues.”

Abdullah Haiwad, who was governor from 2011 to 2013, said local leaders cannot marginalize powerful commanders.

“You can’t strip armed men of their authority easily,” he said. “Instead, you have to hold them accountable.”

Joyenda feels pressure to succeed because she carries the weight of expectations of Afghan women.

“If I die for this, it will be worth it, because I know if I don’t succeed, everyone will say, ‘See, we knew a woman couldn’t do this,’ and so many doors will be shut for future generations of women.”

Joyenda, who began her career working for nongovernmental foreign and local relief agencies, takes office as donor countries are unwilling to increase aid to Afghanistan after more than a decade of conflict. That could constrain her efforts to finance development projects to demonstrate her leadership abilities, she said.

The mainly agricultural economy of Ghor, a mountainous province that is rendered largely inaccessible for up to six months a year by harsh winters, is battered by floods, drought and avalanches.

Joyenda’s background as the daughter of a single mother who rose from the depths of poverty in Firoz Koh inspires many in Ghor, a province where 80% of the children are forced into menial labor, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

To demonstrate her commitment to development, Joyenda told a story of how she offered up a prized gold necklace to officials with the Religious Affairs Ministry to help fund construction of a mosque that was stalled by a lack of funds.

“I told them, ‘I have no idea how much this is worth, but whatever you get for it, use it for the mosque,’” she said.

Latifi is a special correspondent.