Bibi Hakmeena stands out in a crowd of Afghan women - she is a politician one who not only dresses as a man, but who garners the respect of men and was recently voted onto a provincial council.
Bibi Hakmeena has been dressing like a man since she was 10 years old
There is no escaping talk of Bibi Hakmeena in the eastern Afghan province of Khost. The provincial council member's name is on everybody's lips - both because of her political work and her unusual mode of dress.
Unlike other women, she wears a knee-length shirt, loose-fitting trousers and a black turban. And as such, she is barely distinguishable from the men with whom she mixes.
"I feel like a man because my habits are masculine," Hakmeena told Deutsche Welle. "I have never felt like a woman."
She has been dressing in traditional men's clothing since the 1979 Soviet invasion. She was just 10 years old at the time.
A matter of family honor
With her older brother away studying in Kabul, and her younger brother too young to take up arms, there was a shortage of men to protect the family. To get around the problem, her father decided to masquerade his eldest daughter as his son.
The politician, who is now in her early forties, became responsible for the protection of her mother and younger siblings. And she also started to accompany her father into the world of Pashtun men.
Bibi Hakmeena is always armed
"My father was the village elder and I learnt a lot from going along to gatherings with him," Hakmeena said. "The tribe always respected me because of my father."
She supported the Mujahedeen in the fight against Soviet occupation, operating as an informant and organizing supplies of food, medicine and even weapons.
These days she never leaves her house without her Kalashnikov over her shoulder.
"I wear this weapon for me, for my honor and my appearance," she said, quoting a Pashtun saying that although a weapon is a burden, it will serve its owner well. "Weapons are there to protect lives."
Bibi Hakmeena, who has never taken the traditional female route to marriage, was recently voted onto the provincial council. Her mediation skills are in great demand, and she enjoys the respect of both women and men.
"Although she's a woman Bibi Hakmeena has done a lot for her province," Khost resident Abdul Qadir told Deutsche Welle. "What is really great about her is that she is as brave as men, but also supports women's rights."
He says that commitment sets her apart as an innovator in a region where women have long been neglected.
No gender agenda
But Bibi Hakmeena does not fight her battles from a gender platform per se. She simply wants to use her political clout to help the disadvantaged - and in Afghanistan, they often happen to be women.
Women are often disadvantaged in Afghani society
"I feel sorry for women because they are not always well treated in Pashtun society, they are often made to suffer." she said. "Girls are sold for high bride prices as a means of solving conflicts between two clans, and many aren't allowed to go to school."
On that front, the politician speaks from experience. Rather than attend classes, she was taught to work the fields, just like a boy.
Hopes for the future
She calls herself "king of the women," and Khost residents are the first to admit that she is a man as any man. Even in the face of the Taliban.
Locals says she is as man as any man
"Twice they told me that because I had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, I should be on their side," Hakmeena explained. "But I just said, 'let's sit together and talk.'"
Hakmeena describes herself as religious, but she also believes in the law and democratic jurisdiction. As far as she is concerned, dialogue is the best way to solve conflict, and she hopes it will prevail as a solution in her war-ravaged homeland.
She also hopes to see more Afghan women getting ahead and securing themselves equal rights without first having to become men.
Author: Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi / tkw
Editor: Rob Mudge