The Leading Lady of Afghanistan

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In the early 1980s, Dr. Sima Samar made her debut on the feminist stage, becoming the first Hazara woman to receive a medical degree from Kabul University. But the young doctor’s life changed dramatically after her husband was arrested by communist forces, never to be heard from again. In 1984, Samar took her young son and fled her homeland for the safety of Pakistan. During the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the following era of Taliban oppression, Samar lost nearly 60 family members. Many persecuted Afghans, including her fellow Hazaras, a minority Persian-speaking group of Shi’a Muslims, were forced out of the country, impoverished and lacking quality healthcare and education.    

In 1989, Samar turned her heartache into hope, establishing the Shuhada Organization, which provides necessary aid and healthcare to refugees.  The NGO is the largest to be led by women and has opened 10 Afghan clinics and schools, supporting the education of 17 thousand students, including those in the very remote regions of the country.  Her organization specifically focuses on women’s rights, and it encourages professional skills training and family planning. Throughout the Taliban’s control over the country, Samar was openly defiant against them, countering their repudiation of her work with strong words: “Tell the world what my crime is—giving books and papers and pens to girls!”     

After more than a decade away, Samar returned to Afghanistan once the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.  She was subsequently invited to serve as deputy president and minister for Women’s Affairs in the Afghan Transitional Administration, under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai.  Though women held government positions before the Taliban’s rule, Samar is the first woman to ever hold such a senior post. While under Karzai, she lobbied businesses to hire more women and encouraged women’s participation in public life.  She pushed for 50 percent female participation in Loya Jirga, Afghanistan’s grand assembly.    

Samar’s political beliefs advocate public inclusion of women, which counters the religious upholding of purdah (separation between men and women). She also wants to see an end to the wearing of burqas, because the full-body shrouds deny women the healthful benefits of sunlight. Her open criticism of Islamic law attracted substantial harassment, and the embattled politician resigned within a year, a decision that she says was forced. Despite receiving death threats for her advocacy work, Samar remained steadfast, telling media outlets, “I’ve always been in danger, but I don’t mind.”    

Her statements shed light on a festering issue in which the culture of violence within Afghanistan is changing the political dynamics for the budding democracy.  Ferocious fighting in the outskirts is drawing political candidates into the capital city, Kabul, where there is greater security.  The problem is that they’re staying there.  Candidates who represent the outer provinces maintain their posts even if they never visit home or return to their constituents.  Some sources report that Kabul is now home to five out of the country’s 28 million residents. But many argue that relocation to Kabul is the only way to guarantee that politicians fulfill their government duties and maintain some level of consistent governance while ensuring their own personal safety.  The Times reports that by August 2010, at least three political candidates had been killed and dozens of others wounded in Taliban attacks during the lead-up to the last election. Public fear of Taliban retaliation is the suspected reason behind the low voter turnout in September.     

Though Samar stepped away from the political spotlight, she now lends her tenacity to the United Nations (UN).  As special rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, Samar speaks out against the Lord Resistance Army’s brutal rebel attacks and inter-tribal violence in the region.  Additionally, her current role as the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) allows her to put even more pressure on the government to improve the situation for women. In Samar’s writings and lectures, she denounces the vicious rape cycle so prevalent within Afghanistan, and condemns what she sees as a justice system heavily skewed by culture and religious fundamentalism.  “When a victim of rape goes to the police for justice, the police rape her again and say ‘she is a whore,’ but they never say ‘whore’ to a rapist,” she says in an interview with IRIN, the humanitarian news branch for the UN. Along with combating rape, Samar’s other priorities include ending child trafficking, family violence and honor killings.    

Though Samar has made progress, it is necessary to recognize that Afghanistan has a long road ahead toward creating a culture that upholds human rights. The abuses did not end with the toppling of the Taliban regime, as there still exists religious factions that also turn a blind eye to rape, allow forced marriages of young girls and support honor killings. Yet the abuses also did not vanish with the invasion of Western troops, some of whom have been responsible for crimes against civilians and prisoners of war.  Further compounding the problem is the fact that the majority of the country’s media is government owned, which limits the avenues for a democratic public to engage in open debate on pertinent issues.  The current media climate is obviously freer than the Taliban-enforced ban on filming and photography, but journalists still work within a hostile environment and experience death threats for critical or anti-conservative coverage, as explained by the organization Reporters Without Borders. Moreover, the clandestine nature of recent cases worked on by NATO forces has also hindered journalists’ ability to report accurately and comprehensively, thus contributing to an atmosphere of suspicion and fear which does nothing to improve human or women’s rights for the country.    

Samar has been a strong campaigner for increased security in Afghanistan to speed their progress on social issues. She believes the military is the necessary conduit for bringing democracy and human rights to the region. In an interview with Democracy Now!, she described the difficulties of bringing democracy’s benefits to the people living on the outskirts of the country, and explained how this challenge provides space for the Taliban to step in and provide aid, thus gaining the people’s support. That is why she supports economic investment programs that will provide more services and employment opportunities for local citizens. Until the transition to a strong democracy is complete, Samar knows Afghan women and girls will remain one of the most vulnerable groups, which is why her NGO keeps them at the forefront of their aid agenda.  

Samar is still the target of much attention—positive and negative. In 2009, the AIHRC, under her leadership, endured corruption claims for allegedly accepting bribe money to leave certain names off the list of human rights violators.  But since the Taliban regime was ousted, nearly four million Afghan refugees have returned, and research suggests that her work, and that of the Shuhada Organization, has helped more girls gain schooling and more women participate in government and elections. It is then no surprise that the 53-year-old received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2010.  Today, Samar remains a loud voice against oppressive forces worldwide, telling IRIN, “Achievements on paper are not enough, only criticizing violence against women is not enough; those who violate women’s rights should be prosecuted.”


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