Thirteen-year-old Zakia Wardak’s eyes would brighten at the mere sight of her father, as is often the case for well-loved little girls. “Tall, handsome, and a very kind man” is how she describes Gen. Abdul Ali Wardak, who was chief of staff of the Corps of the Afghan army when Soviet-backed forces staged a bloody coup in April 1978.
She was 13 when her father was killed, 40 years ago. Since then, Afghanistan has seen constant violence, and the cost of war has been immense. Impaired by corruption, insecurity, terrorism, and political factionalism, the young democracy today faces immense challenges on its path to normalcy.
Amidst this, Zakia Wardak is determined to uphold a legacy, that of a “patriot’s family,” as she calls it.
Wardak is one of 108 women who ran for the nine seats from Kabul for Wolesi Jirga, the House of the People, in Afghanistan’s Oct. 10 elections—the results of which are mired in a recounting controversy and are due anytime.
This is Afghanistan’s third parliamentary election since the United States invaded the country in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2003, with the Taliban deposed from power, the constitution was restored; and the first vote took place in 2004.
The mother of two feels her prospects of winning are good. Four million Afghans defied the pre-election violence—during which 10 candidates were murdered—to go to the polls.
She has persevered in her mission through family deaths and great personal sacrifice, embodying the spirit of sustaining hope and courage that she says is common to believers of democracy and peace in Afghanistan.
Her courage is also an inspiration to many younger woman who ran along with her, constituting 16 percent of parliamentary candidates for a House that reserves 68 of the 249 seats for women.
Voice and a Vision
It’s not easy to carry forward the legacy of a legendary father. When Wardak, now 53, talks about being a “true patriot,” she means upholding her father’s values and his love for Afghanistan.
“When sometimes I hear people saying that I’m like my father doing my best to help people, that makes me very happy and I think I have something from him,” she said. Wardak is an architect, an entrepreneur, and the chair of the Society of Afghan Women in Engineering and Construction. She’s also one of the founders of Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce. She believes there’s never been a more meaningful time for Afghanistan.
Her love of country also comes from her late husband, Sarajuddin Wardak, who fought the Soviet forces along with the Mujahideens and later became the first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in Washington from 1992 to 1998.
Sarajuddin returned to Afghanistan when few would dare to in 1998, by which point the Taliban were in control of 90 percent of the country. He came as a humanitarian, building schools, orphanages, and health clinics. “The second largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan was in Wardak. My husband played a critical role between the Taliban government and the U.S. military,” she said.
In 2011, he died in a traffic accident.
“He was an excellent communicator and the Afghan people, Taliban or not, loved and respected him so much. My late husband never feared anyone but God. He always just wanted Afghanistan to thrive,” she said.
In the run-up to the election, Wardak faced yet another tragic loss. She had been looking forward to running for office alongside her brother, one of Afghanistan’s top military analysts, Gen. Zalmai Wardak, who also fought against the Soviets in the civil war.
In August, he was assassinated by unknown men inside his home.
This threatened her prospects as well, as friends and family worried about her safety.
“When I lost my brother, I completely felt alone. The loss of great men in my life has been large, from a father, a husband, to a brother,” Wardak said, adding that the siblings had wanted to carry forward the family legacy and bring positive change in Afghanistan. The murder left her distraught and empty.
Yet she found the inner strength to carry on, to work for peace and development in Afghanistan. She says there are many women who have run before her and all of them have faced many challenges. She wants to represent the Afghan public in Parliament, to address transparency in education and security issues.
She said she feels encouraged when the children who once studied in her husband’s schools in their village of Wonkhai, show up at her door as teachers, lawyers, and businessmen.
Wardak said she ran for office because she sees “a tipping point quickly approaching” in her nation. Recently, she wrote in an opinion piece for the online platform DailyO:
“You should run because you want to tip the scales toward your definition of a brighter future for Afghanistan, the region, and the world as a whole. Run. Run for a political party, a committee, anything. Run because you want to answer the most pressing question of our times: Will Afghanistan evolve and become a peaceful stable nation, or will we continue fighting?”