Women of the Year 2003
Dr. Sima Samar
By Abigail Williams
A hero to Afghanistan's women and children, this human rights fighter carries on in the face of danger.
It has been two years since the Taliban fell, two years since hope soared for the women and girls of Afghanistan. Those were heady days. I remember sitting with Dr. Sima Samar in her medical clinic in Quetta, Pakistan, as American air strikes on Kabul began in October 2001. Her optimism was mixed with anxiety.
This small woman, with her ready laugh and steely determination, was already well-known. She had fled her native land 17 years earlier for the relative freedom of Pakistan, where she ran a hospital, girls’ schools and other programs for women and girls. But it was Samar’s activities in Afghanistan that had elevated her status to legendary; her Shuhada organization ran three hospitals and 12 clinics inside Afghanistan. Samar sponsored schools for girls even after the Taliban prohibited education for them.
It was impossible then to imagine that the Taliban would be routed easily, or that Samar could return home. But victory came, and along with it utter shock when Samar was named Minister for Women’s Affairs and deputy prime minister in the new president Hamid Karzai’s cabinet.
Her love for Afghanistan was palpable, and perhaps curious to some who thought of the country as some uncultured fundamentalist backwater. Samar remembered it differently. She remembered the Kabul of the 1970s, a sophisticated capital city where women comprised half the pool of medical doctors and were represented in the judiciary.
I remember sitting beside Samar in December 2001, shortly after the city’s liberation, as a makeshift play was performed in the outdoor rubble of what had been Kabul’s greatest theater. It was the first time that music had graced the stage since the Taliban’s brutal regime. Tears ran down her face as she surveyed the ruins of what had been a grand place. “Look what they’ve done to our country,” she whispered.
But Samar’s work for women’s rights was under fire within months. A newspaper published by the leading Islamic party called her the Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan. Samar had criticized only the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. Moderate Islamic scholars defended her.
But Afghanistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, also a fundamentalist, did not defend her. She stepped down under pressure, and the threat of legal charges was withdrawn.
To put it simply, some might have given up, gotten the hell out of there. Instead, Samar stayed and became head of the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission. Today, her office is guarded by men carrying Kalashnikovs. Her advocacy for human rights and women’s rights continues to upset the Islamic extremists, and her life is still in danger. In July a Human Rights Watch report detailed the state of lawlessness that plagues Afghanistan, including extortion and murder.
Some 30 girls’ schools have been bombed or burned or subjected to other violent attack. In Herat, many women immolated themselves last year to avoid forced marriages.
And the Taliban’s repressive religious police are back with a different name. This was the crowd that cut off women’s fingers for wearing nail polish and stoned women. They’re now called the Department of Islamic Instruction.
A new constitution has been drafted. It has its positive points—for example, it mandates that the country abide by international treaties—but it also enshrines Islamic values without explicitly giving women rights as citizens.
Leaving women’s rights and human rights vulnerable to the most extreme interpretations of Islam has already threatened the promise of freedom for Afghan women. It has threatened Samar’s life. Yet she remains at the forefront, bravely continuing the struggle she has fought her entire life.