MARIA BASHIR, the only woman serving as chief prosecutor in any of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, does more than just walk the line between the progressive and the conservative — she has, uncomfortably, come to personify it.
Ms. Bashir, 42, is used to personal and even physical attacks from traditionalists because of her role as one of the country’s most senior female public officials and her work promoting women’s rights.
The outside world recognizes the ideal she represents as well as the dangers. Last year, in Washington, Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lauded her with a State Department International Women of Courage award.
“For uneducated men, but also even educated men, it is still very difficult to accept that a woman should be in a position of making decisions,” Ms. Bashir said, talking in her office tucked behind a gantlet of metal detectors and glowering security guards at the government compound in the western province of Herat.
But recently, Ms. Bashir has had to endure criticism of a less-familiar kind — that she has hurt women with her own conservatism.
Ms. Bashir’s office is jailing women for so-called moral crimes — like adultery, or even attempted adultery, an accusation that opens the door to being jailed merely for being alone with a man who is not in the family — at nearly the highest pace in Afghanistan, according to government records.
The country’s laws, though they have been changing over the past decade, are still criticized by human rights groups as being particularly harsh for women. And many women are languishing in jail on adultery convictions even though they were the victims of rape, forced into prostitution, or simply ran away from abusive homes.
Ms. Bashir insists that she must uphold the law of the land, even as she works to improve opportunities for Afghan women. But concern over her prosecution statistics this fall sent ripples through the human rights community in Afghanistan.
Most rights advocates express respect for her. Still, she has become the focus of a whole body of disquieting questions for international officials working here: How far should you support a woman who personally represents change but also consistently enforces customs that the West sees as discriminatory? How far and how long can you push another society to change, and when do you accept it and compromise?