After a full day overseeing policy reforms in the mining sector of one the most sensitive and dangerous regions of the world, Nargis Nehan opens her door to friends and relatives for iftar.

As she sets the table, carefully arranging the cutlery and plates of food, Ms Nehan chats with her guests about current affairs and Afghanistan’s performance in the Cricket World Cup. After a short prayer, they break their Ramadan fast with a meal of aush – an Afghan noodle soup, mince kebabs and eggplant.

Even in such a relaxed setting, Ms Nehan’s indomitable personality stands out. As the acting minister for mining and petroleum, her friends around the table occasionally refer to her as “wazir sahib” – “respected minister”. She was given charge of one of the most crucial portfolios in the Afghan cabinet by President Ashraf Ghani in 2017.

It has been a long, difficult journey for Ms Nehan, 37. As a woman with strong ideas and very vocal opinions, she says she has learnt the hard way that there will always be critics of her work. “It’s not just me but all the women in the system who are undervalued for their abilities and contributions,” she says. “I find that men who are very smart, outspoken and opinionated are very appreciated. Those qualities are not seen as an asset in women, but a challenge that intimidates the rest. You have to do a lot of trust-building to change such a situation.”

Afghan society, she says, is still not ready to see an outspoken woman working alongside men as equals.

Ms Nehan’s appointment as minister was rejected by parliament, falling six votes short of the 113 required for approval. She believes this was “partly because I am an outspoken reformist woman which shocks them”, but also “because of the rampant corruption in the system”.

Several people had urged her to bribe the MPs for their support. “But I told them that their vote is not their personal property that they can barter – it is the confidence of the people. I explained the work I intended to do and if that wasn’t good enough to get their votes, I did not want to indulge in such things.”

Despite the lack of parliamentary approval, President Ghani allowed her to run the ministry in an acting capacity.

Ms Nehan, a breast cancer survivor, is made of stern stuff. She does not let critics deter her from her goals for the country and says she lets her work speak for itself. “As a woman I realise I have to work very hard to prove to my colleagues that I know what I am doing and that I can deliver. I think that the kind of reforms I have brought in the system and the ministry have shown my calibre to my critics.”

Her appointment was met with as much enthusiasm as scepticism, thanks to her years of work with international organisations; in the transitional government set up after the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the Taliban; in various ministries; and as head of the Afghan treasury.

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