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FEATURE | winter 2007

A Voice for the Voiceless
A Ms. Conversation with Dr. Sima Samar

Dr. Sima Simar
Dr. Sima Samar
Photo: Jamie Chomas

Dr. Sima Samar is a hero to Afghan women. Today, she heads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and her longtime advocacy for human and women’s rights continues to upset fundamentalists—while drawing admiration from feminists worldwide. During a recent visit to the U.S., Samar sat down with Ms. executive editor Katherine Spillar to discuss the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

Katherine Spillar: The Bush administration maintains that Afghanistan is a success and claims democracy and human rights have replaced terror. But what is the real situation?

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Sima Samar: While there have been some positive steps in Afghanistan, there is still a long road ahead. We did adopt a new Afghan Constitution, and it includes an equal-rights provision for women and guarantees women’s representation in the Afghan parliament.

The first presidential and parliamentary elections in three decades also were held, with fairly good participation by women, and women were elected to 25 percent of the seats in parliament. However, the elections were flawed. In some districts, only a few women were seen voting. In the parliamentary elections, many human-rights violators and warlords stood for election, and many won seats despite constitutional and regulatory requirements that should have disqualified them.

But the gains that we have made are in jeopardy. Over the last year there has been a significant increase in violence and terrorist attacks. Suicide bombers, who were never present in Afghanistan before, are now killing innocent people throughout the country, even in the streets of Kabul. These tactics of intimidation and outright violence prevent the social, economic and political participation of many Afghans, particularly women….

KS: There was so much hope and optimism in the beginning. What has gone wrong?

SS: People see very little change in their daily lives. They lack food, shelter and work, and this situation has changed little since 2001.
Not enough Afghan soldiers and police have been trained and they are not paid enough in wages, so they can easily be bribed. Meanwhile, commanders with private armies still rule large sections of the country, even though the militias have been outlawed. The U.S. military entered into agreements with many of these militias, allowing them to remain intact. The commanders protect drug smugglers and extract bribes and illegal “taxes” from people. There are kidnappings and assassinations.

KS: What can U.S. feminist groups do?

SS: If not for the intense pressure from women’s-rights groups around the world when we were exposing the abuses of the Taliban, when we were developing the Bonn Agreement for a transitional Afghan government, and when we were debating our new Constitution, women would have been entirely omitted. We need solidarity to free women—solidarity with women everywhere Women must support each other; we are our own class.

For the rest of this conversation, see the Winter issue of Ms.

Ms. Magazine Reports

Fall 2006
School's Out
Afghan girls are losing the ground they recently gained

Winter 2006
A Brave Sisterhood
Throughout Afghanistan, women overcame sexism, illiteracy - even bullets - to run for office and vote.

Winter 2004
Women, Democracy and Hope
Ms. looks at the situation for women in Afghanistan during the Afghan presidential election in 2004.

Afghanistan in the News

1/16/2007 - Afghanistan: Drought-Stricken Villagers Resort to Selling Child-Brides
A second drought in Afghanistan has affected over two-and-a-half million villagers, some of whom are selling their young daughters as brides in order to feed and clothe their families.

12/13/2006 - Afghanistan Launches Plan for Action Amid Violence
Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday launched a three-year action plan to stabilize and bring justice to the country, which has been in conflict since 1979.

12/5/2006 - Afghan Teacher Murdered for Educating Girls
A teacher from Afghanistan was murdered recently for disobeying Taliban orders to stop educating girls.

11/16/2006 - Conference Seeks to End Self-Immolation in Afghanistan
A conference to find solutions to a growing problem of self-immolation in Afghanistan and other countries began on Tuesday in Kabul, Afghanistan.

11/14/2006 - Tribal Elders Work to Reopen Schools in Southern Afghanistan
Over 20 schools have reopened in the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand after being demolished by the Taliban insurgency, IRIN, a UN newswire, reported last week.

10/30/2006 - Afghan Women Lack Access to Contraceptives, Still Need Basic Healthcare
Only 10 percent of married Afghan women ages 15 to 49 use a form of contraceptives.

10/11/2006 - Afghan Women Demand Greater Protection from Government
Four Afghan women's groups came together to demand greater protection from violence against women in a demonstration on Thursday.