AFGHANISTAN: Maria Bashir: Afghanistan's Fearless Female Prosecutor

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
BBC News
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

In Afghanistan's Herat province, the chief prosecutor general has a difficult job.

Fighting for justice against a profoundly corrupt political system is an uphill struggle, but for Maria Bashir the challenge is all the more acute.

It is a society that is still trying to shake off the worst excesses of the Taliban's patriarchal rule and being a woman in a position of power is not only rare, it is dangerous.

A constant barrage of abuse and regular death threats have become a part of her daily life since she became prosecutor general of Herat in 2006.

Last month, at a ceremony presided over by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, she was celebrated as one of the US State Department's International Women of Courage.

Domestic violence is endemic in Afghanistan where years of Taliban rule held women firmly under the thumb of men.

Though the current constitution has good written laws to protect women, too often they are badly enforced.

In the past five years Ms Bashir has been instrumental in holding the husbands and families of the abused to account.

Determined to succeed

She began her career in 1990 when her application to study at Kabul university came to the attention of the Minister for Higher Education.

Her determination- she had chosen Law as her first, second and third choice - convinced the minister to approve her application and four years later she joined the prosecutor's office as a criminal investigator.

In 1996 she married and moved to her husband's home-town of Herat - the year the Taliban came to power.

"It was a particularly grim time" she recalls. "I, like every other educated woman, was confined at home."

But Ms Bashir refused to stand by and watch the new rulers destroy the lives of young girls in her neighbourhood.

She set up a school in her home where girls could come in secret, hiding books and pencils in shopping bags as they entered the house.

It was a dangerous time and twice her husband was summoned and questioned about her activities by local police.

When the Taliban fell the transitional government sent for her and she was reinstated as a prosecutor in Herat.

Soon it became apparent that corruption and bribery still haunted the Afghan justice system.

When the Attorney General visited Herat three years later, Ms Bashir challenged him openly at a meeting of more than 300 prosecutors, most of them men.

Her insolence paid off and before he returned to Kabul she had been appointed the country's first female chief prosecutor.

A predictable slew of insults and negativity followed her appointment but Ms Bashir was defiant. "All those comments made me concentrate on my job and do professionally whatever my job demanded of me," she remembers.

Under threat

And it has been nothing if not demanding. Ms Bashir travels in an armoured car, with up to six bodyguards. "I can't go shopping or go around easily. It is a very dull and difficult life for a woman."

Worse is the effect that her career has had on her family.

Her three children live under constant threat, the youngest son and daughter cannot go to school and are taught at home while her eldest son has been sent to Germany for his own safety.

The risk is very real. Once, her house was set on fire, prompting the family to move. Then, in 2008 a bomb exploded outside their home, killing one of their bodyguards.

These threats are not something that Ms Bashir takes lightly. "Of course it is always a pressure on my heart as a mother, I feel guilty about it all the time."

"But if I say I have family problems and another woman says she has family problems, what will be the future of Afghanistan?" she says defiantly, "We have to take these risks."

She is helped by a supportive family including her late father and her husband.

And her problems pale in comparison to some of the cases of women she has dealt with.

One woman was imprisoned in a dark room for four months by her husband who kept her children from her, only giving her food through a tiny hole. At the end of four months her skin started to fall off.

Ms Bashir took the case and the man was convicted and sentenced to five years. "But I am still not happy about this," she says and has resolved to take it further.

Despite horrific cases like these she is optimistic about the future for Afghan women and believes the presence of women in parliament, in the justice system and in universities and schools will bring necessary change.

She hopes the international recognition that she received this year will inspire other women to continue with this struggle.

"I want to convey the message to Afghan women around the world and encourage them to use whatever they have to rebuild this country because every drop counts."