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Female Afghan Governor Won't Back Down Amid Threats, Controversy

Ghor Province Governor Sima Joyanda
Ghor Province Governor Sima Joyanda

Sima Joyenda knew she would face resistance when she was named governor of her deeply conservative and impoverished home province in central Afghanistan.

But after just four months as governor of Ghor Province, Joyenda says the calls for her dismissal that immediately accompanied her appointment have escalated to threats against her life.

One of only two women governors in Afghanistan, Joyenda has been the focus of protests at home -- the most recent on October 18 in a demonstration organized by political opponents in the provincial capital, Firoz Koh.

Her name has been singled out in the country's upper house of parliament amid demands that government appointments be reviewed to prevent an escalation of provincial insecurity.

And she has weathered criticism from rights activists at home and abroad after she supported the recent lashing of a young couple for adultery -- a sentence Joyenda later said was in keeping with the constitution.

But in an interview with RFE/RL following the demonstration against her in Firoz Koh, Joyenda said that "armed commanders" -- whom she called "bullies" -- have made threats against her and her family.

"I'm afraid they will kill me or my family members," said Joyenda, who did not reveal the names of the individuals or when the alleged threats were made. "They can do this because they have power and weapons."

The 44-year-old mother of nine said the "armed commanders" had demanded that she leave her post as governor of Ghor.

Among those participating in the October 18 rally -- the second such protest in the past week -- were Ghor provincial council members who accuse Joyenda of being incompetent and unable to manage the province's affairs.

Her critics cite her failure to curb growing insecurity in the province and to improve its citizens' economic prospects as reasons for her to leave office. Joyenda says there is really only one reason behind the calls for her removal -- she is a woman.

Simmering Feud

Ghor lawmaker Mohammad Dawood Ghafari, addressing the upper house of parliament earlier this month, left no room for doubt.

"A woman can't manage 1 million people," Pajhwok Afghan News quoted Ghafari as saying on October 6. "There is conflict in Ghor; nobody listens to a man, much less a woman."

Joyenda had her work cut out for her she when was appointed in June by the Afghan government.

She would have had to face deeply conservative values amid her constituents, and powerful men in the spheres of religion and politics. And then there were the dozens of illegal armed groups active in Ghor, a key transit route for arms and drugs, and the clashes between them that are seen to be the source of much of the violence in the province.

Her critics include members of the provincial council, including its leader Fazlul Haq Ehsan. She is also opposed by influential religious figures, including Maulawi Esmatullah Nadim, the former head of the provincial religious council. Joyenda has also had a simmering feud with Keramuddin Khan, a member of parliament with ties to former warlord Islam Khan.

Keramuddin Khan, who was against her appointment as governor, is said to be among the leaders behind the protests against Joyenda.

Even before her appointment by the government, which had promised to select more female governors upon taking power about a year ago, local leaders in Ghor had expressed misgivings about the appointment.

There were doubts as to whether she could navigate the fractious politics of the province, but even her apparent nod to conservative religious values in Afghanistan have attracted criticism.

Joyenda recently came under heat from rights activists after a young man and woman found guilty of adultery were lashed publicly on August 31.

The day after the incident, Joyenda told Ariana TV that the lashing had indeed taken place, but stressed that she was in Kabul at the time and that she had not been informed of it.

However, she added that the sentence, which was carried out based on a court ruling, was in keeping with the law.

"Afghanistan is an Islamic country and Ghor is one of the provinces of Afghanistan, and we cannot disobey what the law of Islam and our constitution says," Ariana News quoted her as saying.

In her interview with RFE/RL on October 18, Joyenda hinted that she had been pressured by powerful religious leaders in the province, and said she will not submit to "illegal" demands made by council members and former Ghor leaders for her to step down.

"They want me to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities," said Joyenda, who has called for a government delegation to come to the province and investigate.

Abdul Hamid Nateqi, a Ghor provincial council member who participated in the October 18 protest calling for Joyenda to resign, has also called on the central government to help resolve the issue.

Inspiration For Many

The Independent Department for Local Governance, a presidentially appointed government body, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on October 19 that it is looking into the situation.

A member of the Aimaq ethnic group, the majority in Ghor, Joyenda does have significant backing. Her background -- someone who rose to political office despite her being the daughter of a single mother -- has inspired many in a province where women have traditionally played a minor role in public affairs.

Her career path, according to the Afghan Analysts Network, included working as a high-school teacher in the provincial capital; a stint at the governor's office, and participation as a civil-society activist in the London Conference on Afghanistan in 2006 and 2014, and the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan in 2012.

Some of her supporters came out on October 18 in a counterrally in Firoz Koh.

"We don't want a governor with blood on their hands, that has looted peoples' homes, and who has killed children," said one female protester, in reference to accusations against many of the country's powerful former warlords and militia leaders. "We want Sima as governor."

Written by Frud Bezhan and Mustafa Sarwar, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Qadir Ghafoori