Afghan physician Sima Samar (born 1957) was internationally recognized for her human rights activism, especially on behalf of Afghan women, when she was appointed one of five deputy prime ministers in Afghanistan's new government in December of 2001. The appointment as women's affairs minister was the most senior position ever held by a woman in her country, and Samar's outspoken advocacy of women's rights incurred the wrath of many of her conservative male counterparts and countrymen, cutting her political career short. Undaunted, Samar continued her lifelong crusade by chairing the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission.
Samar was born in February of 1957, in Ghazani, Afghanistan. Her father, Qadam Ali, was a civil servant and her mother, Khurshid, was the first of his two wives. One of eleven children and a member of Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic minority, Samar learned early on the meaning of sexual and racial inequality.
Ethnic tension first reared its sobering head when Samar was in the second grade and she was mocked by her Pashtun teacher, a member of Afghanistan's ethnic majority, for naming a Muslim holy man in the minority Hazara dialect. Sexual politics were less straightforward. In 1964, Afghan women could vote, receive an education, and often held such prominent positions as judges or governmental ministers. On the other hand, they were still subject to such paternalistic indignities as arranged marriages, encumbering restrictions, and husbands with multiple wives. "My brothers had more freedom than me in every way," Samar recalled to Alex Spillius of the London Daily Telegraph. "They could go where they wanted outside the house." Some of her memories were even more poignant, such as her elder sister's resistance to an arranged marriage to a cousin. Aziza "was only 17 years old," Samar told Chatelaine contributor Sally Armstrong. "I remember seeing my mother drag her by her hair to the room where our cousin waited and force her to marry him." Aziza died an unhappy woman at age 21, but before she did, she gave her little sister two words of advice. "Study hard," she said.
Samar took her sister's words to heart and threw herself into her studies with an eye toward dodging a similar fate. She became an avid reader, especially devouring Persian books about improving the lot of women and the poor. Samar's efforts paid off upon her graduation from high school in 1975, when she was offered scholarships to attend college in both Australia and Hungary. However, sexism still threatened to bar the way to escape.
Tragedy and Focus
Samar's father forbade her to accept either scholarship to study abroad, as unmarried women were not allowed to leave home. Even her acceptance at Kabul University was in jeopardy until she cut a deal with her father to exchange an arranged marriage for the higher education she sought. The tradeoff proved to be a good one.
At the age of 18, Samar married her father's choice, physics professor Abdul Chafoor Sultani. Luckily, Sultani was sympathetic to his new wife's academic and political goals, and she genuinely admired him. The couple set off for Kabul, where they joined the resistance movement fighting their country's imminent Soviet rule and Samar began to study medicine. The couple's political activism came at a high price, however. Late one night in 1979, ten men came to their home and took Sultani away with them. He, along with dozens of his family members and thousands of other Afghan citizens, was never seen by his loved ones again. "I still don't know the full who, what and when," Samar told Spillius. "They were taken and never came back. It was a terrible situation. Thousands were taken by the Russian-backed Soviet government."
Her husband's tragic disappearance left Samar alone with a young son and an unfinished education. She was also receiving pressure from her father and brothers to return home and remarry. Nonetheless, Samar persevered and became one of the first Hazara women to obtain a medical degree from Kabul University. She then completed the required residency at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul before defying her family and the odds once again by setting out to practice medicine in a remote area of Afghanistan.
Samar set up shop with only a stethoscope and a blood-pressure cuff. She often traveled to see patients on foot or horseback, and she gained firsthand knowledge of the hardships they faced. "Practicing medicine in a rural district demonstrated brutally that the lives of women were nearly unbearable," Samar told Armstrong, "and that the lack of education was a direct cause of the turmoil the country was in." From then on, she focused her considerable energies on correcting both conditions.
Dedication and Bravery
In 1984, illness and the continuing unrest caused by the Soviet occupation drove Samar to seek refuge in Pakistan in the border town of Quetta. Once there, she began her life's work in earnest, opening a hospital for women in 1987. Two years later, she founded the Shuhada (Afghan for martyr) organization, dedicated to the development of Afghanistan, especially with regard to women and children's needs. Rauf Akbeari, who would become Samar's second husband, helped oversee the organization's operations. Under the auspices of Shuhada, Samar started to open clinics and schools on both sides of the border. Always controversial, her pursuits were now beginning to attract unwanted attention.
The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1992 and the United States that had largely been aimed at backing the resistance subsequently dried up as well. Civil war and chaos ensued, leaving religious fundamentalism in their wake. When the smoke cleared in the mid-1990s, the violent and extremist Taliban was in control. Under the Taliban regime, Afghan women were thrown back into the Dark Ages. Among the new government's many misogynistic edicts were barring girls over the age of eight from attending school, excluding women from public—called purdah—and requiring that women cover themselves completely in a cumbersome garment called the burqa. Human rights, long a vague concept for Afghans living under Soviet rule, did not exist and might was the law of the land.
Not surprisingly, Samar's ongoing efforts at educating and uplifting the poor and ignorant, especially females, were not looked upon with favor by the Taliban. Nor were her adamant refusals to don the burqa, observe purdah, or silence her calls for equality appreciated. Indeed, Samar was openly threatened with death if she did not close down her hospitals and schools for women and girls. The indefatigable activist was not so easily dissuaded however. According to Armstrong, she simply replied, "You know where I am, I won't stop what I'm doing."
True to her word, Samar ignored myriad death threats and fearlessly continued her work. She sometimes relied on artifice, such as operating schools in private homes or posting lower grade levels than were actually taught at a given school. At other times, she was more brazen. One such instance was when she confronted a Taliban officer who had commandeered a truck loaded with supplies intended for one of her clinics. Coincidentally, the officer's mother had come to Samar for medical treatment around the same time. "It was construction materials . . . and about 6 metric tons of high-protein biscuits from Norway," Samar explained to Steve Lipsher in the Denver Post. "They took the whole thing. I told [the officer], "If you don't release my supplies, I'm going to take your mother hostage here in the clinic." The construction materials were returned the next day. Perhaps the most succinct characterization of Samar's persistence in the face of daily danger and challenge came from Nasrine Gross of Support of Women of Afghanistan in Newsday, who said, as quoted by Lipsher, "Samar is a woman who decides what she wants to do and gets it done."
Beyond the Taliban
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States led to that government's prompt ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and an interim government was put into place in December of that same year. Much to her surprise, Samar was appointed as one of five deputy prime ministers in the new government, becoming the first Afghan woman ever to hold such a high position. But this unprecedented role as women's affairs minister soon presented its own set of challenges.
Only a month into her new job, Samar was already frustrated by a lack of funds and the attitudes of her mostly male peers. "I knew that it would be difficult," she told Lipsher. "I didn't know that it would be this much difficult." A month later, she still had no staff or budget, and the male ministers appeared to ignore her in cabinet meetings. But, as always, Samar refused to conform. "After the meetings," she told Spillius, "people say I make too much noise, so I say: why did they appoint me? I am not confrontational . . . that doesn't work . . . but I have to say what I want for women." She continued her calls for equality and justice, including demands for more female ministers in the government, schools for married women, and an end to arranged marriages.
In response to these demands, Samar was subjected to a campaign of veiled threats and open menace. Matters came to a head in June of 2002 when she was accused of questioning Islam in a Canadian magazine interview. Although she vehemently denied the allegation—which the Afghan Supreme Court later validated by dismissing the blasphemy charge against her—the newspaper Mujahed's Message ran a front-page headline calling Samar "Afghanistan's Salman Rushdie," in reference to the Muslim author branded as a heretic by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s. The damage was done. When Afghan President Hamad Karzai moved to make his interim government permanent in late June, Samar was no longer in the cabinet and her post was left unfilled. Certainly disappointed, but remaining unbowed, she told Kathy Gannon of the Scotsman, "I really don't know what my mistake was. I am a woman, I am outspoken, I am a Hazara. That is enough, I guess."
Although Samar's political career was brief, she was hardly the kind of woman to halt her lifelong crusade because of a setback. She became chair of the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission shortly after she left the government, and despite ongoing death threats, she continued to speak out on behalf of women's and human rights. By 2004, the Shuhada Organization, which Samar still led, operated four hospitals and 12 clinics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with 60 Afghan schools. Internationally recognized for her diligent efforts, she also received many accolades, including the 2003 inaugural Perdita Huston Human Rights Award and the 2004 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. It may be that Samar herself described best why her talents and determination were best suited to a non-political arena when she told Gannon, "I believe we cannot change the country with only words. We have to change it with our minds, our hearts and our attitude."
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