Interview with Ms. Maria Bashir, Chief Prosecutor of Herat Province

Ms Maria Bashir28 January 2010 - Maria Bashir joined the Afghan civil service almost 15 years ago. She has lived through the Taliban rule and an assassination attempt. Today, Ms. Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor of Herat Province, serving in this position for three years now.  We recently had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Bashir, and to discuss her work, her aspirations, and her hopes for the future of her country.

UNODC: Ms. Bashir, promoting justice as a female prosecutor in Afghanistan is not an easy task. What made you choose this path?

Maria Bashir: Throughout my years in school, I was always the best student in class: I wanted to know everything. And from early on, I had a strong sense of fairness and justice, and I believed that everybody should be given their fair due.

On the day I sat my entrance exam to graduate school, there was a form where you had to choose which faculties you would like to enroll in. I crossed out the form with a single cross and put the Law Faculty as my first choice, my second choice, and my third choice. The Minster for High Education at the time was screening the forms, and when he saw my choice, he asked me, "so this is the only subject you would study?" - I determinedly answered, "yes," and he approved my placement.

Thus, Maria Bashir began her law career in 1990 with a 4-year course at Kabul University. After an additional year of prosecutorial training, she joined the Prosecutor's Office as a criminal investigator. After getting married, she moved to her husband's home-town of Herat, where she continued her work, until the Taliban took power.

Maria Bashir: Shortly after we moved to Herat, the Taliban regime took over, and the dark days of their rule ensued. It was a particularly grim time for women. Everybody was scared to go to work and I, too, had to stay at home. So, I started a secret school at home, for the neighborhood girls. The girls would get an education, in the hope for better days in the future, and I would earn some extra money for my family.

After the fall of the Taliban, Maria Bashir was able to resume her work as a criminal investigator. She told us the story of how she rose to her current position of responsibility.

Maria Bashir: After some three years, the Attorney General came to visit Herat. He was known as a religious man, with a very traditional conservative attitude towards women. So, my boss at the time instructed me to avoid meeting him. The Attorney General held a meeting with Prosecutors from four provinces of the region, including from Herat, and after the meeting, he asked whether people in the audience had questions. I was wearing a well-covering headscarf on that day, and was sitting hiding behind a pillar, so as not to anger the Attorney General. But when he asked for questions, that hall filled with about three hundred men was silent, while I happened to have a question. So I came forth, introduced myself, and said I had two questions: "you intend to improve the work of the prosecutor's office and fight corruption and bribes - what is your policy in achieving that goal?" and secondly, "I have heard you are against women being in positions of power. Do you think a woman could do a good job as a prosecutor?" To my second question, to my surprise, he answered that, yes, women were as capable as men in working as prosecutors, and he did not see a problem.

During his 10-day stay in Herat, the Attorney General announced on the radio that the people of Herat were invited to come and see him if they had any complaints on the work of the Herat prosecutors. It so happened that there were no complaints on my work. So, before departing back to Kabul, he assigned me to my current post. This was the first time in Afghan history that a woman became a Chief Prosecutor. People said that the office would soon fall apart and shut its doors because a woman would not be able to perform such a task. But here were are, three years later, and people seem to be happy with my work.

Of course, it is a difficult job; it is dangerous to enforce justice. I hope I am doing my job well, and am making an improvement, even if a small one.

UNODC: What gives you the energy and inspiration for this difficult job?

A: My family, particularly my late father, was always encouraging. They believed in me and told me "you can do it." The same is true of my husband. He is a very progressive and educated man. He never interferes with my job.

Yet, Maria Bashir acknowledges that it is hard to juggle her professional and family responsibilities, and she is grateful for the understanding and support of her family in those moments when she can give them less time than she would wish. In the end, she argues, it is her tenacity that has helped her overcome the challenges.

UNODC: A lot is being said about corruption in Afghanistan and the damage it causes to the stabilization and prosperity of the country. If you had a chance to advise President Karzai on this issue, now, after his re-election, what would you say?

Maria Bashir: I would say that first of all, his choices for cabinet positions should be made on the basis of professional merit, competency, and, of course, patriotism and the will to serve the people. I hope that our President will manage to take these parameters into account, and will not give in to pressures and allow for political appointments, nepotism and selection on the basis of ethnicity. This is what tore Afghanistan apart, and what stands in the way of prosperity today. Qualities like integrity, dedication, professional skills, complemented by patriotism, should be the key.

Afghanistan has endured over 30 years of conflict and destruction. It has lived through lawless times, when bribery and corruption emerged and became endemic.

To the extent the financial situation permits, political support for law enforcement and the courts, and anti-corruption efforts should go hand in hand with salary increases for public servants, so that they are able to provide for their families and to be free of temptation to take bribes. A regular prosecutor today receives approximately 5000 Afghanis per month [author: about US$100 at market rates - US$300 PPP], which is a very small amount to provide for a traditionally large family. So public servants are forced to look for an extra income.

Efforts are also needed in enforcing justice. I personally am aware of many cases of violence, particularly against women, when the court issues a sentence, but, due to the lack of enforcing power, it is not implemented. This must change.

UNODC: As an Afghan woman, and a professional who succeeded despite the hardship and barriers, what would be your advice to aspiring young Afghan girls?

Maria Bashir: Women in Afghanistan went through a lot of misery. They had to bear the burden of a dismal situation created by men. Deceased children, lost husbands, hungry family - it all fell on their shoulders. However, I am convinced our women are very capable. I would like to tell them to remember that they have rights. The right to study is one of the most important ones. They should strive to study, become proficient in a subject, and become successful in our society, mindful of its culture and traditions, which require striking a good balance between religion and profession. Today, we women strive and work in these hard conditions so that young girls may one day be able to work and have a better life, and better prospects. I hope that our young women will be persistent and determined in achieving what they have aspired for. I hope they will think for themselves, and not cave under outside pressure.

UNODC: Finally, on your plans. How do you see yourself in the next ten to fifteen years?

Ms Maria BashirMaria Bashir: Inshallah. Today, the people of Afghanistan are concerned about the future of Afghanistan: will we manage to improve the situation or not? I would call for the international community not to forget the hardship and tragedies that happened on their own land - I mean the events of 9/11 - and if this is not forgotten, Afghanistan will not be forgotten either. I hope that in ten to fifteen years, with the assistance of the international community, we will be able to stand on our own feet, establish a capable military and police force, and create a pool of good specialists in civil society. I am scared of the thought that we may fail to enforce the rule of law in the country, and may lose the battle with corruption. If that is case, then there will be little hope for improvement.

Personally, I hope to continue serving people, and women in particular. I hope that security situation will improve, to give me the space to perform my functions even better.

In 10-15 years, when my only daughter will graduate from school, I hope she will not have to face the difficulties I faced, and will become an independent, professional woman, protected by the law, and will live and work freely and happily in her country.

Translated from Dari: Diloro Kadirova, UNODC Kabul