I want to share a story about my experience as one of two thousand people from Afghanistan chosen to participate in the 2011 Loya Jirga—the traditional council that was called by President Karzai as part of the planning for security after the international forces leave.

The governor’s office in Herat, where the governor was open-minded about his selections, chose my CV for the Jirga. A committee in Kabul then approved the choices, and the gathering got started in Kabul on November 16, 2011. 

It had barely begun when there were Taliban threats. As we finished breakfast on the second day, we heard two explosions. Everyone assumed it was a suicide bomber and fled to their rooms. It turned out to be rockets fired at the compound and the police checkpoint. One man at the checkout was injured. But other than that, the Jirga went forward without interruption.

We were divided into forty committees with fifty members each. The first requirement was to elect a committee head and a committee secretary. My committee included ten Persian speakers who encouraged me to nominate myself for the head position although the rest of the committee spoke Pashto. It is very hard to get votes as a Persian speaker among a majority of Pashto speakers. Our committee included nine women, but only three spoke Persian.

The first thing I had to do was present my biography. I was the only Persian-speaking candidate for committee leadership and was told I had to make my presentation in Pashto.

While the two other candidates were presenting their biographies I wrote down the key Pashto words I would need. Then it was my turn. They were hoping to embarrass me by requiring me to speak in Pashto, so I made a suggestion: These are all our national languages, I said. If you present your biographies in Persian, I will present mine in Pashto.

So the other candidates presented their biographies in Persian and I presented mine in Pashto. I studied Pashto in school when I was young, but I did not have the opportunity to use it. But I felt I spoke with confidence. Later the former Minister of Women’s Affairs said my Pashto was better than the other speakers’ Persian.

Finally, the voting started. The first man received twenty-one votes, the next man received fourteen, and I received fourteen.

The coordinator wanted to settle the tie by drawing lots. The Persian speakers complained that this was unfair and argued that since the head of the committee would be a man, the secretary position should go to a woman.

This brought disapproval from most of the committee members. Then I realized we were still one vote short. “Where is the fiftieth card?” I asked.

While I started looking for the last vote, the coordinator was trying to slip an extra card under the stack for the second male candidate.

I took the card from him and asked him where he had found it. He claimed it was under the table.

Then some members asked a Pashto-speaking governor to award the last vote.

I said, “Let’s see how much the governor pays attention to women’s rights!” The governor closed his eyes and put the last vote on my stack.

The committees later separated into different rooms; each had its own coordinator from Kabul. Before the committee heads made their final presentations at the end, an anchor read the list of committee leaders. The governors were proud when they heard the name of a member from their province. Herat had three people—two women secretaries and one male head—win leadership positions. This was more than any of the other provinces represented. Herat Governor Daud Shah Saba expressed appreciation for our efforts.

Finally, the committee heads presented their group’s recommendations to an audience that included President Karzai, all two thousand participants, and government ministers.

Karzai promised to take the Jirga concerns into consideration in reaching a strategic agreement with the United States.

But this Jirga was also a process that forced the conservative head of my committee and me to deal with each other over our language barriers.

He asked me to learn Pashto, and I told him to learn Persian. Now I am studying Pashto. I do not know if he is learning Persian.

By Hassina